E-MPS: One Piece of the Privacy Puzzle

With the threat of government regulation looming over the business of direct e-mail solicitations, the Direct Marketing Association has a new service available to mailers and consumers. Called E-MPS, the service allows consumers to register their e-mail address with the DMA and have it omitted from solicitations by both DMA members and non-members that choose to use the service.

Since its debut in January, the service has come under intense scrutiny. Several published articles have criticized not only the intent of the service but its function as well. E-MPS is certainly no panacea; it is only one piece of the larger privacy puzzle. List owners still must exercise prudence when creating their list, and mailers must be equally diligent not to send solicitations that have not been requested. E-MPS, however, can be a valuable tool to help mailers avoid being branded a spammer.

It is important to define some terms. Unsolicited e-mail is more commonly referred to as spam; spam is one of the most pernicious threats to the continued right of our industry to police itself. Common techniques used by spammers include gathering e-mail addresses from any source and sending unsolicited messages to those addresses. Companies sending such e-mail are widely regarded as unethical and often find their addresses blocked by Internet service providers that don’t want to handle huge amounts of unsolicited and worthless Internet traffic.

Solicited e-mail, on the other hand, involves a much more rigorous process for capturing and filtering targeted e-mail addresses and is generally well received by the computing public. There are several steps that list owners should take to ensure the integrity of their databases of e-mail names.

First and most important, we should all strive to make e-mail lists opt-in only. When customers enter their e-mail address, they should, at that time, have the option of indicating their preference regarding unsolicited e-mail. As a further precaution, list owners should send a message to the e-mail address entered, confirming that the addressee did, in fact, intend to register for solicitations. They should, along with each message, offer the user the ability to remove hisor her name from the database.

Second, when a mailer rents a database, it should supply its own suppression database of e-mail addresses. This, of course, raises security and privacy issues when a mailer confronts the idea that it will be putting part of its own internal database into the hands of others. List owners should be willing to sign a guarantee that the names supplied by the mailer will not be used other than as a suppression database; your list broker will be able to assist you in identifying reputable list owners.

As a final step, after suppressing the mailer’s addresses, the list owner should submit a copy of the database to the E-MPS service for a final purge of names. To keep compliance high, the DMA has committed to keeping the processing time less than 24 hours, even as more mailers and owners subscribe to and use the system. “We do not foresee a problem; should there be, we will address it and build it into the system. We have sufficient capacity, and it should not be an issue,” said Stephen Altobelli, director of public affairs at the DMA. Here, one of the principal advantages of the E-MPS service is that consumers have a central clearinghouse where they can register their preference not to be included in any e-mail solicitation.

To increase the efficacy of the list, the DMA should begin a more rigorous promotional campaign to educate consumers about the availability of E-MPS. The organization should immediately change its policy that an e-mail address expires after only one year. The yearly reminder sent to people on the list could have simple instructions as to how to remove their name from the list, rather than instructions about how to stay on the list for another year. Additionally, there is a significant need to educate all segments of the direct mail industry, especially list brokers and managers, about E-MPS, its purpose and the guidelines in place for the industry.

Instead of relying on E-MPS alone, the DMA needs to create comprehensive guidelines for the entire e-mail solicitation process that are clearly articulated, easy to understand and use, and affordable to implement. One of the most important elements in such a set of guidelines would be clarifying for everyone the difference between opt-in and opt-out lists. As you can see, no one tool can solve the entire problem; the E-MPS makes perfect sense as a small piece of the larger privacy puzzle.

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