It’s Time to Opt Out of Opt In

Back in the bad old days (1996-97), before e-mail marketing was a hot topic, it was easy to separate the “white hats” from the “black hats.”

The black hats (spammers) believed it was their right to send e-mail to any consumer, even after that consumer requested to be removed from the marketer’s list. The white hats believed permission was needed before sending commercial e-mail if the company didn’t have a pre-existing relationship with the consumer, and that it was equally important to honor requests to be removed from mailing lists in a timely manner.

This need for permission became known as opt in. Two other key components of this permission were that it was restricted to specific subjects and was revocable by the consumer at any time.

Just a few years ago, it was easy to spot the black hats by the lynch mobs they left in their dust. The white hats lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a high-noon showdown with the black hats. The term opt in meant something, and while there was debate over whether the permission box should be checked, the white hats didn’t let that get in the way of the common cause – the promotion of responsible e-mail marketing.

As we entered 1998, things started to change. Marketers began to accept that responsible e-mail marketing was the only way to go. Opt in became the hot term, so hot that the black hats started to follow suit. Suddenly, it seemed that every list owner or compiler had declared that their lists were opt in. In 1998, caveat emptor became the rule in e-mail marketing.

With the growing acceptance of responsible e-mail marketing came the opt-in debates. Marketers, anxious for leadership and information, were subjected to white hats debating their peers over whose opt-in was more pure. These debates reminded me of “LA Story,” the Steve Martin movie in which each person tried to outdo friends by ordering more exotic coffee drinks: “My opt in, a double decaf latte with nonfat goat’s milk, is better than your opt in.”

In 1998, the term opt in lost its meaning. The debates confused marketers looking for guidance from the white hats. The former black hats, now reformed, rendered the term meaningless by calling everything opt-in.

The irony of the opt-in debates is that consumers don’t care. The consumers don’t know the term and don’t care about the nuances of opt-in. They only care about controlling their inboxes.

There is no question that 1999 could become the “good new days” of responsible

e-mail marketing, but it is no longer clear if everyone wearing a white hat is acting responsibly. Some white hats are engaged in a debate based more on establishing individual market position than building and supporting this developing market.

Opt-in as a term is dead and it is time to determine a base set of operating rules that allows the responsible growth of e-mail marketing and customer communications. It is time to level the playing field by establishing clear definitions of terms, common rules of the road, guidelines to determine infractions of those rules, penalties for rule breakers and remedies for consumers. Marketers, consumers and government should feel that the playing field of e-mail marketing and customer communications is level and without surprises.

E-mail marketing has developed in a Wild West atmosphere with little legislation in place for the last three years. In 1998, the sheriffs started to arrive in Dodge. Several states passed anti-spam laws. Last month Virginia passed the most onerous law to date. The maximum $25,000 penalty and possible criminal action should inspire the e-mail industry to again stand shoulder to shoulder again.

Where does responsible e-mail marketing go from here? The developers of permission-based lists need to get together with the e-mail service providers and the mailers to make sure everyone agrees on what is responsible and what violates the consumer permission. The industry also needs a common voice with the lawmakers and an open forum to move successfully into the future. AIM (Association of Interactive Media) recently established a council that I believe can become the basis for this dialog between the industry players in addition to being a voice with the legislative and regulatory bodies that are rapidly discovering that e-mail is a hot topic. AIM can be reached at

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