Opt-in E-mail — Who's the Fool?

There's an old saying of which my father was fond, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I am often reminded of it when it comes to opt-in e-mail marketing.

Many of the self-proclaimed opt-in e-mail marketing companies are making fools of the world twice: once by deceiving consumers into receiving marketing e-mail they don't want and twice by selling advertisers opt-in e-mail address lists and marketing services that aren't truly opt-in. It's a pitfall to avoid for anyone looking to tap the vast potential of consumer-requested e-mail marketing.

More advertisers are looking to market via e-mail, and it's easy to understand why. Banner advertising has not turned out to be much of a success. Banner click-through rates are being measured in the less-than-1-percent range while conservative reports of direct HTML e-mail response rates are 10 percent and higher. Yet many advertisers are leery of e-mail marketing. They don't want to be accused of spamming, sending unsolicited commercial e-mail.

To avoid being called a spammer, advertisers are looking to opt-in e-mail marketing. If done properly, the advertiser gets his message in front of a targeted, motivated audience. But just because a list or service has “opt-in” associated with it, doesn't mean that opt-in is what the advertiser is getting.

To understand how people are being fooled, it's important to have a firm definition of opt-in. Unfortunately, none exists. Even the DMA, which recently endorsed opt-in marketing, doesn't have a set definition. That being said, common sense dictates that in an opt-in e-mail marketing program the consumer asks to have advertising e-mails sent.

As an advertiser, isn't that what you'd expect from an opt-in e-mail list? When you invest in an opt-in e-mail list or service, don't you expect to get a list of people who have already expressed an interest in your type of product or at least have knowingly agreed to receive your offers? You would think so, but often advertisers are being fooled. It happens in a variety of ways, in many different forms, but here are a couple of the questionable methods being sold as opt-in.

Opt-in or opt-out? Some self-proclaimed opt-in programs are really opt-out. In other words, the people getting the commercial e-mails haven't asked to receive them and instead have to tell the advertiser to stop sending them.

For example, some companies gather e-mail addresses from Web sites and then send a notice to those addresses that they have been signed up to an opt-in program. Maybe the consumer bought something, maybe he or she didn't properly read the Web site's membership terms, but somehow their name is now on a list to get advertising e-mails and they are going to keep coming until the Netizen says stop. The list is called opt-in because the consumer willingly supplied his e-mail address, but is really opt-out because the consumer never asked to get ads and must request that his e-mail address be removed from the list in order to stop the ads from coming.

Opt-in and opt-out? Some programs offer content via e-mail like newsletters or special informational updates in different interest areas. Either during the registration process or in an e-mail that follows registration, the consumer is told that they are going to receive advertising e-mails and that they have to tell the marketer to remove their e-mail address from the list if they don't want to get the ads. In other words, they may have opted in to receive the newsletter, but they have to opt out to avoid the e-mail advertising program.

Fooled consumers mean fooled advertisers. When a consumer gets commercial e-mail and doesn't know why, they assume it is spam. Opt-in marketing is supposed to be a responsible marketing solution to the spam problem, but when opt-in marketers gather e-mail addresses in the ways I've just described, the line between spam and legitimate e-mail advertising becomes hopelessly blurred.

The ramifications of questionable opt-in programs go beyond just the potential damage to advertisers. If consumers are afraid to use the Internet to shop, if they think they are subjecting themselves to a spam flooded e-mail account, they are going to remain fearful of the Internet as a commerce tool. As an industry, Internet marketers have a responsibility to cultivate a culture of trust and mutual respect with the consumer. As an advertiser, you have a vested interest in avoiding the spam label. If the consumer is being fooled into getting your advertisement, then you're being fooled into spending your budget to send it.

Ian Oxman is president of ChooseYourMail.com, Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected]

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