Trust Is the Best Practice for E-Mail

The simmering debate over the definition of spam among an alphabet soup of direct and interactive marketing organizations (DMA, AIM/CRE) makes for good theater, but market factors have made the argument pointless and off-track. Spam is in the eye of the beholder – people know it when they see it.

The permission debate is moot. The reality in e-mail marketing is trust.

How these industry organizations define spam and what they stipulate about opt-in, opt-out and permission marketing generally won’t change a single action in the marketplace. That’s not to diminish the value of education and industry guidelines, but the subject here is best practices that solve a real, festering problem. An organizational sideshow isn’t going to persuade e-mail recipients and senders to change their thinking or their behaviors.

Above the din, who is listening most closely to the market? If the organizations ostensibly leading this industry can’t even agree on a basic definition of spam, it’s obvious that the market isn’t being listened to.

The only definition of spam that really matters is the one used by e-mail recipients. (Just for the record, we at EmailLabs define spam as an unsolicited commercial e-mail sent to a recipient who would not have a reasonable expectation of receiving e-mail from the sender.)

While the powers that be ruminate over the word “spam” – or ignore it – the more relevant term to dissect is “direct marketing” itself. I believe that e-mail marketing is different – that recipients are in the driver’s seat – and that the industry needs to move beyond permission marketing to “trust-based” e-mail marketing.

E-mail marketing is different – recipients are in control. While e-mail marketing is clearly a form of direct response marketing, it is very different from direct mail, telemarketing and traditional advertising. Above all, consumer expectations separate e-mail marketing from those other forms of marketing. Consumers don’t view their e-mail inbox as a “public broadcast medium” like TV, radio and print. In those forms of media, communication is one to many – and the broadcaster/sender may or may not have an existing relationship.

Consumers think that they should have strong control over their inboxes – that their addresses aren’t public information like postal addresses and telephone numbers.

Underlying this key difference is the inherent e-mail opt-in/opt-out process. Unlike any other medium, consumers can opt-in to a list, change their mind and immediately opt-out – all within 60 seconds or so. Regardless of how anyone defines spam, e-mail has given consumers an increased sense of control over what is communicated to them.

This popular sentiment is feeding a legitimate and growing consumer backlash that extends well beyond e-mail marketing. As the telemarketing do-not-call list and California’s pending financial privacy law demonstrate, consumers are becoming empowered – they want their data back, and they want to control their marketing destiny. Ultimately, because e-mail is inherently more “direct” and relationship-based than other forms of marketing, the marketplace can be ignored only at our collective peril.

From a sender perspective, e-mail is the most powerful form of marketing in use today. Marketers are able to send a high volume of e-mail at a low cost, while simultaneously delivering highly targeted messages based on recipient preferences and past actions. Lamentably, the volume/cost factor has led to the current abuse in the form of spam – while most marketers have yet to take advantage of the powerful segmentation and personalization capabilities the medium enables.

While relationships are nurtured by frequency, quality and the nature of communications, spam turns the sheer volume of e-mail back on itself. On average, people now receive 30-100 spam messages a day, against a handful of direct mail pieces and a few (ill-timed) telemarketing calls. That deluge threatens to drown out the worthy and legitimate e-mail marketing messages.

That’s my view. The DMA isn’t buying it, however; the organization holds that e-mail marketing is just another form of advertising. In essence, the DMA thinks that unsolicited commercial e-mail is acceptable, as long as it is not deceptive and offers the ability to opt out.

But because spam is in the eye of the beholder, and because of the unique nature of the e-mail inbox, responsible e-mail marketing must go the extra mile, erring on the side of relationships – and restraint.

Permission marketing isn’t enough – we need “trust-based” e-mail marketing. E-mail has evolved from personal communications, to broadcast, to permission/relationship-based. Thanks to the proliferation of spam, worms/viruses and privacy/data concerns, the next step must be “trust-based e-mail marketing.”

While organizations wring their hands over whether unsolicited e-mails are spam, the train has already left the station – and absent e-mail marketing centered around trust, the consumer won’t be on it. If recipients increasingly choose to simply delete their e-mails, there won’t be an e-mail marketing industry left.

No magic bullet will solve the spam problem; eventually, some combination of remedies – legislation, law enforcement, ISP filters, client-level anti-spam software, new e-mail distribution technologies – may help get things under control. In the meantime, the best first step for legitimate e-mail marketers is to go beyond permission marketing to help define a new, “trust-based” regime:

· Relationship or permission: The recipient must have an expectation to receive an e-mail from the sending organization – either through an existing relationship or direct permission.

· Security and privacy: Privacy policies must be clear, concise and readily available. Recipients must know if and how the sending organization is using or sharing their data.

· Relevance and value: Why the organization is communicating to recipients must be readily apparent. Whether providing information or selling a product, the communication must be directly relevant and of value to every recipient. E-mail offers must meet or exceed customer expectations.

· Personalization: Whether the e-mail communication is displayed in text instead of HTML, once a month instead of three times, or content and offers that are specific to various interests and needs, recipients expect personalization in the e-mails they receive.

· Brand: How the sending organization brands and reinforces its brand in e-mails is crucial. Not only must the brand be immediately recognizable, but the e-mail must deliver on the promise that the brand makes to customers and stakeholders.

Indeed, it’s my guess that cultivating trust will prove to be the best practice of all.

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