Why Did DidTheyReadIt Become So Controversial?

I was at a privacy conference in Washington a few weeks ago. I like to go to the big privacy conferences just as much as I like to attend the big direct and interactive marketing events, as the business of privacy-marketing incorporates ideas from within each industry. (Just as an aside, I'd strongly recommend to people programming direct marketing conferences to continue to include segments with members of the privacy community — each group could stand to learn a great deal from the other.)

Anyway, at the conference, someone expressed concern about a new software product called DidTheyReadIt, which allows people to track the e-mails they send and lets them know when a recipient opens their message. A lively discussion ensued, where terms such as “Web beacons,” “cookies” and “IP addresses” were tossed around. I was surprised that the subject received this much attention — and equally surprised that so many privacy experts didn't really understand how these products work.

More than one conference attendee suggested that e-mail monitoring be banned altogether. In response, attendee Dave Fowler from e-mail marketing service provider @Once stood up and announced that most, if not all, of the ESPs track open rates on behalf of their customers. He added that most ESPs' ability to deliver personalized, relevant content to subscribers would be limited if they could not monitor open and click behavior.

As many of you know, tracking opens and clicks has gone on for as long as the e-mail marketing industry has existed. Frankly, I was under the impression that this was a widely known and generally accepted industry practice. Which begs the question: Why is DidTheyReadIt garnering all this negative attention?

The company. I had the pleasure of speaking with Alastair Rampell, founder of Rampell Software and developer of DidTheyReadIt. His original concept was for DidTheyReadIt to be a tool to combat deliverability issues — a certified e-mail of sorts. The premise is that an online retailer such as Brooks Brothers already could tell whether a customer had opened one of its e-mails, while a single person had no way of knowing whether his e-mail had been opened.

For example, if I'm applying for a job, I want to know that the company has received the resume I e-mailed to them. Clearly, the product was not intended to be creepy. So why did it turn out that way?

Seems like at least some of the trouble began as a result of the initial PR campaign for DidTheyReadIt. The company e-mailed a press release to several journalists requesting that they conduct an interview with Rampell. That e-mail was followed up by a second e-mail providing details of when the journalists opened the first e-mail. The PR campaign was conceived as a neat way to show the press how the product worked.

Though many journalists responded favorably to DidTheyReadIt's PR e-mail, some were less than enthusiastic. Walt Mossberg, the tech reporter for The Wall Street Journal, sent back an e-mail saying that the product should be illegal. I wouldn't agree with him on that, but it illustrates some of the challenges of introducing a new technology product into the marketplace.

Even if 90 percent of the journalists loved the product, (according to Rampell, a few of them even purchased it) there was a good chance that some would be taken aback by the PR campaign. And it seems like more than a few were, judging from the number of articles and blog posts that criticized DidTheyReadIt.

If you subscribe to the motto that there's no such thing as bad press, then maybe this isn't so bad. The PR campaign certainly generated some attention, and some of that attention translated into sales. More than 25,000 people have already taken a look at DidTheyReadIt. And if, as the company claims, 10 percent of them purchased the software, that's $150,000 in revenue in just over a month.

However, the negative press may have tainted RampellSoft and its founder's reputation in the marketplace. The next product they introduce likely will receive enhanced scrutiny by the privacy police. According to Rampell, the company was considering developing some privacy-enhancing products but, for the time being at least, has shelved those plans in part because of the furor over DidTheyReadIt.

Can we learn something from this? My philosophy is that technology companies should articulate a clear value proposition when marketing privacy-sensitive technologies. It's not simply about doing the right thing anymore. Consumers need to understand what privacy they are giving up and what value they are getting in exchange. Successful marketers will generate buzz by providing colorful examples of why a product is “useful,” “valuable” and “fun.”

Moreover, they'll de-emphasize the privacy rights they are asking consumers to give up, creating the perception that the positives outweigh the negatives.

I realize that this is to a certain extent an exercise in Monday morning quarterbacking, but I think we can all learn from RampellSoft's experience launching DidTheyReadIt. I also realize that there are people who would have found DidTheyReadIt to be creepy no matter how it was positioned. In this business, there are no guarantees — only the ability to increase your chances of marketplace acceptance. So with that in mind, here's the Chapell view of positioning privacy-sensitive products.

1. Gauge consumer perceptions. I think it's a good idea to run a consumer survey before launching any technology product with potential privacy implications. The survey can help develop an understanding of how consumers will react to your product and uncover potential issues before the launch. Also, it comes in really handy to have objective research stats to sprinkle into your marketing materials.

2. Always lead with the positive. The most important thing when positioning a technology-sensitive product is to demonstrate clearly why someone would want it. Provide the marketplace with one or more examples of someone getting value from your product. Judging by its press release, DidTheyReadIt did a pretty good job here. For example, the company described how a customer of DidTheyReadIt was able to determine that an HR department received her resume.

3. De-emphasize the negative. It's extremely important for companies to be equally proactive in addressing those concerns. Here's where DidTheyReadIt might have done things differently. It could have emphasized how the technology used by DidTheyReadIt has been used for years by many of the brands that consumers know and trust.

4. Notice and choice. One of the best ways to reduce privacy concerns is to provide consumers with notice and choice. If the recipients know that they are being tracked, and can decide for themselves whether they want to be tracked in the future, some of the perceived intrusiveness could have been mitigated.

Here, the company could have added a disclaimer at the bottom of e-mails. And the disclaimer could have included opt-out or other disabling instructions so that consumers could choose whether they wanted their e-mails tracked. According to Rampell, the company considered adding a disclaimer but decided against it. They were concerned that paying customers might not want a branded message to appear at the bottom of their e-mails.

In today's environment, many consumer-facing technology products have the potential to create privacy concerns. Companies that learn to navigate these challenges will be in a much better position to receive marketplace acceptance.

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