Where Do We Draw The Line?

You've now heard two opinions from the world of e-mail on the subject of unsolicited e-mail communications. In response to my column last week ("Did I Give You Permission To SPAM Me?"), fellow E-mail Insider Bill McCloskey offered the opinion that since I come from a "top agency," I don't have the same perspective as an entrepreneur, and that the CEO of this company should look at his own team before casting judgment on others.

What Bill doesn't realize is, I haven't always been in the agency world. In fact, I confess I've used every tricky tactic to harvest decision-makers' e-mail addresses for marketing purposes in several startup ventures. But as an industry advocate advising mainstream marketers on best practices, I have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

I still can't help but think about this in the same vein as a child that walks on the grass where there is a sign that says "STAY OFF THE GRASS." The child's justification is, "But it's quicker and there isn't grass in that spot over there, and one person won't hurt anything." Then, a year later, the entire lawn is trampled and the sign is spray-painted over. That seems to be the view of the e-mail channel these days, and the only way we'll apply a standard is to say "NO -- I will not walk on the grass, even though it may have a personal cost of inconvenience to me." Permission in this channel is NOT relative, and shouldn't be interpreted by the intent or number of messages you send at once. Nowadays you can make them all seem personalized and one-to-one.

While I have no doubt that every marketing manager in the Fortune 500 would want to hear about my products or services, I wouldn't harvest their e-mail addresses arbitrarily and use that low-cost channel to prospect without their expressed permission. It's another story if they have given me their business card --I define that as permission. I do advocate e-mail as a prospecting tool, but would do so the old-fashioned way, and get permission to send them an e-mail by calling the administrative assistant and asking for the executive's address so I could send them relevant information. Or better yet, by networking to get an introduction from someone, or using e-mail as a response mechanism from a request.

This example is so typical of where all this started 10-15 years ago. We found out people would respond to our advertisements and solicitations via e-mail and it began one-to-one, then one-to-100, then one-to-1,000,000. What do we have now? A lack of respect for permission practices and a trampled lawn.

Several weeks ago Bill alluded to the fact that we are so busy defending the channel that we rarely talk about the value of it. I firmly believe it's because our standards are relative to our circumstances.

Let me sum up by sharing opinions from some other folks in this space.

Bill Kaplan, CEO of FreshAddress, responded to this debate by saying, "If the cost in terms of personalization in the preparation of the e-mail exceeds the cost of deleting the e-mail, then this would be an acceptable business solicitation. If it's a mass e-mail blast, whether it's a rental list or a bunch of harvested addresses, then we consider this to be SPAM."

Elaine O'Gorman, vice president of strategy at Silverpop, stated, "CAN-SPAM applies to any e-mail if the primary purpose is to advertise or promote a product or service, unless it falls into one of the transactional categories. There is no exception for size of mailing, even one-to-one."

Again I ask, where do you draw the line? Seems most people in this space have their own personal interpretations... which scares me. Your thoughts are welcomed at dbaker@agency.com