Getting Email Back on Track

by , Mar 18, 2002, 12:00 AM
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A few weeks back, I wrote a column about some of the things I would do if I were president of the IAB. I recommended creating a certification program for email marketers and defining rules of engagement for marketers who want to reach consumers via the Internet. Both of these recommendations caused a bit of a stir among online advertising professionals, and I wanted to discuss exploring these two initiatives a bit further in this week’s Online Spin.

You may disagree, but I feel strongly that email marketing is knee deep in problems that are only going to get worse as time goes by. The notion of acquiring permission to market to the consumer is almost nonexistent in the business practices of certain unethical marketers. These ethically-challenged folks also have problems with letting the consumer manage permission over time. As anyone who has ever received spam and tried to unsubscribe from a spammer’s list can tell you, unsubscribing often invites more spam from a variety of different sources. More spam means that legitimate commercial communications become less effective. In short, a few bad apples ruin the medium for the rest of us, whether we’re marketers or consumers.

These problems are not going to go away on their own. If we continue to ignore them, my opinion is that we will decrease the effectiveness of the medium at best, and completely destroy it at worst. (Because much of the email coming from countries in Asia to the U.S. consists of spam, many ISPs have taken the step of blocking Asian domains at the server level. What’s the next step in that scenario? Maybe spam does have the potential to completely destroy e-mail as a medium for meaningful communication…) Somewhere in between our best and worst case scenarios falls the notion of governmental regulation. As a very wise man once told me, “Self-regulate before the government steps in and does it for you.”

The good news is that marketers are beginning to realize that email is broken and needs to be fixed. The bad news is that we’re dealing with some complex problems that don’t have easy solutions.

First things first, I think the interactive marketing industry needs “rules of engagement.” These rules need to govern not only email, but also engagement of the consumer by any form of online advertising. In principle, the rules of engagement need to perform several key functions:

  1. Delineate the consumer’s “turf.” - The issue of “what does the consumer control and what do the publishers and marketers control?” has been highlighted in the recent controversy over desktop advertising. But this issue is ultimately bigger than the issues raised by desktop advertising. We need to ultimately codify the implied contract between publisher and consumer. If the consumer elects to view ad-supported content on the Internet, what is the consumer free to alter and what must be delivered without alteration in order to ensure the consumer holds up his end of the bargain? We also need to answer the question of what belongs to the consumer and cannot be altered by the marketers and publishers without express permission.
  2. Address the permission question once and for all - Interactive marketing professionals now realize that checking a box next to “I’d like to receive offers from Company X and its partners” doesn’t give Company X the right to overload the consumer with messages from anybody who will purchase the consumer’s name. We need to address the permission question once and for all by not only defining the minimum level of permission that marketers need to acquire before engaging in commercial messaging, but giving the consumer a way to manage those permissions over time. When a consumer says “Please remove my name from your list” that doesn’t mean “Take my name off this list, but leave it on a sister list that will be burned onto a CD and distributed to anyone who will pay $19.95 for it.”
  3. Provide a vehicle for full disclosure - Consumers should know the full consequences of granting permission. Those consequences should be made clear not only at the moment that the consumer grants permission, but also on an ongoing basis if the consumer elects to continue to grant permission to market to a publisher or marketer.

The Rules of Engagement are only the first step. I think we need a certification program for email marketers as well. We’ll address that idea in next Tuesday’s column, as well as the question of how we get marketers (even the ethically-impaired ones) to stick to the rules.

See you next week.

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