Email's Big Decision -- Carry On Spying, Or Truly Help Customers?

It may sound like common sense, but then again, common sense isn't always all that common. But shouldn't email be about empowering people to do stuff, to act on the not-to-be-missed offer you've just put in front of them and to be upsold on or find out more about a product or service they have already bought?

it's a point worth making this week because the EU waded in on email marketing and, I have to be honest, on tackling some pretty shady practices. There was the usual amount of consternation whenever "Eurocrats" get involved in any issue, but the thrust of the European Commission's comments were that an upcoming law would change the legal status of email. Namely, it is planned to be put on the same legal footing as a telephone service. That means email providers will not be able to scour through the messages we send for hints about what advertising we might be best targeted with.

There was the usual talk of the EU, or at least the Commission, not understanding the business models of Internet companies, but let's be very clear. Who among us would actually like to stand up at a European Commission meeting and argue the right of Google or Yahoo, or another provider, to able to scan through email messages? If we manage to find anyone, perhaps they would voluntarily sign up for BT to listen in to their telephone calls, just to drive home the point.

It was an issue that was already boiling away in the background with the Commission asking the U.S. government for assurances on how Yahoo "intercepts" or at least scans through messages. If I remember correctly, the first official line was that there was no need to worry, as the scanning wasn't in real-time, and so didn't amount to spying. Now, the assurances are focussing on a commitment not to be too general in scanning so that it would appear the email provider is carrying out mass surveillance. It's not what the Commission wanted to hear and it's not exactly the type of reassurance that I, a Yahoo email user, want to hear either.

So the European Commission will tighten up email laws so reading emails would be effectively the same as eavesdropping on a phone call -- that's my very rough understanding of what's being proposed, anyway.

it brings us on, however, to the first point. Is spying and reading email so a provider gets a clearer picture of its users really what the communications channel is all about? OK -- that's the ultimate rhetorical question, but it underscores how email marketing has a huge opportunity to make the channel truly useful. Don't make people have to remember a booking reference, let them link up to their account from within an email, let them check out additional information, go over their purchase history and interact with your customer service agents through the email that first grabbed their attention.

The best way of taking attention away from some dubious practices carried out at the top of the tree is to be at ground level making email so useful that consumers will wonder how they got by in the era of being redirected to a terrible landing page and then having to seek out a fifteen number order code and account number to go to the next step. 

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