Email Regs Dead in D.C.

With the federal government only dealing with a piece of enforcement to stop spam, email marketers are trying to balance a consumer backlash and the vast opportunities for those who do it right.

Several players in the email marketing business spoke about the current state of the industry Thursday at a forum presented by Media Magazine during its two-day Forecast 2003 event in New York City. While they say that the bad apples are spoiling it for the whole bunch, the panelists said email marketing has proven its potential for legitimate marketers wanting to target audiences.

"Spam has given email marketing a bad name," said Nick Pahade, vice president and managing director at Beyond Interactive. Everyone's received bad email but the industry has seen conversion rates fall and bounce-back rates rise because many consumers are starting to turn off all email, no matter what it's source.

And the problem is predicted to get worse. Scott Stephen of YesMail said the amount of junk email is predicted to increase tenfold in the next few years. "That's significant when you consider how much you get in your email box right now," he said.

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There are mixed signals at the federal level. Jeffrey Kauffman, a lawyer at the Washington, D.C., firm of Collier Shannon Scott, said only one bill has made it to the Senate floor and that it hasn't gone any further. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating fraud cases but it's more than they can handle and no one's looking at the bigger picture, he said. It's also made complicated by the fact that spam, while annoying, is Constitutionally protected free speech. That limits what the federal government can do.

"It's not their role to come in and regulate all spam … But they do need to focus on the bad actors. It's taken them [the FTC] a long time to understand how to get to them," he said.

Brad Aronson of i-Frontier said technology will eventually reduce the annoyance factor of spam. That will keep consumers away from the spam and reduce bandwidth and storage issues that plague swamped ISPs.

"I don't think this will kill email marketing," he said. But there's a real danger that consumers will pull back, not checking emails or using an infrequently accessed address. Aronson said marketers can address that by providing value like added information and discounts.

John Fischetti of Arnold Interactive said email marketing works well with some clients and not with others. It's been effective in campaigns but sometimes people are so overrun with spam, they might not even see it. Fischetti said the campaign started with a quality list. "I think we were reaching those people. We had a decent response but it should have been better," he said.

Fischetti said email is a viable marketing vehicle that's been hampered by clutter. The industry has to find a way to get rid of the spammers and let the real marketers do their jobs.

Stephens agreed.

"I think people that are doing good marketing will thrive with email …I think it's about how we want the industry to develop, and I think it's up to us," he said.

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