Log Off: You Can't Buy a Reputation

Is paid e-mail a stamp of approval or a punishment?

Let's get ready to rumble! In one corner, there's paid e-mail. In the other is reputation. So far, it appears that both have fought to a draw. Before I begin to score this match, let me confess that I'm a biased judge  but then, so is everybody else.

Paid e-mail is creating a stir. For example, there is AOL's recent move to partner with Goodmail Systems for a new paid service for marketers, which AOL will use in addition to its two whitelists. As you may recall, AOL had originally planned to do away with its enhanced whitelist. In its place, senders who pay between 1 and 25 cents per e-mail will be guaranteed e-mail delivery to AOL subscribers, along with full functionality of links and images. Unfortunately, this makes it easier for marketers to overlook the real issue: relevance.

So should companies have to buy electronic stamps to send e-mails?

In the paid e-mail corner, supporters claim that the volume of illegitimate e-mail  spam, phishing, and the like  will be significantly reduced if bulk mailers that get low responses are forced to pay a fee for every e-mail that they blast. There is the inverse argument: that legitimate e-mail, with all links and images intact, will provide a clear path to the inbox and restore consumer trust in e-mail.

In the reputation corner, supporters contend that paid e-mail punishes the good guys  some have even gone so far as to call it extortion  but won't stop the spammers, and generally goes against the free spirit of the Internet. At any rate, if a company has worked hard to be relevant and legitimate, it's already on the enhanced whitelist and has a clear path to the inbox.

According to Goodmail's CEO, Richard Gingras, "The very notion that I have to get permission to send you a marketing message doesn't make sense and is not good public policy." That's debatable; it's a black-and-white statement in a gray area. Consumers are increasingly exerting control over the content and information presented to them, particularly through such a personal channel as e-mail. So getting their permission to send marketing messages is probably a good idea.

And to get that permission requires that marketers at least be interesting and relevant to consumers. This is the crux of the issue: Interest and relevance can arise only from knowing customers through their stated or inferred preferences. Why divert resources and attention from getting to know your customers?

Goodmail supporters reportedly maintain that the company's fee-based e-mail program is not about reducing spam but about restoring trust in e-mail. But how was that trust lost in the first place? The spammers who created the mistrust will still exist; they just won't have to pay.

So the advantages of legitimate marketers using Goodmail at this point are minimal  particularly if a company's delivery rates are good and they appear on AOL's enhanced whitelist daily. Since AOL has stated that the status of the enhanced whitelist can change day to day, Goodmail can indeed offer the peace of mind that a guarantee of being on the enhanced whitelist brings. However, whether a marketer is on AOL's enhanced whitelist via its own reputation, or whether it uses Goodmail's help, neither can override a user's filters or settings if they turn images and links off. Ultimately, it all comes down consumers and giving them what they want.

Have you guessed my particular bias? Paid e-mail diverts resources away from where the real focus should be  on building a reputation with your customers through relevance. And relevance comes from the effective and appropriate use of consumer data, through the stated and implied preferences of the consumer. If there is a plus to the paid e-mail program, it is that marketers will put more effort into ensuring that their e-mails are wanted by the consumer so that postage is not wasted. But aren't legitimate, reputable marketers already doing that? I'm in reputation's corner. And reputation is earned, not bought. 

Katie Cole, Ph.D., is vice president of analytics and research for Merkle/Quris. (

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