I was speaking at a DMA conference a while back, and was doing my pass around the exhibitor floor when I ran into a booth with a sort of nondescript name and a cryptic business tag line. Behind the table was a guy who looked like Tony Soprano, and an aging "Booth Babe" with Dolly Parton proportions and a face from the dark side of "Extreme Makeovers."

"What do you do?" I asked. Tony S. paused and stared at me as if he thought I might be wearing a wire.

"Direct Marketing..." he finally replied. "We sell names."

"Yeah, what kind of names?" I pressed.

"We sell the names and contacts of everyone who has bought a domain name. We sell the names to people who sell Web services."

"So these people haven't opted-in to receive these messages, or given you permission..." I said naively. "You are just grabbing their names and emails and selling them to people."

At that point he looked down at the booth babe, who was resting her 6- inch-heel-covered feet, as if to say: "What a dope this guy is," and then looked back at me to explain the ways of the world: "That's the definition of Direct Marketing!"



But, of course, that is not the definition of Direct Marketing. The definition of Direct Marketing changes for every medium that it incorporates. Imagine, if you will, what would happen if you received as many direct mail pieces a day as you do spam. I probably receive 200 spam messages a day. If I received 200 direct mail solicitations a day, or I received 200 telemarketer calls a day, the U.S. mail system and the telephone lines would come to a standstill. It would be chaos. Much like the chaos that is happening now with spam.

Why don't I receive 200 direct mail pieces a day? There is no law against it. The reason I don't is that it would COST TOO MUCH MONEY to send me 200 pieces of junk mail every day.

As long as it is dirt cheap to send me email, the email problem is never going to go away. Legislation will only stop the legitimate email marketers. Technological solutions only partially work--and even then, they force you to look at the spam to make sure that nothing legitimate has slipped through.

And so, after thinking through the problem for the last 5 minutes, I have COMPLETELY SOLVED THE EMAIL PROBLEM! I give it free to the world. Here it is:

Every email browser has an Email E-ZPass system built into it. A toll road that everyone must pay. But here is the brilliant part: each email browser decides what the toll is for each email address it receives email from.

By default, it costs 5 cents to send anyone an email--no exceptions. Charges are collected through your ISP or a Verisign-type company (or maybe, literally the E-ZPass Company) that also cleans every email of harmful viruses and recognizes and stops Denial of Service attacks. That justifies the payment, and the overall cost would be much less than what a virus attack costs us each year.

But what about personal emails? You expect me to pay 5 cents to send a personal email?

Yes. After all, you spend 37 cents to send a letter to someone. But here is the good news. As the recipient, you can reduce the tolls your friends pay to zero. An email comes in from a long-lost High School Sweetheart. Your browser recognizes a new address, and a button on your browser reads "Free Toll?" You click yes, and from now on your old flame writes free. But your mother-in-law will still have to pay every time she sends you the latest email joke list.

What about business solicitations? Bring them on, because now you can RAISE the toll to 10 cents, in order for companies to solicit to you. 5 cents goes to the Email Post Office to pay for Virus Control and 5 cents goes to you, which can be used to reduce your own email meter.

But this would cripple businesses. You can't expect huge Corporations to pay 5 cents an email.

Again, no problem. All domains registered as a business are exempt from paying the fee as long as they are sending emails to other domains that are registered as businesses. Let's face it--the majority of spam targets consumers. Once you make it too expensive to send to consumers, the volume of spam email will drop exponentially. The trickle that is left can easily be handled by businesses' email systems.

Here is the advantage of this system. People MAKE money by receiving spam. No more spam filters to check. No having to deal with some sort of email response system. Marketers would pay to solicit your business, but since there are no spam filters, they can at least be sure of delivery and that you are seeing their message. The legitimate mailers thrive; the illegitimate ones go out of business. The cost of doing business goes down. Everyone is happy and dancing in the streets.

Okay, that problem is solved. Next?

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