What If: A Mitchell Report On Email Marketing

Like many of you, I was not surprised by the roster of bubblegum-card heroes whose names showed up in former Sen. George Mitchell's recent report detailing widespread use of performance enhancers in Major League Baseball. While cheating has long been part of baseball (think spitballs, corked bats, stealing signs) the steroid era has seriously and perhaps permanently damaged the reputations of America's favorite pastime and many star players.

I've been thinking about the concept of "cheating" in the email marketing industry for a while now, and the release of the Mitchell Report makes me wonder: What would an outside investigator find if he came in and scrutinized our industry? Who would be the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens of email marketing?

The email industry has its superstars, of course -- marketers who preach respect for the subscriber through strict permission, relevance, transparency and reputation. Which of them are also secretly guilty of using questionable performance enhancers such as poor permission practices, buying (not renting) lists, refusing to police affiliates, blocking the road to unsubscribing, or participating in poorly conceived co-registration schemes?



On one hand, I can understand this drive to game the system in order to gain a competitive advantage. In baseball, the major-league ballplayer who doesn't do HGH may be at a disadvantage when compared to a teammate or competitor whose regular dose keeps him in top condition during the dog days of the season. In the same way, a legitimate marketer who observes a strict opt-in policy might have a harder time making quarterly numbers than the buddy up the street who message-bombs any and every email address he can grab -- regardless of permission.

We've almost become inured to cheating, from parents who do their kids' homework to college students buying papers, plagiarism and fabrication by authors, corporate schemes to defraud customers and investors -- and a climate of rampant cheating and unbridled mendacity at all levels of government.

So, why am I upset at the idea that a few bad apples in our own industry hide the unsubscribe link in their emails, or write slimy privacy policies that nobody can find anyway?

Simple: Because these players make the rest of the industry look bad to the public at large, to our peers in other marketing channels, and, most important, to our customers. Customers who don't trust their email won't buy from it. Executives who control budgets and who think we're a bunch of spammers won't give us money to create effective, trustworthy programs.

The Mitchell Report is bound to spur a new round of investigations and attempts to impose new regulations on baseball. And if we don't get our collective act together, if we can't agree on basic standards for reputable email marketing (by default defining what "cheating" is) and weed out the bad actors, we could be the next ones to find ourselves in the glare of the public spotlight.

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