Commentary

Can I Sell Your E-mail Address?

My bet is that 99% of you immediately answered "no" when you read this question. Many may have even preceded their negative response with a stronger word! Then, there is the one percent of you that answered "What would I get in return?" I'm sure no one just replied, "Sure."

The issues around this question are currently the source of much debate within the online lead generation industry. It is a healthy and necessary debate. When I say "sell your e-mail address," here is what I mean: hypothetically speaking, you willingly give me your e-mail address and I intend to license it to someone else for a fee -- a practice that I have disclosed in the fine print of my privacy policy, which you didn't link to or read.

I am not involved in this practice of "e-mail trade" either personally or professionally, but it is a big business for many. For those who comply with the various state and federal regulations, this practice is also legal and potentially highly profitable. There is a huge industry today comprised of many legitimate companies that monetize e-mail addresses and rely on the ability to license them. It is very similar to the mature postal list management industry that fuels direct mailers who want to find their way into your snail-mail box.

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Currently there are online marketing trade associations, publishers, advertising and marketing agencies, and arms of the federal government throwing their thoughts into the mix about why e-mail addresses should be treated differently than other non-secure data, such as postal addresses.

As they have matured, the online marketing and media industries have sought to define best practices. As of late, all eyes have been focused on data capture and use practices. There is not enough room in this column to tackle all sides of the many difficult issues, but with regard to the use of e-mail addresses, here are the three main groups of thought:

1) Do not ever license an e-mail address to a third party.

2) It's OK to license an e-mail address to a third party, so long as you disclose it to the consumer at the point of submission or through a link to a privacy policy.

3) If you do license an e-mail address to a third party and have disclosed to the consumer that you may do so, you must then ensure that all parties that license that e-mail address tie back to a universal unsubscribe functionality. This allows a consumer to unsubscribe to a chain of lists by replying to a single e-mail.

Those behind door number one are generally thinking long-term for the best of the industry and consumers as a whole. Most consumers are fearful that if they provide their e-mail address, it will get shared and they will never be able to opt-out fast enough before the domino effect of e-mail sharing kicks in. This is exactly why many consumers won't ever complete an online lead form or registration form. If the industry works hard to recondition the consumer mentality by disciplining itself in the manner of number one, it stands to reason that the online lead generation industry and consumer satisfaction would grow simultaneously.

Those behind door number two are generally of the mindset that everything comes at a cost. There are many consumers who are comfortable with receiving e-mail from third-party marketers if they get something of value. This could be a sweepstakes entry, research, a free software download, etc. They understand that without the ability to monitor the e-mail address, the object of value can't be offered.

Unfortunately most consumers don't read privacy policies or fine print. Many then complain to anyone who will listen about receiving third-party e-mail and blame it all on "filling out that darn form online." We've all heard this story before -- and it's simply not good for the online lead generation industry.

I believe that number three is the way to go. While not perfect, it offers the consumer a choice throughout the process. If the online lead generation industry uniformly adopts this practice, our long-term prospects will strengthen, and consumers will be reconditioned to recognize the value of filling out value forms online -- as opposed to dwelling on the perceived pitfalls.

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