One of the mailing lists to which I subscribe is a group dialogue among many of the top folks in email marketing. The group ranges from relationship-oriented pundits like myself, to companies that rent lists and believe strongly in email as an acquisition tool. We've carried on a raging debate these last few weeks on the definition of spam and the value of (or problem with) unsolicited email. It spurred some thoughts I've been mulling over. Since the dialogue on that list has already shifted to other topics, I figured I'd post my thoughts here rather than risk re-igniting the debate <grin>.
The first thing that struck me about the dialogue was the lack of a clear delineation for "bad email" or spam. As I see it, there are six kinds of bad email, and each comes from a different sort of sender. Without better definitions, I think the debate is hard-pressed to come to any resolution. So here goes:
- Irrelevant relationship emailers. You opt-in to a brand from which you want to hear more. That brand sends you email as you expect. Unfortunately, it either starts sending too often, or starts sending email that is just plain irrelevant. This is the one scenario in which you consider opting out, but like most people, you probably just delete the messages or designate them as spam.
- Co-branded emailers. I talked about this in my book. The New York Times is great example. Some of its messages are devoted to promoting the products of paid advertisers. The key is that the messages come from The New York Times. This is a fine approach in my opinion, for three reasons. First, the list continues to be maintained by a brand I trust. Second, the likelihood of irrelevant or too-frequent advertising is lessened because the Times' brand equity is at stake. And third, opting out of the Times' partners' messages is easy, requiring only that I go to the Times preference page. This approach is very popular in the world of publishing, and definitely can be done very well. I am comfortable recommending this to any of my clients.
- Relationship emailers working with third-party list managers. This is different from co-branded email because that little "Check here to receive email from our partner" box on the opt-in page results in my email address being given to a third party that I don't know. In some cases, especially with less reputable list managers, my single opt-in can result in any number of advertisers sending me independent messages, all of which require their own unique opt-out. In my view, my address is now "in the wild," and there are any number of unknown companies that will initiate relationships with me based on that. Let me be clear -- this is not permission. This is the first step in spam. Obviously, if the list goes to a responsible broker, it will offer two opt-outs every time it sends a message: one for the advertiser and one for the core list manager. My problem is that checking that partner box almost never provides a description of what will happen afterward. So every time I check it (or leave it checked), I am taking a huge risk with my permission and my inbox. I have seen some reputable examples of this but it is a very risky proposition for consumers and marketers unless they are 100-percent clear on how permission is being passed along.
- Sweepstakes sites or email address collection portals. You go to a site to enter into a sweepstakes. Maybe you can win an iPod or a free cruise. Maybe you're just looking for a source of low-interest-rate mortgages or alerts on tuition opportunities. The fact is that many of these sites are giving away a lot of otherwise-valuable stuff because their real business is collecting names. For the record, a lot of very reputable companies, such as Q Interactive (formerly CoolSavings), as well as nearly every co-registration network on the planet, operate on this principle. The problem, of course, is that some of these sites are less up-front than others about their true business motives. More importantly, some are less responsible than others in how they handle their lists, and your subsequent opt-out or spam complaint. This business is a slippery slope, and marketers need to be super-careful here.
- Relationship emailers gone bad. Again, you opt-in to a brand you like, and the emails come as you expect. However, one day, you start getting emails from companies you never expected to hear from. You suspect your email address has been passed around but can't prove it. This is very bad because there are no "partner" check boxes and no indication whatsoever that your email address would be distributed outside your control.
- Spammers. The definition of "spam" varies a lot but everyone agrees on the worse kind. You get an email in your inbox that is clearly designed to avoid the filters, offering up products in which hardly anyone could be interested. You wonder how in the world the sender got your email address. Maybe it was harvested. Maybe it was stolen. Most likely, it came from one of the above scenarios where a misguided (or bankrupt) list manager saw a way to make some quick money and sold to it a "gray" advertiser. After that, your inbox was toast.
This post has gotten a bit long and there's a lot more to explore on this interesting issue, so hold tight for a few more posts in the coming days and weeks.