Marketing's beef with spam labels

Do some online marketers have a legitimate beef with the spam label?

E-mail marketing companies, including Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Interactive Inc. and New York-based 24/7 Media Inc.'s subsidiary Exactis, which pride themselves on sending opt-in e-mail to subscribers, have been stung by the charge that they are spammers. They say indiscriminate e-mail marketing hurts their industry and is ultimately ineffective, so they have no vested interest in bombarding mailboxes with new product offers.

"Online marketing is being held to a much stronger standard," said Christopher Todd, analyst at Jupiter Research, a Jupiter Media Metrix company in New York. "Don't assume that [spam] is a problem only in the online world. It's a problem in the offline world as well."

"Brand names wouldn't be caught dead doing spam," said Kate Leahy, spokeswoman for Bigfoot Interactive in New York, which conducts e-mail marketing for Fortune 500 companies. While Leahy acknowledged there can be some glitches in e-mail marketing protocols, she said, "I don't think these are things that we won't overcome in the next year."

Blocking e-mail marketing campaigns from companies that have minor glitches, she said, hurts the ability of marketers -- and the companies they serve -- to effectively and responsible target customers.

"There are more [unknown] spammers out there that are sending me e-mail every day," she said. And privacy groups would be well-served, she argued, to target smaller, lesser known spammers who don't maintain the same standards as better-known marketing companies.

Meanwhile, e-mail spam is better than getting phone calls at dinnertime. "Spam is much less disruptive than unsolicited commercial phone calls," noted David Ferris, research director at Ferris Research in San Francisco.

The reason online spammers get so much attention, Todd said, is because it's so cheap. According to an April report by Jupiter, the cost of creating an e-mail campaign for a product or service is $1,000, vs. $20,000 for direct-mail campaigns. In addition, e-mail campaigns take three weeks to develop vs. three months for direct mail, and the turnaround time for feedback averages 48 hours for e-mail, as opposed to three weeks for direct mail.

Groups like the Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (MAPS) in Redwood City, Calif., have said there should be rules and regulations on how e-mail is sent, and privacy protections for the recipients.

This summer, online pollster Harris Interactive was placed on MAPS' Realtime Blackhole List (RBL) for allegedly sending out unsolicited, bulk commercial e-mail, better known as spam, for requesting participation from e-mail users in its opinion polls. Internet service providers, such as America Online Inc. in Dulles, Va., use the RBL in deciding whether to block bulk e-mail from getting to their customers.

Last week, Exactis was placed on the RBL. On its Web site, 24/7 Media claimed that it has "the world's largest permission-based, opt-in e-mail database."

Both have won legal battles to resume their e-mail marketing for the customers who opt in, or request the e-mails, but the notoriety of the cases puts in doubt the effectiveness and the ability of companies to acquire and retain customers through digital marketing (see story).

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