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Spam, Strippers, and How to Be a ‘White Hat’ Email Marketer

By   |  October 12, 2012

“So you’re the person responsible for all the spam I get!”

So went a recent post (now deleted at my request) on my Facebook page. It was typed by someone I consider a friend. We used to attend the same church, we’ve volunteered together, and, since he has moved out of the area, he and his family stayed with me when they returned for a visit earlier this month. I enjoy hanging out with him.

I think this is why the post stung so much, although even coming from a stranger it would have hurt at least a bit.

The public perception of email marketing is generally a negative one. Somehow the messages people hate receiving have become the face of it; promotional and editorial emails that people find valuable and like to read are somehow excluded from the category, until you probe and bring them to light.

This friend happens to be a teenager, whose parents are very close friends of mine. We discussed the post over dinner and they came to my defense, but in a way that supports the public perception of the industry.

Their argument was that everyone needs to earn a living; it’s not nice to speak harshly of the things your friends have to do to pay their mortgage. It’s something that Emily Post or Miss Manners would agree with, but the issue here goes deeper.

Assuming that all email marketers send spam is like assuming that all professional dancers work in strip clubs. But I doubt that most people when meeting someone who said they danced professionally would immediately assume that the person was a stripper.

There’s a continuum in email marketing, as in all industries. There are email messages far to one end that most everyone would agree are indeed egregious spam. On the other end are email messages that just about everyone would agree are not spam. I made the decision early on in my career to traffic firmly in messages on this side of the continuum.

In the 11 years I’ve had my own email marketing consultancy, I’ve turned away work from companies whose practices made me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t go so far as to call their email egregious spam, but their practices were in what I consider gray areas of the continuum, places which I avoid.

Whether you’re an email marketing professional or just someone who uses email marketing to support your business goals, you have a responsibility. The damage that egregious spam and gray area practices do to the industry goes beyond public perception. It translates into a less effective marketing channel for all of us – that includes you and your business.

So what can (and should) you do? Commit to being a “white hat” email marketer. Being in compliance with the U.S. CAN-SPAM act that regulates email marketing isn’t enough.

If you’re new to email marketing, educate yourself before you send.

This and the other email marketing columns on ClickZ are fabulous free resources for those new to email marketing. If you prefer a more structured approach, consider taking the Online Email Marketing Course I created for ClickZ Academy. The book I wrote on email marketing is out of print, but there are others out there that can give you standards and best practices in the industry, as well as the basic how-to’s.

If you’re an experienced email marketer and you know best practices, make sure your company and your campaigns follow them. Instead of going along with things you know could damage your email marketing program (and the industry) in the long term, if not the short term, open a dialogue.

Educate your colleagues and superiors on industry standards, not just legal requirements, and explain the potential perils of the road they’re asking you to take the company’s email marketing down. In many cases the primary peril is blacklisting; how would your bottom line be affected if none of the email you sent for the foreseeable future was delivered? What would it take, in time, money, and resources, to get the block lifted?

When all else fails, focus on the company’s reputation and the damage that questionable email marketing practices can do.

Earlier this year I was working with a large association whose members are consumers, not businesses. In a discussion about growing their email list, an upper-level executive floated the idea of collecting the IP addresses of website visitors and using this information to get their email addresses to add to the database.

Is it illegal? I don’t believe so. Is it a good idea? No. Does visiting an organization’s website mean that the user wants to receive email from them? No. Imagine the firestorm if they did this and the media got a hold of it. The damage to the association’s brand would be significant; consumer trust in them would plummet.

This is an extreme example but, when all else fails, use The New York Times test. If you move ahead and word of what you’re doing were published widely, within industry circles or to the general public, would it be something you’d be proud of? Or would it throw you into damage-control mode?

Until next time,


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This entry was posted on October 13, 2012 by in Uncategorized.