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DMA taken to task over AIM e-mail document

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After eight months of work, the Association for Interactive Marketing’s Council for Responsible E-mail last Thursday released "E-mail Delivery Best Practices." But a number of e-mail industry executives contend AIM’s parent, the Direct Marketing Association, significantly watered down the final document.

"AIM had some good ideas, and the DMA basically killed them," said Chris Selland, managing director of Reservoir Partners, Cambridge, Mass., a CRM consultancy.

Another critic was Adam Smithline, president, Smithline Interactive Marketing, Cupertino, Calif. "My understanding is that the DMA has worked pretty diligently to suppress AIM and make it ineffective," Smithline said.

And one e-mail marketing industry executive, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "It’s sad when an important subsidiary of the DMA all of a sudden has no power and no teeth." The executive added that a lot of people in the industry will look for alternative organizations, due to unhappiness with the DMA’s handling of AIM, which has been billed as an independent subsidiary of DMA.

AIM spent much of this year formulating the document, but the final version differs markedly from earlier ones. Notably absent is AIM’s definition of spam, which had appeared on the first page of a version that AIM was prepared to release in June. The DMA, however, would not approve the document at that time.

Chairman quit post

"They said, ‘You can’t release this,’" said Ian Oxman, VP-e-mail consulting at RappDigital Innovyx, Irvine, Calif., the interactive division of agency Rapp Collins Worldwide. Oxman, who was co-chairman of the 60-member CRE and a chief architect of the original document, resigned his post and withdrew Rapp’s AIM membership in July in protest. AIM currently claims more than 125 members.

"The straw that broke the camel’s back was the best practices document," Oxman said, adding that the DMA indicated at the time that it couldn’t support the document in that original form and suggested changes.

Michael Mayor, president of NetCreations, who represented the IAB as a member of the CRE, in addition to his own company, said both he and the IAB offered to look at the document before release. "We didn’t get an opportunity to review the final document," he said.

BtoB has learned that at least one other council member is not renewing its membership in part due to the best practices document flap.

Current CRE chairman, Michael Della Penna, CMO of Bigfoot Interactive, disagrees with this description of events. "No way did they say ‘this is not going to be released," Della Penna said. He said it was more about taking pending spam legislation into consideration and "giving it a thorough review before we release it because there’s so much going on."

Lou Mastria, DMA’s director of public and international affairs, said the June version was "at best, not ready for prime time … There were huge numbers of grammatical, substantive and logical errors in the document."

But just last month a senior DMA official was explicit about the disagreements within the DMA over spam policy.

During a roundtable discussion hosted by BtoB at the DMA’s B-to-B Conference in Tucson, Ariz. in September, Michael Faulkner, the DMA’s senior VP of segments and affiliates, said, "We’ve got an authority issue with the DMA in e-mail. There’s two voices at the DMA … We have a subsidiary called AIM [which] has a point of view about e-mail different from DMA’s point of view." Faulkner went on to explain the DMA’s official policy is "one bite of the apple," meaning, he said, "anyone can send an e-mail message to anyone one time with an opt-out option." And Faulkner said, "there are others who feel that that’s spam, and that you give somebody a chance to mail you once, [that’s] spamming. And so there are some of us on staff who are caught in the middle of that."

Criticism that DMA is unwilling to alienate its primary constituents, direct marketers that have built their businesses on opt-out rather than opt-in practices, is not new. The DMA, said Reservoir’s Selland, has been trying to prevent endorsing restrictive opt-in or double opt-in standards, as this could undercut the economics of the direct marketing business.

Many differences

Whatever the reason, the final "E-mail Delivery Best Practices" document is far different from the June draft.

Despite the fact that large chunks of text remain intact, the old best practices draft clearly stated it was "developed to guide the appropriate practices for marketers and list owners seeking to communicate with their customers and prospects via the e-mail channel." But the version released by the DMA last week is positioned as a blueprint for "deliverability." It states that is was "developed to suggest appropriate practices for marketers and list owners seeking to maximize delivery of communications."

Another council member, who asked to remain anonymous, said some of the language in the latest version had been softened by changing words like "must" to "should."

For its part, the DMA maintains that spam is not the focus of the AIM document.

"The issue of spam is really tangential to this document," said DMA’s Mastria. "In and of itself, this document does not intend to deal with the larger issue of spam, which we think needs to be dealt with at the federal legislative level."

The final version, according to Mastria, drew upon AIM’s existing "Six Resolutions for Responsible E-Mail" and the DMA’s online commercial solicitation guidelines, as well as the DMA’s "Anti-Spam Working Strategy" report and the original CRE document.

"E-mail Delivery Best Practices," according to an AIM press release, is designed to "empower marketers with practical recommendations that will help ensure the delivery of legitimate commercial e-mail." Those recommendations include delivery processes, list hygiene and recipient inquiries, and dispute resolution. It also details different forms of permission collection deemed acceptable by the two organizations, including double opt-in, confirmed opt-in, opt-in and opt-out.

"The DMA is somewhat conflicted over this issue [of spam] internally," said Bill Nussey, CEO of Silverpop Systems, Atlanta, an e-mail marketing company. "Until that goes away, the DMA will not have much credibility on this issue."

Splinter group forms

Some industry executives have begun to look elsewhere to actively work together on resolving challenges to the e-mail marketing channel.

Oxman, for instance, is gearing up to formally announce on Wednesday the formation of the E-mail Processing Industry Group, which initially will boast about 30 to 40 members from ISPs, spam filter companies and e-mail providers. He said the group will focus squarely on the deliverability issue. Other similar groups that exist include the Network Advertising Initiative and the E-Mail Management Roundtable.

"We’re not trying to stop spam," Oxman said. "We’re trying to get legitimate e-mails delivered." His group’s first initiative has already been completed. EPIG has developed a "cross-industry contact directory," a mechanism for getting companies to join the group.

"It is a phone book listings for ISPs and e-mail companies to easily talk with each other before deploying an e-mail campaign, rather than discovering deliverability problems later. It’s old technology to solve new technology problems," he said.

"It’s nice to have [the final document] but we’ve got more important fish to fry," said NetCreations’ Mayor. "Here we are 10 weeks away from this California law. I’d much rather they focus their attention on something threatening our business just 10 weeks away. List brokers and managers may not be around next year to practice these best practices."

Mayor added that by the middle of next week the IAB, NAI and TrustE are coming out with their own e-mail marketing ‘pledge’ that includes a definition of spam. Said Mayor: "We’ll have to pick up where the DMA left off."

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