Why spam is a problem

By Published on .

UNSOLICITED COMMERCIAL e-mail has gone far beyond being an annoy-ance. The seemingly endless assault on our in-boxes—and our time—has become a scourge that threatens all advertisers who seek legitimate communications with customers and prospects.

B-to-b advertisers assert that they aren’t the problem. This attitude is echoed by marketing industry associations, which have missed a chance to lead and now are in real jeopardy of having these issues regulated and legislated out from under them.

As e-mail recipients (and businesses) become increasingly exasperated with the deluge of e-mail, you can expect to see two broad reactions—one legislative/regulatory and one technological. Neither bodes well for marketers.

On the regulatory front, 19 states have enacted commercial e-mail laws. In addition, Congress has two comprehensive privacy bills and a number of spam bills pending. (See Carol Krol’s Special Report article, “Trying Times,” Page 19.)

It’s not that industry associations are oblivious to the crisis. “My organization realizes spam is strangling members because legitimate, mainstream messages aren’t getting read,” said Jim Conway, VP-government relations at the Direct Marketing Association.

The DMA has been busy promoting member guidelines. The first, approved by the DMA board last October, covers Web sites; the second, approved by the board this January, covers online commercial solicitations. Both can be found at the DMA Web site. And the DMA has established its own do-not-e-mail list with 1.5 million names. DMA’s 5,000 member companies must comply with the list, as well as with a similar do-not-call list for telephone marketing.

Yet the DMA continues to be an opponent of “opt-in” e-mail regulations for b-to-b, and it privately favors a federal anti-spam bill that would pre-empt state laws. While these positions may win support inside the DMA—especially among members who are enthusiastic e-mailers—they will not win fans elsewhere.

At least one DMA executive believes the industry has to do more.

“If we make the same mistake that we did with direct mail and telephone, we’ll be in the same boat that they are in: being regulated,” said Michael Faulkner, DMA senior VP-segments and affiliates.

Meanwhile, this policy debate may be rendered moot. An array of technologies to block marketing messages is taking hold.

Marketers and their industry associations need to heed the uproar over e-mail and act fast—or risk being shut out entirely.

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