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When spam is not spam

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"The brave souls who experimented with it at first clearly found out how well it worked and then the word got out and it has mushroomed." Utter the word "spam" and Deb Goldstein, president of IDG List Services, is likely to sigh.

Despite implementing a system to ensure that the e-mail lists IDG List Services -- a new division of International Data Group, the Boston-based high-tech publisher -- rents to direct marketers are used ethically, Ms. Goldstein continues to be besieged by barbs from rabid spam haters.

"There's a big misconception that e-mail recipients don't want to receive e-mail," Ms. Goldstein says.

It's such a hot issue that among the major high-tech publishing companies, IDG is the only one that rents out its e-mail lists.

More than 200,000 names

Over the past year, IDG List Services has developed six mailing lists through subscribers of its online publications and expects to grow to 12 lists within the next six months, Ms. Goldstein says.

Ms. Goldstein launched the project last summer by sending questionnaires via e-mail to subscribers of Java World and Sunworld Online.

The survey asked if the subscribers would like to be sent third-party e-mail related to their work -- in this case, information on software, hardware and training opportunities in computer programming related to the Web.

Now the program includes Netscape World, PC World Online, Macworld Online and Network World Fusion.

About 20% of the subscribers opted out of the e-mail program. All told, the six e-mail lists include 200,000 names.

Ms. Goldstein said those who receive the e-mails are able to opt out at any time.

Comfort level

IDG also requires the direct marketer to identify itself in the e-mails it sends to people on the lists.

"We try to establish a comfort level because we are respecting their privacy," Ms. Goldstein says. "We want to make sure that netiquette is adhered to."

Though success and growth came swiftly, acceptance among the direct marketing community did not.

When the product was suggested to direct marketers, many hung back to see what the general response would be for the politically incorrect marketing genre.

"Initially, I got a real mixed response with the direct response community. Some said `This is really cool; I gotta try this,' and some said `I wouldn't touch this with a 10-foot pole,' " Ms. Goldstein says.

"The brave souls who experimented with it at first clearly found out how well it worked and then the word got out and it has mushroomed."

Spam patrol

Still, e-mail is an unpopular medium for direct marketing. While spam -- the term means unsolicited e-mail -- is not regulated, the Federal Trade Commission has recently held hearings on the subject; there are a number of bills pending before Congress that would impose limits on spamming; and state legislatures are passing antispam laws, most recently in Nevada.

"Courts are also getting involved in the antispam movement," says John Delaney, an attorney for New York-based law firm Morrison & Foerster.

"For example, last year, a court in Ohio found unsolicited e-mail to constitute trespassing onto another person's property."

Ms. Goldstein agrees spamming is a growing problem, but she says mass e-mail can be sent in an ethical -- and profitable -- way.

Big growth expected

And the mass e-mail market will continue to expand, she says.

Ms. Goldstein predicts that in three to five years, 20% of direct mail dollars will be spent on e-mail list rental.

And with the advent of new browsers from Netscape and Microsoft, which enable the user to send and receive text e-mails with graphics and photos, the market is likely to grow exponentially, Ms. Goldstein says.

"What creates the power of this is people's browsers," Ms. Goldstein says. "If the site is there on the e-mail, you can click right through to the Web site -- you can click in to a safe, secure transaction. There has never been a medium that you have a lead and then can order all in a click-through situation."

Don't fight the new medium

It's that power that led IDG to set up the e-mail program.

"We positioned it as `This a new medium, don't fight it. It's quick and responsive. It can be a great standalone or adjunct to what you're doing.' "

Though Ms. Goldstein's service has no competitors in the computer trade publishing market at the moment, she knows that will change.

Other high-tech publishers, CMP Media and Ziff-Davis, both New York, produce e-mail newsletters from subscriber lists, but they are made up of editorial content, not advertising-based information, though advertisers do sometimes sponsor CMP's e-mail newsletters.

In the past year, IDG has had 45 companies rent the lists and, of those, 11 have returned to rent again.

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