While using e-mail for press releases remains relatively safe, using it for direct marketing is still a controversial area.
Congressional hearings on bulk e-mail and consumer privacy are scheduled for June on Capitol Hill, and a debate continues to rage within the industry on the "opt-in" vs. "opt-out" philosophy of building e-mail lists.
Essentially, proponents of opt-in say users must give permission before they're added to an e-mail list in the first place; the flip side of that are mass e-mailers who argue that anyone can be targeted for e-mail, but they have the right to opt out if they don't like it.
BUILDING YOUR OWN LIST
Marketers who build their own lists by getting permission before sending mail, providing incentives to recipients and sending short teaser messages aimed at provoking action, not a direct sale, say they're finding gold on the Internet.
This opt-in model for e-mail builds lists that can be resold without angering users, said Rosalind Resnick, president of NetCreations, Brooklyn, N.Y., whose PostMaster Direct service builds lists and sends commercial e-mails at 10 cents to 20 cents each for marketers.
NetCreations now has 1,500 lists with a total of 2 million names. Ms. Resnick says targeting is the key to starting a successful conversation with members of one of her lists.
"Responding is as easy as hitting the reply key. Marketers get negative responses when they unleash junk e-mail on the Internet population," she says.
Keith Bajura, president of Pride Vitamins, Pittsburgh, which mainly sells vitamins by mail, has used Ms. Resnick's lists successfully. While his response rate varies, he says, "Catalog request volumes go up significantly after we do these mailings."
Mr. Bajura's success secret? "Don't try to say too much. We spent $600 on a recent mailing, and got $3,000 back in orders . . . the message has only three lines of text. People just clicked on the Web address" for more information, then ordered online.
Others go the more controversial opt-out mass e-mail route. These marketers harvest e-mail addresses from Web pages, newsgroups and other sources with software such as WebCollector and NetContacts from Cyber Promotions, Philadelphia. They then spam mass e-mail to everyone on the list.
FISHING FOR A MASS LIST
How do these programs work? Sanford Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions and the self-described "King of Spam," says the $295 WebCollector program works like a Web search engine under Windows 95 and Windows NT.
"If you're looking for people who sell fishing equipment, you type that in on a search screen," he says. "The program will then find every page with that term on it, using `spider' technology similar to that used to catalog Web pages. The program will collect e-mail addresses from those pages, without taking e-mail addresses of administrators."
NetContacts, a $395 program, is more difficult to use, Mr. Wallace said, but it "lets you collect e-mail addresses from newsgroups or online directories a total of 18 different ways. It also includes a sending program, which not only will send e-mail but address each note personally."
TEST PROMOTIONS FIRST
Mr. Wallace's offerings for marketers also include an e-mail delivery service and an Internet Service Provider called "ISPam," but he cautions that to be successful, marketers need to follow some rules.
The first rule is to take people off lists upon request, he said.
Second, "Any type of e-mail promotion should be tested first on a small number of people."
Third, "If you're a new company, it's good to send short e-mails."
Mr. Wallace has also introduced a $49 program called e-Filter which, he says, can keep his or anyone else's ads out of your PC. "We don't need laws to stop what we're doing; we need software," he says, and e-Filter works with all Internet e-mail clients.
On the Internet, however, commercial e-mail carries special risks.
Robb Raisch, chief scientist for Internet Co., Cambridge, Mass., says some recipients of unwanted spam have taken to sending huge files in return, aimed at breaking spammers' e-mail servers.
These "mail bombs" have caused most ISPs, who have to bear the costs of all the traffic, to close the accounts of spammers, he said.
The Direct Marketing Association's position is the market will decide the fate of commercial e-mail, said spokesman Chuck Dalzell.
"Most of our members are cautious in their use of unsolicited e-mail, but they want to reserve the right to use e-mail if it enhances value to customers."