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E-Marketing Responsibly - How to Avoid the Spammer Label

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June 01, 2005
A Look At | Technology
Debra Kristopson - dkristopson@ndtc.com

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© 2004 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Few labels carry as negative a connotation as spammer. Images come to mind of shady businesses and pornography, but the spammer label is actually one that any company can acquire. And once so labeled you must be willing to fight back.

One solution is to avoid the fight altogether and never e-market, but the Internet is a valuable resource that shouldn’t be ignored. While avoiding e-marketing may be safer, it’s not necessary if you e-market wisely.

Understanding how to e-market safely begins with a basic understanding of spam.

The most significant problem in controlling spam is there is no universally accepted definition of when e-marketing crosses the border and becomes spam. Like pornography, people will tell you that they know it when they see it but writing words to define it is next to impossible.

By the strictest definition any unsolicited e-mail sent from a company (or an individual) can be labeled as spam. And yes, individuals, as well as companies may be classified as spammers.

In practice though the definition of spam centers on message content and frequency. For instance, unsolicited e-mails over an extended period of time for a product that you have never expressed an interest in is by the common definition spam.

Legislating Spam
There has been a significant amount of publicity about recent legislation on controlling or restricting spam. However, in practice the recent legislation didn’t slow spam, it actually has increased it. Spam is not a domestic issue. Once the U.S. legislation was enacted the majority of true spammers just moved offshore. The Internet is a global resource and it can’t be controlled with U.S.-based legislation.
I manage a WISP that monitors e-mail traffic daily. Our volume of trapped spam has significantly increased and as of April 2004 over 92 percent of it was from offshore servers.

Beyond Legislation—Blacklists, Whitelists and Spam
Most Internet service providers (ISP) practice spam blocking at the ISP level. Internet service providers monitor, track and dispose of approximately 80 percent of what we label as spam. However, one person’s spam is another person’s desired e-mail so a fine line must be walked.
Any individual can register a spam complaint with their ISP, or a spam tracking organization against an inbound e-mail address. This begins a process, which varies widely by ISP or spam tracking organization, whereby that e-mail address (or in some cases the IP address) is blacklisted. Once on an ISP specific blacklist, no e-mail is accepted from that entity. Once on a blacklist any ISP which uses that list will blacklist the inbound e-mail from that offending organization.

Depending upon who took the complaint, the alleged spammer is either innocent until proven guilty, or more often, guilty until proven innocent. The policy of automatic guilt can result in interruptions in e-mail delivery which can take hours or days to resolve.

Without a universally accepted spam definition, this process is unmanageable and consumes a significant amount of resources. As an alternative business practice some ISPs have instituted whitelists, whereby they have agreed to a common set of processing rules and self-police their users.

Controlling Spam
First, be reasonable. While you may not have wanted a specific e-mail message, was it really spam that should be reported to your ISP?

Think about when you get your mail at home each night. I have a ritual where I open my mail next to the garbage can. Anything that I don’t want goes into the trash. We, as a culture, have accepted that we will receive direct mail pieces which may not be of interest. We don’t even think twice about them and we would never consider lodging a complaint with the post office. There is a difference between unsolicited e-mail and spam.

If you are annoyed by spam and don’t wish to delete each individual spam message, you can install a blocker on your desktop. While there are many spam blockers on the market, the best are learning-based. These blockers require the user to place messages they deem as spam into a folder from which the blocker software then learns which messages should not be allowed through to the desktop. This allows you to implement your own personal definition of what you consider to be spam.

Why would any sane company e-market? Because, when executed properly it can be a highly effective, inexpensive marketing tool.

But there are some guidelines by which to e-market. First, you may follow every one of these guidelines and still be accused of spamming. It is good to keep in mind that there are those who consider even one unsolicited e-mail to be spam. However, following some form of guidelines, your position will be more defensible.

E-mail Marketing GUIDELINES:
  1. Limit the frequency of your message. Don’t send to the same e-mail address more than once per week.
  2. Manage your mailing list. Make sure that you don’t have the same e-mail address in your list more than once. Avoid, at all cost, purchasing a large canned list. If possible solicit voluntary list participation during the guest stay. Never sell your list.
  3. On every e-mail message allow for an opt-out ability and religiously honor someone’s request to opt-out. Always make sure that your opt-out requests are processed before your next message release.
  4. Limit your e-mail message to less than 1MB.
  5. Have a clearly stated purpose. Only e-mail when you truly have something worthwhile to say.
  6. Write your subject line very carefully to avoid being blocked as spam. Remember your goal is to get your e-mail message delivered through a maze of spam blocker software running at both the ISP and desktop levels.
  7. Fully identify yourself in your e-mail message.

E-marketing Safety Nets
This can’t be stressed enough: Start by discussing your e-marketing program with your ISP and attain their input and support of your program. They will be your first line of defense and their advice may help to keep you out of trouble. Don’t attempt a program without their knowledge. Understand that not all ISPs allow e-marketing and your desire to conduct an e-marketing program may require that you change providers.
Second, as insurance, create a second domain for your e-marketing program which is separate from your main Web site and your main bank of e-mail addresses. Then if you are blacklisted for any length of time, your core business is not impacted; all that will be interrupted is your marketing program. For instance, if your primary domain is www.hotelx.com then register a second domain such as www.hotelxspecials.com. Within www.hotelxspecials.com detail your marketing programs, your list policies and allow for a link back to your main Web site for more information about your hotel.

In a world fraught with spam, responsible e-marketing is possible.

Debra Kristopson has over 25 years in hospitality and is a leading industry expert on the practical application of technology for the industry. She can be reached at dkristopson@ndtc.com.

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