March 10, 2002

The rep called to introduce himself and introduce me to his company. That’s fine, except for the fact that several people from his organization had already cold-called me, had already sent email media kits, and had already asked me about which of my clients are engaged in email marketing initiatives.

Sounding like he was reading directly from a script, the rep rattled off a few statistics about email marketing that would have been impressive if I had spent the last several years living in a cave. In Afghanistan. With my fingers in my ears.

I gave my standard explanation of how we handle email marketing here. We think there’s something wrong with using email to interject our clients into somebody else’s marketing relationship. While we do rent a list from time to time, I’m trying to steer clients toward developing their own email lists, populated with people who have directly opted in to receive communications from my clients. I told the rep that if we had any need for their services, I would call.

Evidently, this wasn’t a good enough explanation for this particular sales rep. Hundreds of clients use this rep’s services, he explained. Standalone e-mailings to rented lists work, dammit. Otherwise, clients like [insert major automobile manufacturer here] and [insert well-known packaged goods manufacturer here] wouldn’t be booking repeat business with him. These clients are getting tons of great qualified leads by mailing to his lists, he insisted. The implication was that I was missing out on revenue because of the stance I had taken with respect to email marketing – that other clients were making out like bandits while my clients’ businesses were starving.

The implication was that everybody else was doing it, so why shouldn’t Tom Hespos? Well, that logic leads to things like the dot-com crash, speeding tickets and questionable accounting practices.

Who studies the negative ramifications of commercial email? No one. Why? Because there’s no money in it. Research firms don’t make money by releasing studies that say that brands are significantly harmed as the result of email marketing with rented lists. So we have to rely on common sense.

Common sense tells me that no one, and I mean no one has a database of 70 million email names that correspond to 70 million Americans who are dying to get special offers from random companies. The U.S. Department of Commerce tells me that at last count, 143 million people had online access in this country. And I should believe that nearly half of those people signed up with an obscure marketing company to receive random corporate offers?

Common sense also tells me that I should never use the “everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?” argument to justify anything my clients do online. What if someone did research the negative effects of commercial email and found out that for every person who converted to a lead, at least two said they would never buy anything from you ever again? I’d feel pretty silly for going along with the herd on that one, huh?

Still, the hard sell pressed on, with the rep relaying anecdotes about how everyone on his lists is so hungry for email offers that they complain when they don’t receive enough or when they’re accidentally taken off a list.

I have no doubt that ‘offer junkies’ exist. But common sense tells me that there’s no chance that offer junkies exist in the quantities that many email marketing companies would lead me to believe. Common sense also tells me that a lot of the people on these rentable email lists are people just like me, who may have entered a contest online or signed up for an email newsletter, didn’t read the fine print of a privacy statement, and ended up on a few dozen lists as a result.

It seems the way to most sensibly leverage email marketing is to begin a relationship with another medium – print advertising, event marketing, web advertising or any other consumer touch point – and give those consumers the opportunity to receive email from your company (and only your company). That way, the consumer can distinguish between email from your company and run-of-the-mill spam. The relationship belongs to your company and your company alone.

In the absence of hard facts pertaining to the negative aspects of renting lists, I think we have to rely on our sense of right and wrong. When that little voice in our heads says, “Lots of people really, really hate commercial email,” we have to listen. We have to think about what we’re risking when we try to barge in on someone else’s marketing relationship. For many advertisers, that risk is significant in light of the money spent building a brand. And when you’re really serious about building relationships via email, start those relationships yourself. Don’t trust someone else to tell you “This group of people really wants to hear from you,” especially if they stand to benefit financially from introducing your brand to their lists.

By Tom Hespos
Courtesy of http://www.MediaPost.com

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