Why Opt-In Just Doesn't Matter
By Adam Smithline
It began innocently enough. The year was 1997,
and a small group of business leaders and direct
marketers were just discovering the potential
of this new communication medium: email.
After decades of slow direct mail, expensive
telemarketing and broadcast and print campaigns
that seemed to disappear into the ether, it
seemed maybe at last the messiah of marketing
had arrived. As a direct marketer, you knew
instinctively that email was going to profoundly
transform business and marketing. And you
Today, less than six years later, email has
indeed had a significant impact. We?¡¥ve
leveraged and applied what we knew about direct
mail marketing and quickly discovered email?¡¥s
unique characteristics and how it can benefit
our companies and clients. An entire industry
has sprung up around email marketing, including
agencies, software providers and list companies.
Ironically, the email-marketing wave that
reinvigorated the direct marketing industry
is already becoming an endangered species.
Scam artists and porn kings sending high-volume,
non-targeted spam and filling our inboxes
to capacity threaten to make email unusable.
A Byzantine world of privacy requirements,
spam filters, blacklists and state-by-state,
country-by-country legislation have already
made email marketing challenging, and at the
current pace could threaten its existence
If you?¡¥ve grown tired of hearing
about opt-in, privacy legislation and particularly
spam ad nauseam, you?¡¥re not alone.
According to a Harris Poll conducted in January
2003, 96% of online consumers consider spam
annoying, and 74% would like it made illegal.
Today, with spam starts looking more and
more like personal email, evading filters
and clogging inboxes, consumer tolerance for
unwanted email is running out.
But just as it appears spam is going to render
email completely useless, there is good news.
Several companies have released anti-spam
software that provides consumers an affordable
antidote to spam. These new software applications?ausing
either Bayesian filtering or a Challenge/Response
mechanism?aallow the individual, rather than
the ISP, company or email provider, to easily
control exactly which messages can and can?¡¥t
While most Internet users don?¡¥t
yet know it, this technology is exactly what
they?¡¥ve been waiting for. The
stage is set for rapid and widespread adoption
of this new software, and the impact on email
marketing will be profound.
Regardless of whether they install Bayesian
or Challenge/Response filters, users will
no longer receive messages into their inbox
unless they really want to read them. This
is a critical shift in the way email works:
users will only receive email they really
The implications for email marketing are
also critical. What percent of your recipients
will actively select your email to be kept?
Your current ¡ãopen¡À
rates might give you some indication, but
it is probably an overestimate. Bayesian filters
actually learn over time which email you value,
so if a user classifies just one or two of
your emails as spam sometime down the road,
subsequent messages will no longer get through.
You can quickly see that with these filters
in place, regardless of permission previously
given, the majority of today?¡¥s
marketing emails would never get delivered.
When recipients can control exactly what gets
through, opt-in will be redundant, even meaningless.
Email campaigns, newsletters, and other impersonal
email are, as of now, no longer sufficient.
Only transactional email with information
the recipient really needs will be delivered
and read. If you haven?¡¥t done
so yet, it?¡¥s time to consider
how to make your email personal, relevant
and beneficial so every single message provides
obvious and immediate value.
The good news is that when consumers can
decide for themselves what that constitutes
spam, and have effective tools for eradicating
it, we can finally stop worrying about issues
such as opt-in, privacy and legislation. It
no longer matters how industry organizations
define spam, and it no longer matters if the
government passes laws against unsolicited
commercial email. These issues will largely
become moot, leaving us to focus instead on
delivering event-triggered messaging that
adds value and builds relationships.
The bad news, for many, is that the easy
days of one-size-fits-all broadcast email
campaigns are almost over. Opt-in is still
necessary, but it just doesn't matter.