Gaffney on America: Could it be the 's' word is no more? Long live the filters

Warning: this is a column about email marketing. Promise: I won't mention the 's' word - I need to read one more column about the 's' word like I need to hear one more Tom Ridge (US Homeland Security Chief) warning.

The reason: I don't know about you guys on the right side of the pond, but I just don't get as much unasked for email as I used to. So, what's the deal? Do I no longer need Xanax? Have I been identified as such a virile guy that I don't need to be tempted with a reminder that I just might need erectile-dysfunction medication to save my failing relationship?

Hardly. I think the cold truth is that the 's' word is not as big a deal as it was. That's just anecdotal research. I haven't seen DoubleClick check this yet. The email filters work. They may be working too well in some cases, and that leads me to the next hurdle for email marketing: whitelists.

Whitelists (the opposite of blacklists) are all the rage in the States, mainly because Google had the nerve and business savvy to alert all major ISPs and email carriers (which they are now trying to join through Gmail) that it would be sending several bulk emails to notify potential investors of its IPO. And guess what? The IT guys at AOL, Yahoo!, MSN et al decided it was a good idea. Yeah, they decreed, the email would escape our powerful content-protection gates and be passed on, to the potential profit of our subscribers. So, they put Google on a whitelist, showing Google was legit.

But, here's the rub. Whitelists cost money (for most firms). If company A wants to invite the scrutiny of ISPs who will check it is delivering valuable content to an opt-in list, company A may be able to get on a whitelist, but it will cost. It costs to be bonded as a whitelist participant and it costs if you violate the agreement. You can be fined if you send emails more often than you agreed or if you email a list you didn't specify.

All this is a reasonably good development. Email is a very powerful tool for legitimate marketers and reasonable rates for whitelisting can make the world safer for them. So, if you're an agency pitching email as part of a larger digital marketing push, this is good. However, there's always the chance that ISPs will give better rates to big customers. Will this freeze out smaller players? Not while internet marketing is in its current position of development. We all still need business. And email marketing needs to return to the status of good business.

John Gaffney is executive editor of Peppers and Rogers Group.

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