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Prince was right. In 1999 we were partying.

I loved the smell of HTML in the morning. It smelled like victory.

Oh yeah—those were the days.

Sure, spam was an issue in '99. Who cared? Open rates were spectacular. You could see marketing happen in real time—all for 4 cents an email—heady times indeed.

Technology rocked in the good old days.

I wrote—along with many others—about the dangers of email and ways to kill your brand with this new tool. Most email marketers were like babies with loaded shotguns. That was OK with us. It made our stuff look and work even better.

We were happy to help our competitors. After all, if people used email effectively we'd have a brand new channel to market in—one people would pay attention to; one that delivered measurable results.

Then, horribly, sometime in '01 or early '02, the promise of legitimate email marketing ended faster than a free pass at a porn site. Spam grew like kudzu in a hot Georgia summer. Address lists were passed around like a second grade love note.

People got offended quickly—even when you had a legitimate reason to solicit them. Now, according to the fine folks at Brightmail, 40% of the email we get is spam. Only about 20% of commercial broadcast is advertising.

Do the math: your inbox is twice as cluttered as your favorite radio station or TV show.

Poor us.

But the evaporation of opportunity doesn't stop there. While email might cost you 3 or 4 cents a pop to send (if you are paying more, you're getting ripped off), it is costing ISPs millions in bandwidth expense.

Don't think for a minute your friendly neighborhood ISP is going to eat that. At this very moment heavy meetings are going on in almost every major ISP, working to figure out how they can gain legitimate control over every email that crosses their network.

The Post Office generated a rare profit from unsolicited mail this year while many ISPs struggled to raise their revenue line. There is a lesson here that is not lost on the likes of AOL, Earthlink, and the monster MSOs. Namely, that they'll be happy to help identify spam—spam will simply be defined as mail from people not in your address book and not paying your provider to deliver to you.

But perhaps I'm forecasting a little aggressively. We're not going to see that happen until—oh wait—AOL already does that now. MSN is minutes behind them. But this is really only the beginning.

Now robust, effective software apps exist to help people dodge your well-crafted email solicitation. Tools that read your “from” line and look for a number string known as unique identifiers (campaigns can't be tracked without one). Software that looks for words in the subject line like “hot,” “new,” “free,” or “money.” Recently J. D. Biersdorfer wrote in the New York Times about three of these tools. While JD wasn't too kind to we feeble-minded, porn-mongering marketers, he was quite fond of three spam-crushing clients:

The bad news for marketers (or good news if you don't like hitting your delete key) is Mr. Biersdorfer liked ‘em all because they worked.

Bottom line, if you are thinking you can acquire new clients with email—forget it.

Seriously. If you get nothing from this article, get that. Forget buying lists. The in-box is a lousy place to start a customer dialog, unless you don't mind associating your brand with Nigerian banking schemes, penis enlargements, and all the Xanax you can eat.

Open rates are dubious now, as are opt-out numbers. People aren't opting out anymore, they just flag you—their in-bound email client takes care of the rest. Opt-out metrics are more dubious than they've ever been and are getting more so.

So what to do?

Say you want to start a newsletter. Email harvesting is critical. I'm not talking about spidering for addresses either. How you harvest means everything. We used to love the theory of “double opt in” but that technique is loosing its validity as you read this. In our opinion, permission is not enough anymore—believe it or not.

Names and addresses are propagating everywhere. Data appending is hot, and efforts to stop it are falling flat.

The only sure way to get people involved in a dialog with you is for them to start it—to send you an email and put your address in their address book. More work to be sure, but a dialog requires two-way communication. Spam-killing software will demand it.

You're going to need an in-bound strategy of some kind to maintain the health of your email database. Without it, data attrition will be invisible and devastating. Your ability to plan and measure will vanish without warning.

Low barriers to entry, lowered expense, and a savvier consumer make it harder now than ever to use the email channel—but you can. You MUST give people a contact name and engage with them actively and repeatedly. Reconsider your online forms and consider an inbound method to collect addresses with a mailto: command instead. Confirm with an email response and click through activity to assure your customers identify you as a trusted relationship to their own email management software.

Email is still a great way to communicate with customers, but it is now—officially—a horrible way to prospect.

So before you launch any email program make sure it's about customer retention and not about acquisition. And even then, don't assume it's working until you can verify that with metrics other than open and opt-out rates.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Barnes is CEO of Mediathink (www.mediathink.com), a consultancy specializing in media and marketing strategy and implementation. Contact him at tom@mediathink.com.