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 were right.

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 completely.

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—using either Bayesian filtering or a Challenge/Response mechanism—allow the individual, rather than the ISP, company or email provider, to easily control exactly which messages can and can't get through.

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 want.

The implications for email marketing are also critical. What percent of your recipients will actively select your email to be kept? Your current “open” 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.

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Adam Smithline Mr. Smithline is Principal of Smithline Interactive Marketing