- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

CHICAGO — Most e-mail marketers don’t want to send advertisements to people who don’t want them, and they certainly don’t want their messages to be lumped in with the unwanted and often deceptive e-mail known as spam.

But accomplishing this has been increasingly difficult because spammers have corrupted some of the most basic rules that govern how marketers should interact with their customers, privacy advocates say.

Marketers here this week for a conference sponsored by the International Association of Privacy Professionals said one of their biggest problems centers on the method by which customers try to remove themselves from marketing lists.

Marketers said the practice of “unsubscribing” from these lists — usually by clicking on a link or replying to a message — has been corrupted by spammers, who rarely comply with such requests.

Moreover, technology analysts said contacting spammers to unsubscribe from a list will only let them know that you are an active e-mail user capable of receiving more messages.

Carl Hutzler, director of antispam operations at AOL, the world’s largest Internet service provider, said spammers will pay higher prices for lists of e-mail addresses that they know are used.

As a result, legitimate marketers said they are constantly devising ways to make their marketing campaigns less intrusive, more targeted and, ultimately, less spamlike.

“I do believe there is a great degree of fear and concern over the unsubscribes,” said Michelle Zeller, Director of Customer Relationship Management for Eastman Kodak Co., which sends millions of e-mail messages to customers who ask for tips or special offers related to their camera and film products. “We have to have very strict and rigorous ways of managing ourselves.”

Ms. Zeller said most Kodak customers trust the company enough to use the unsubscribe option.

Kodak is always working to make sure customers don’t become overwhelmed with marketing e-mail and accuse the company of spamming, she said.

Kodak sends marketing e-mail to customers about once every three weeks and, like many retailers, allows customers to choose which type of messages they want.

In the past year, many Internet providers, including AOL and Netzero, have begun to offer services that allow e-mail users to report a message as spam.

Marketers and online retailers said that many users have begun to report legitimate marketing e-mail as spam, under the belief that it will be more effective than an unsubscribe function in getting their address removed from a list.

As a result, many legitimate companies have been issued warnings by Internet providers and in some cases have been placed on “block lists” that identify spammers.

Marketers said they have learned the hard way they need to be cautious when advertising via e-mail. Many companies only send advertisements to previous purchasers, and marketers said this week that the industry is gradually moving toward a standard that would require all e-mail advertising to be sent only to those who have specifically asked for it.

Furthermore, marketers have backed a series of campaigns that would allow e-mail users to get a better sense of which companies they can trust.

Many have pushed for a system that would give certification to companies that follow a set of standards. Those with certification would be permitted to use a special logo letting customers know the seller can be trusted.

The conference was attended by more than 100 privacy advocates, online retailers and marketers, many of whom have been involved in the fight against spam. Federal Trade Commission officials and state privacy leaders also attended.

No one at the conference argued on behalf of spammers, who technology analysts have blamed for costing businesses more than $10 billion each year in services and lost productivity.

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