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Incentive programs meet email ads

An Internet start-up thinks it has found a foolproof way of not only delivering email advertising to Netizens but also getting them to ask for it.

Steve Markowitz thinks he has found a foolproof way of not only delivering email advertising to Netizens but also getting them to ask for it. The idea: Pay surfers to receive the ads.

Markowitz is the president and chief executive of start-up Intellipost, which today is launching BonusMail, a new service that offers Netizens points in exchange for signing up to receive email advertisements. The points work like frequent-flier miles: Once a surfer has accumulated enough of them, he or she can trade them in for prizes, such as real frequent-flier miles.

People get points for opting into various aspects of the program; they get a certain amount of points for signing up, for filling out profiles, for receiving email, and then for replying to the mail to show that they've read it. They also get points if they actually act upon the information contained in the ad.

Intellipost is not the first company to pay people to look at ads. As corporate America tries to find ways to further extend its advertising reach on the Net, it has become rather inventive with other incentive programs to make people look at commercial advertisements.

Ploys range from giving people products to doling out free email accounts and, in some cases, free access.

Markowitz said that beta tests have shown that at least his incentive program actually works and gets email advertisements to people without angering them, the way that spam, or unsolicited email, does. "We have found a way--a very respectable and socially responsible way-- to market to people by email." But it certainly isn't the only way, and some question whether it will prove to be the right solution.

NetCreations has been offering an opt-in email advertising service, PostMaster Direct, for more than a year, according to Rosalind Resnick, president of the company.

Three million people have subscribed to receive email advertisements in 3,000 categories, Resnick said. NetCreations will use those lists to send out email to people according to their interests.

The major difference between PostMaster Direct and services like BonusMail is the reward system. "We don't offer them anything. The only thing we give them is email about topics they've requested to receive," Resnick noted. "We don't give them free email; we don't give them points; we don't bribe them with anything to get them to sign up."

Resnick added she has no idea whether incentive programs will work, but she said her service has done so well--with the average response rate ranging from seven to ten percent--without offering anything precisely because it takes off on the Internet paradigm, not the postal service paradigm.

On the Net, she said, people are used to signing up for information by topic, through the use of email, for example. "People opt in because they're interested. We're taking on one of the original paradigms on the Internet and extending it to marketing. Others are taking what postal [marketing services] are doing and trying to graft it on the Net."

But, she added, while some people may sign up for an incentive-based service because they want the free stuff and not because they're interested in the products, the concept could prove to be profitable. "The jury's still out."

Markowitz said, however, that his product has worked in beta testing, which shows that people actually do read through the email ads.

While the two companies--and many others like them--differ in approach, they both share the same goal: to get email ads to people without spamming them. If nothing else, that is sure to be a popular concept in a Net community sometimes violently hostile to unsolicited junk email.