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UPS delivers message on Net

In perhaps a harbinger of times to come, UPS is turning to the Web and to email during its strike to reach out nearly instantaneously to its customers, many of whom are Net-savvy.

In perhaps a harbinger of times to come, UPS is turning to the Web and to email during its strike to reach out nearly instantaneously to its customers, many of whom are Net-savvy.

Not only is UPS constantly updating its Web site with its position on the labor dispute, but also it is using email. UPS's marketing department sent out an email survey on Friday to "people who had made contact to UPS [via email] prior to July" to gauge their opinions about the possible strike and UPS service in general, said company spokeswoman Patricia Steffen.

Although many have long been using their Web sites to post information, some companies have only really begun using email and internal networks. When they do, they try to be very careful.

While smaller firms and Internet start-ups are jumping onto the unsolicited bulk email wagon in increasing numbers, for the most part, larger, mainstream companies have been biding their time, reluctant to take their direct mail practices to the Net.

It's no wonder. With the Net community--from old-timers who remember the days before the Web to newbies who are just logging on--so dead set against unsolicited junk email, companies take their chances of alienating more people than they attract every time they sent out spam.

Sometimes, companies take the chance, hoping to target their email well enough so that the people who get it actually want it, or the very least don't complain.

Booksellers Barnes and Noble and have both recently come under fire for sending out unsolicited, albeit targeted, email to advertise books.

In the case of UPS, the mailing went out to about 2,500 people, Steffen said. Because the mailing was only sent to those who had contacted UPS themselves by email, she added, they were more likely to appreciate it.

"I think everything we do these days has to be weighed, considering the climate out there. But it was important to get customer feedback," Steffen noted.

Of course, not everyone appreciated it. Some were downright angry. Take Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a site that focuses on junk email and other hot-button privacy issues.

Catlett figured that UPS got his email address when he wrote to the company regarding privacy concerns with the signatures of those who receive packages.

"The only reason they had my email address was because I complained to them about their practice of distributing my signature to anyone who had my shipping number," he said, referring to UPS's somewhat controversial policy. "I resented it."

Catlett is a case study on how email can backfire; most companies are well aware of the danger. "Marketers are experimenting and testing the medium," said Chet Dalzell, a spokesman for the Direct Marketing Association. "I think mainstream marketers are cautious, to say the least, in their use of unsolicited commercial email, not because they don't think it could be valuable but because currently, the issue of unsolicited bulk email or spam dominates the email landscape."

Even when the mass mailing is highly targeted, companies run the risk of angering customers. But sometimes they decide that the risk is worth it because email is such an immediate medium, Dalzell added.

"Any company that engages in an email campaign has to weigh in netiquette, the urgency of the message, and the need for response," he said. Certainly if they're using a targeted list, those messages are probably very welcome."

Whether the unsolicited messages really are welcome, however, is the $64,000 question.