Marketing group scrapes off spam label

The Direct Marketing Association creates mandatory ground rules for members sending sales pitches via e-mail in an attempt to draw a line between legitimate communications and spam.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
The Direct Marketing Association has created mandatory ground rules for members sending sales pitches via e-mail, a move designed to help avoid a government crackdown on commercial messages.

A DMA representative said the organization plans to announce the new rules governing commercial e-mail next week. The trade group, one of the largest in the United States with 5,000 members, includes such retailers as Amazon.com, Land's End and Eddie Bauer.

The move is meant to draw a line between legitimate customer communications and unsolicited commercial e-mail, better known as spam. Junk mail has become an overbearing problem for consumers and Internet service providers, which often unwittingly traffic bulk mail. Each year, lawmakers pledge to pass regulations to help stem the tide of unwanted e-mail, but lobbying efforts and unresolved differences continually quash the efforts.

With the self-imposed rules, the DMA requires members to give consumers notice and choice before sending commercial e-mail or before selling, sharing or renting their e-mail addresses to a third party. In addition, commercial e-mail must clearly identify the sender, represent the subject line accurately, and provide contact information. Above all, the marketer must let consumers opt out of further communications in every e-mail.

"DMA members will be booted out of the association if they don't follow these rules," said Jerry Cerasale, the DMA's senior vice president of government affairs.

"The Internet and e-mail is still very young, and we don't know how it's going to grow," he added. "But we want to keep the Internet as free of government regulations as possible, so our view is to set up guidelines that are decent practices."

DMA member Amazon.com said such rules are already in practice at the online retailer. Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said the company gives customers a myriad of choices related to receiving company communications.

"It sounds like we currently comply with all these rules already," she said.

Privacy advocates gave an early vote of confidence to the proposal but said they would take a wait-and-see attitude on enforcement of the rules.

"Notice and choice always have been the touchstone of fair information practice, and adopting those as the centerpiece of the DMA proposal makes tremendous sense," said Ray Everett-Church, counsel to the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE). "As always, with all industry self-regulatory efforts, the proof will be in the pudding--or in this case, in the DMA's ability to enforce these standards on their members."

Making the sale
Much is riding on direct marketer's ability to use e-mail as a selling tool. The DMA's Cerasale said catalog companies that are DMA members are garnering 25 percent to 30 percent of sales from the Internet, fueling greater use of e-mail communications. He said that about 60 percent of the DMA's members are marketers; the rest are distributors.

He drew the line that separates legitimate e-mail and spam across the company's relationship with a consumer: If a company has conducted business with a consumer and has asked up front to send e-mail to that customer, then the message is not spam.

"We view spam as sending a commercial e-mail to someone with whom a marketer has not had any prior business relationship and as being sent to someone who has not asked for the e-mail," Cerasale said.

The DMA will also require members that buy access to mailing lists--in which consumers have agreed to receive sales pitches from third parties--to check those names against an e-mail preference roster on its Web site. Addresses on this roster belong to consumers who have chosen not to receive any commercial e-mail.

Cerasale said the organization's board of directors Saturday approved the new rules, called "Commercial Solicitations Online Guidelines," but that they had yet to notify DMA members. The trade group is also working on best practices for sending commercial e-mail for later this year.

"These rules are the bottom line, the lowest common denominator," Cerasale said. "We don't want the government to come in and ban e-mail for us. So we're trying to see if we can solve some of the problems ourselves to prevent the need for regulations."