When is email marketing spam?

Like it or not, email is still the best way to reach a mass audience--and even community sites and online services are willing to use it.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
4 min read
Like it or not, email is still the best way to reach a mass online audience--and even community sites and online services are willing to use it.

The question that remains unanswered is whether these companies are providing an additional service or if they are overstepping the bounds with Net users.

Take America Online, for example. The world's largest online service, which has actively fought spam by taking perpetrators to court, admits it has a policy in place that would allow it to send mass emailings to members, but it just has chosen not to do so yet.

On the other hand, there are companies, such as community site Xoom, that are openly using mass email to supplement revenue. Instead of viewing pop-up and banner ads the way they would with competitors GeoCities and Tripod, Xoom members agree to have mass promotional email messages sent to them in exchange for free home page building and other community features. The firm adopted this strategy to lure users who have been angered by other sites that use pop-ups or banners.

"We don't use email to promote different benefits to AOL members," said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. "We haven't sent [mass email] in the past. We could do it, but we allow members to opt out of the promotions."

AOL users have the choice to click a box that turns off the default setting, under which a user agrees to be sent mass emailings from the online service and its partners. But members--many of whom are new to the Web--are likely to be unaware that the option exists or how much their choice will affect their experience with the service. The preference can only be turned off when users access their subscription's marketing preferences.

AOL maintains that it is not violating anyone's privacy or practicing the techniques adopted by its spamming adversaries. As Primrose pointed out, AOL said that it has never sent a mass email to its members over its servers. Instead, it prefers using pop-up ads for internal promotions. But if it were to send email, AOL maintained that the move would not be hypocritical.

However, some antispammers disagree with AOL's assessment.

Ray Everett-Church, founder of antispam group the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, criticized AOL for requiring its users to actively turn off the default preference for receiving email and other marketing tools such as pop-up ads.

"It's nice that they give folks the opportunity to opt out of some solicitations, but it's certainly not convenient for the spam default to be 'on' instead of 'off,'" he said.

Others, however, said AOL's policy does not violate any consumer trust, given its opt-out policy.

"Per se, there's nothing wrong with it," said David Simons, managing director of Digital Video Investments, noting that Netizens "don't have the opportunity to opt out of spam."

"I think that if there's a problem, one could argue that it's a little difficult exercising those opt-out options," Simons admitted. "A lot of people are oblivious to the opt-out."

Not all email marketing is junk, however. Along with Xoom's membership, some Net users specifically sign up for direct marketing services, which alert them when a desired product or service has an announcement such as a sale.

But those firms toe a thin line, and so they also have adopted opt-out policies. Netizens who sign up with NetCreations, for example, choose what kinds of promotions they will receive by selecting from any number of options on the site. To sign up on a list, users have to reply to an email message confirming that they want to receive future messages. In return, NetCreations sells email addresses to third parties looking for users who are interested in what they sell on a price-per-name basis. NetCreations uses that double opt-in approach to avoid being labeled a spammer.

"Email is more effective [as a marketing tool] because it's something personal that comes to your email box," said Rosalind Resnick, president of NetCreations. "Most people see their email box as their personal space. I think when it comes to email, if you didn't specifically sign up for a list, you'd think your privacy was violated."

Whether firms are using mass email to communicate with users or as an additional revenue generator, antispammers agree that they should ask for permission first, said Jason Catlett, president of antispam advocacy group Junkbusters.

"The second rule is being extremely meticulous in respecting the extent of that permission," he said. "The main thing is, don't jump in uninvited."