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E-Mail in Danger of Becoming Neutered as a Business Tool?

by Kevin Bramlett

Everyone knows that e-mail is the most-used and most-useful Internet tool. Oh sure, the Web is the darling of the media, all glammed up with graphics, sound files, and tricky new Java applets, but it's e-mail that gets the job done. Sadly, that may be changing.

Spammers, those dim-witted or unscrupulous get-rich-quick-types who market indiscriminately to thousands, even millions of e-mail addresses, without regard to whether the recipient has any conceivable interest in the product, are seriously affecting the acceptance of e-mail as a business communication tool. Also known as bulk e-mailers, their tactics include using false headers to disguise their origins, and other dishonest behaviors.

Recently, I directly experienced how their abuse of e-mail is creating an atmosphere of distrust and conflicting communication protocols among businesses Online. Of necessity, all businesses are typically "open" to new business ideas, new markets, and ways to develop new profit centers. But with the advent of uncounted waves of Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (UCE), many business people in the Online community have had enough.

My company produces Information products with excellent benefits to specific target markets. As any reasonable business person would, I set out to find concentrations of those who could benefit from using these products. I found that many firms exist Online whose customer base matches quite closely the target markets we seek. Therefore, a great opportunity seemed to exist to partner with these firms in offering the products to their clients. However, contacting these firms about establishing partnerships has proven to be anything but simple and easy.

I started out by researching on various search engines and directories to find potential companies to contact, firms who met specific criteria. Then I located (in their own information postings) an appropriate e-mail address for each of the firms, individually, and built a list of addresses. Next, I prepared a web page with complete information about my company's partnership proposal. Finally, I sent a brief e-mail to the contact list, explaining who I was, a concise explanation of the business proposal, and a link to the web page for more information.

Now, at this point, I was not unaware of the controversy surrounding spam on the Internet; I spend far too much time there to be blind to such an enormous issue. But it was my understanding that the tactics used by Spammers included sending millions of e-mails to untargeted recipients, using 'stealth' e-mail software to unscrupulously hijack other mail servers without their owners' permission, advertising deceptive, 'snake-oil' type offers, disguising their true origin by forging e-mail headers, and never inviting message recipients to the Spammer's own website.

In my mind, then, I was a 'legitimate' business person, communicating in the open to companies that had a very conceivable interest in my offer, and without the standard operating procedures that mark the Spammer so clearly. It did not occur to me that my message would be perceived as a Spam.

Nevertheless, I was surprised at the response I received. Oh sure, some recipients ignored my message, and a few responded positively with requests for more information. But some recipients took strong offense at my e-mail. I received some flames, and at least one threat to contact my ISP about revoking my account (luckily, I reasoned with the individual, and through the process of communication we came to understand each other's position better).

Think about this: if even one person perceives it as Spam, then it is Spam. Therein lies the danger. E-mail is no longer a safe tool for conducting business! In the current climate, even a legitimate attempt to establish a business relationship can be perceived as UCE, and the sender can find himself on the receiving end of flames, complaints to his ISP, posting in various Newsgroups dedicated to ridiculing Spammers, mailbombs, and other painful attacks.

Interestingly enough, after my initial experience, I stopped e-mailing potential partner companies, and started calling them on the phone. Almost universally, they asked me to send them the information via - you guessed it - e-mail! And most of them sounded perplexed when I explained that I found them on the Internet, but I was calling them instead of e-mailing. These are the same people who in large numbers automatically responded negatively to my e-mail message!

As someone who is deeply involved in Internet Commerce, and dedicated to the principles of Netiquette, the event was certainly a wake-up call for me.

And what's the moral to the story? Well, there's the obvious: - Be very careful how and to whom you market using e-mail, - Opt-in e-mail lists are the only safe way to market via e-mail, and - Just because YOU don't think it's UCE, your recipients (who are potential clients / partners, don't forget) may have had a barrelful already, and THEY are the final judges.

But more importantly, this story is related to generate discussion on the point that surely there is some definition of direct online marketing that qualifies as legitimate. Not every message sent with the intention of conducting business is the product of an unscrupulous mind, or of a deceiving, dishonest person. Surely businesses of every kind can not afford to eliminate true viable business opportunities, simply because of the medium in which they are communicated.

In the ongoing debate over bulk e-mail advertising, UCE, and Spam, negotiations should include some means of establishing guidelines for using e-mail safely, effectively, and unobtrusively in the pursuit of commerce. I know that many in the Online community believe that to leave any hole unplugged is to invite the professional Spammers to wriggle through once more; however, I believe that the minds capable of conceiving and implementing the greatest communication infrastructure the world has ever known can find solutions to these issues without wholesale elimination of the medium as a business communication tool.

Article by Kevin Bramlett (Kevin@WorldWideGuide.com) and WorldWide Guide, providers of unique and powerful Internet Instructional Video Courses, and publishers of ECOM: The Newsletter of Electronic Commerce (subscribe@WorldWideGuide.com). Find out how you can get a FREE Internet Business Video by visiting http://www.WorldWideGuide.com, and FREE Special Reports by autoresponder(GuideList@WorldWideGuide.com).

Tags: E-commerce and Internet



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