The Wild Card

By Deborah Gage  |  Posted 2003-11-01 Print this article Print

The legislative rush to curb telemarketing and spam makes it hard to sell electronically. Even if you keep your data clean, no silver bullet prevents lawsuits.

The Wild Card

The wild card is how well companies will be able to manage their data. Publishers Clearing House uses a combination of DoubleClick and internally developed software to track every click when a customer visits its Web site. The marketer records the date, time, Internet address and e-mail address every time information is entered or changed.

But that technical challenge is relatively simple compared to the one faced by a multinational company. In the short term, Blundon says, it's "a few weeks and tens of thousands of dollars" to scrub a database against a customer list. But scrubbing a name from every salesperson's laptop in every division in every country is a daunting task.

"If I'm a credit-card company and you have my card, can I call you and sell you insurance?" he asks. "That's not true in the U.K. Trying to consolidate databases is a big issue; then sharing information across the company is a big issue."

For now, many companies are struggling.

In response to the telemarketing and spam backlash, some marketers are looking for new sales channels they can control. AT&T Consumer wants to use its Web site to contact customers, although a spokesman says it is "too early" to discuss how the site will work.

Pitney Bowes, in a back-to-the-future approach to paper mail, developed software that allows the insertion of custom advertisements on bills and then tracks envelopes through the mail using bar codes. Companies can send out highly targeted advertising and will also know when the check is on the way. Intelligent mail-handling tools are generating interest among companies such as Lands' End and American Express, which tend not to acquire new customers through telemarketing, notes Ken Landoline, vice president of the Robert Frances Group, a technology analyst firm.

Carnival Cruise Lines is in a different position. Trevor Johnson, Carnival's technical architect for Siebel Systems software, says Do Not Call has knocked a quarter of the customers out of Carnival's database.

Conflicting advice is abundant. Extraprise discourages clients from using e-mail at all as a marketing tool because spammers have polluted it. Digital Impact, which handles e-mail marketing for Fortune 500 companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Citibank, disagrees. That company is even offering to represent businesses in small-claims court should the need arise.

But Extraprise and Digital Impact agree on this: When in doubt, do not contact. In the meantime, clean up your data.

Blundon tells clients to update the schema for all customer databases with fields indicating how and when they have agreed to be contacted (and add spare fields for future use). Propagate changes across the network and any local databases, have local I.T. people audit the changes, and then "test, test, and test your databases for compliance."

Digital Impact general counsel, Ken Hirschman, says clients should be able to track Internet addresses. The goal: Show the particular date a customer visited a company's Web site and record the page where he or she gave consent.

"[Anti-spam lawsuits] may be a temporary issue," says Hirschman."Clients who do have less-than-stellar permission practices or sloppy databases will clean them up. Will it have any impact on spammers? No. They are impossible to find."

Meanwhile, the volume of spam as a percentage of legitimate e-mail continues to rise. Brightmail, which develops spam-blocking software, reports that 54% of all e-mail sent in September was spam. This is up from 38% in September 2002, and 18% the previous April.

Those numbers have led to discussions about ways to strengthen the technical infrastructure of the Internet, which was designed to be open, making it easy for spammers to spoof both their identities and the origins of their messages. One proposal would "white-list" legitimate senders of e-mail and filter out the rest.

But any technical fix would have to rise above the interests of individual parties—including Internet service providers, software vendors, and the government—and would not completely eliminate spam.

"We need strong legislation and an effective defense system," says François Levaste, vice president of marketing at Brightmail. "There is no single silver bullet."

Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.


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