AIM Releases Long-Awaited E-Mail Best Practices

After months of delays and rancor, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)’s Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM) on Thursday released recommended best practices for the delivery of e-mail marketing messages.

The eight-page document posted on the AIM Web site instructs commercial e-mailers on the steps they can take to avoid getting tagged as spam by Internet service providers. However, the guidelines fail to address the definition of spam. (Read the document here.)

“Ultimately, our perspective on that was that it was irrelevant concerning delivery practices,” said Michael Della Penna, an executive at e-mail marketing firm Bigfoot Interactive and co-chair of AIM’s Council on Responsible E-mail (CRE). “Ultimately, the ISPs can base their decision on blocking on consumer complaints.”

The decision to avoid the topic angered many e-mail marketers, who claim the DMA is watering down the recommendations. In August, when the DMA last put a halt to the release of the recommendations, some e-mail marketers quit AIM to protest what they perceived as the DMA’s obstructionist behavior.

“This is a document that had to be approved by the DMA,” said Kevin George, an executive at e-mail service provider SilverPop and co-chair of CRE. “The DMA has its own reasons and rationale for not including a definition of spam. What it really boils down to is, there is no definition of spam.”

Michael Mayor, chief executive of e-mail list provider NetCreations and critic of the DMA, said the best practices are worthwhile but still lacked the crucial element of a spam definition.

“I think people should look what’s in the document, not what’s missing,” Mayor said. “However, I think it is important for this industry to define unsolicted e-mail, because if we don’t do it, we leave it to the legislators to define it.”

Louis Mastria, a spokesman for the DMA, said the best practices document was not the right venue for hashing out a definition of spam.

“This document is specific to e-mail delivery best practices,” said Louis Mastria, a spokesman for the DMA. “[Spam] is an impediment to delivery, but it’s not the same thing as delivery.”

Mayor, who chairs the e-mail committee at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), said the IAB would soon release just such a definition in conjunction with the Network Advertising Initiative and TRUSTe.

“We have to get consensus with this industry to get a definition of unsolicited e-mail out there,” he said.

Another DMA critic, Rapp Digital executive Ian Oxman, agreed that the best practices will be an important guide for responsible e-mail marketing, but withheld praise for the DMA.

The only reason the DMA released it was because of how much heat they’ve taken from AIM and the CRE members,” he said. “It was only because people within the industry continued to fight.”

Della Penna, while acknowledging the rancor caused by the DMA’s decision to not define spam, said the finished product constituted a “foundation” for commercial e-mailers to help solve the spam problem.

“I think people will be really happy with the finished product,” he said. “The end product is the result of all those different perspectives and is a better document for it.”

The best practices cover nuts-and-bolts issues of sending commercial e-mail, with recommendations on obtaining permission; message content; delivery; list hygiene; consumer and ISP education; and dealing with complaints.

On the nettlesome issue of permission, the document recommends use of opt-in, as “affirmative consent,” while recognizing opt-out as a form of “consent.” George said the provision was influenced by California’s recently passed anti-spam bill requires that commercial e-mailers receive “direct consent” from consumers.

Oxman, who worked on the best practices until quitting AIM to protest the DMA’s spam stance, said earlier versions were explicit in requiring adherence, instead of suggesting.

“The DMA was concerned that while they’re lobbying legislators to push down requirements, we as an industry were raising the bar,” he said.

While many bulk commercial e-mailers already abide by many of the best practices, Della Penna said too many have lax practices, a point that many ISPs have made to the commercial e-mail community in response to complaints that their legitimate e-mail is often blocked.

“The surprising thing is a lot of legitimate marketers don’t know the basics,” he said. “It puts the spotlight on things you really need to pay attention to.”

Della Penna said he expects the document will change in the next year or two, as new problems arise and in response to any federal legislation. After that, they will become official guidelines that are required of AIM members.

The release comes at a busy time for the DMA, which has been front and center in the national debate over the federal Do Not Call list. The DMA has come under criticism for its half-hearted efforts to help enforce the ban.

“The DMA was juggling many, many things,” he said. “It was definitely a long process, but I think the final document is a good piece of work.”

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