October 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

The ultimate spam filter: consumer choice

DoubleClick`s recent survey highlights what is for legitimate marketers a disturbing reaction to flooded online mailboxes: fed up consumers are expanding their definition of spam to include even some permission-based e-mail.

DoubleClick Inc.’s recent survey highlights what is for legitimate marketers a disturbing reaction to flooded online mailboxes: fed up consumers are expanding their definition of spam to include even some permission-based e-mail. In Double Click’s Consumer Email Study, released in October, 65% of men and 56% of women say they’ve broadened their definition of spam to include “e-mail from a company that I have done business with but that comes too often.” Some 61% of men surveyed specifically said that they view e-mails that are permission-based but that come too frequently as spam, as did 55% of the women surveyed. Moreover, though e-mail marketers tend to define spam as unsolicited materials sent in very high volumes to compiled lists, consumers define it more broadly. 36% of men and 32% of women now consider as spam “any e-mail that tries to sell me a product or service.”

Rising consumer intolerance of spam could be construed as bad news for e-mail marketers, as any e-mail that recipients even suspect to be spam is most often deleted without further investigation. According to the survey, 65% of consumers delete what they regard as spam without reading it, up from 60% year ago; and only 4% even bother to determine if it is something that might be of interest.

An e-mail preference

Yet DoubleClick’s data show that despite spam proliferation, consumers do like receiving some permission-based communications from marketers. A total of 91% say they receive some kind of permission-based e-mail, with 57.2% receiving special offers from online merchants, 55.4% receiving them from traditional retailers, and 48.5% getting them from catalogers. Most consumers-59%-prefer permission-based e-mail as a way to receive information from retailers on new products, services or promotions, while only 32.1% prefer direct mail for that purpose.

What constitutes unwelcome e-mail varies so greatly among the individuals receiving it that hard and fast rules on frequency and content aren’t generally helpful to marketers-the exception being those rules set by consumers themselves. To avoid winding up in the deleted spam file and to increase the chances that the e-mails they do send get favorable attention, smart online marketers are going beyond simply enlisting customers’ permission to contact them to giving those customers more choices about what form that contact should take.

Customer preferences upfront

The Bombay Co., for example, whose e-mail marketing to customers already is permission-based, over the next several months plans to further refine its approach to e-mail according to customer preferences, according to Matt Corey, vice president of e-commerce and marketing.

LandsEnd.com already puts customer preferences at the center of its e-mail marketing efforts, with a permission-based e-mail newsletter that goes to customers at a frequency determined by the customer at registration time. The newsletter in all cases leads off with a short feature report to entertain and engage recipients, most often a “slice of life” item on the rural corporate hometown of Dodgeville, Wis. Beyond, that, however, any product information that’s included varies with customers’ registered preferences-men’s or women’s apparel, for example, or children’s gear or home furnishings. “People love to read our newsletter,” says a Lands’ End spokesman. “And then if they do decide to shop, they’re looking at information they want to receive.”

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