Drawing the Line: Your Thoughts

Posted by Matt Blumberg on

Matt Blumberg
By Matt Blumberg
CEO & Chairman

A few years back when we launched our blog, we disabled the comments feature because we got far too much spam and far too little actual conversation. Boy am I sorry for that! My post last week, Drawing the Line, drew a number of insightful comments by email. With the permission of those readers I’m going to share some of those comments here. (Meanwhile, a mirror post on my personal blog, OnlyOnce, drew a few public comments with similar themes.) Look for a third post in a few days which outlines where we come out on the debate.

The overwhelming consensus was that we should not treat legal businesses in “sin” industries any different than any other business. This position was articulated best by Dean F. Sutherland who wrote: “Stick to email practices and legality. Leave questions of morality to the private decisions of private folks. After all, one man’s morality is another man’s bad joke… and vice versa.”

In fact, writer Thomas Kellar cited automobiles, insurance and pharmaceuticals, among others, as industries that might also be considered sinful. He, along with a few other writers, objected to the inclusion of guns on our list, which are protected by the Second Amendment.

Ed Levinson posed the question “As to legislating morality, who would you permit to legislate their morality over you?” but also suggests the need for some sort of policy by asking “Is there a clear policy of the kinds of clients you’ll take and those you won’t? Do your people know what it is? You can, of course, decide the clients with whom you’ll work but you don’t sound as though you want to be capricious. Clarity is the key.”

An anonymous writer took this idea a step further by proposing a scoring system for Sender Score Certified that takes industry into account. But this writer also pointed out the problem with defining sin industries.

Nancy Harris of Fishbowl Marketing discussed how her company handles these issues. “On a much, much smaller scale we have encountered this with some clients. As you know, Fishbowl provides email marketing services for the restaurant industry. We have been approached by strip clubs and gentleman’s clubs to sign up for our services. We have handled this by being extremely diligent with the list collection practices. If someone double opts in for this type of client we can be somewhat sure that the member wishes to receive these messages. We also have a separate IP that we send this type of [message from] with limited deliverability support. We do not send pornography but some of these messages contain images have a lot more character then our typical messages with a burger, fries and milkshake.” This comment also points to an issue I raised in my original post – is the sending of email fundamentally different from our tools business, which provides marketers with visibility into what happens to email after it has been sent? And then is that different again from our consulting services and the Sender Score Certified whitelist, both of which help mailers get to the inbox.

Meanwhile, Catherine Jefferson took the argument beyond the question of “who gets to decide what’s moral?” by writing “I’d strongly object to refusing Sender Score Certified status to a company simply because their product or service is objectionable to some people, or (even more) because their industry has a lot of companies that spam. There’s already too much confusion between “Net Nanny” concerns and spam prevention; please don’t add to it!”

Robert Zager agreed that Return Path should stay out of the morality business, but offered the following suggestion: “You might offer an ‘inappropriate content’ tool for use with challenging senders that permits recipients to report over-the-line conduct of senders. No doubt, the Playboy list will use this tool differently that the Watchtower list. Let the recipients judge the content and the response of the recipients can be a Sender Score factor.”

Of course, a few writers felt that Return Path should have standards that take into account the business of our clients, however messy that might be. On writer, who wished to remain anonymous, suggests the “holiday dinner” test – Would you be embarrassed to tell relatives and friends you work on this account?

This writer also alluded to the possible business impact of being associated with “sin” industries. This line of thinking was best articulated by Tremaine Lea who wrote “I’d have to say that so long as Return Path standards are met and maintained, there is clearly a need and market for delivering your company’s service to these grey area companies. I think the real question is, will existing not-grey customers be concerned about their image if they utilize the same services as a grey/morally ambiguous sender? And will that impact your existing business? Unfortunately, I’d have to say the answer is yes. There is a fairly vociferous moral ‘right’ movement in the U.S. at least, and I suspect they could (and would) lobby companies (your clients) effectively. Enough to be noticeable I suspect, and apply pressure to not associate themselves with companies that provide services to morally ambiguous companies. That aside, there is clearly a market need for your service to these companies. Perhaps spinning off something to address that market and earn that revenue would be in order?”

I want to extend a huge thanks to everyone who offered their feedback. Your comments have been captured in full (with names redacted, where requested) to share with the internal team that is currently working on our policies. As I mentioned up top, look for a third post on this in the next week or so.


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About Matt Blumberg

Matt Blumberg founded Return Path in 1999 because he believed the world needed email to work better. Matt is passionate about enhancing the online relationship between email subscribers and marketers so that both sides of the equation benefit. It is with great pride that he has watched this initial creation grow to a company of more than 400 employees with the market leading brand, innovative products, and the email industry’s most renowned experts. Before Return Path, Matt ran marketing, product management, and the internet group for MovieFone, Inc. (later acquired by AOL). Prior to that he served as an associate with private equity firm General Atlantic Partners and was a consultant with Mercer Management Consulting. He holds a B.A. from Princeton University. You can learn much more about Matt by reading his email marketing and entrepreneurship blog Only Once – one of the first CEO blogs on the Internet. Last year he wrote a book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.

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