“You’re doing it all wrong,” the owner of a group of content portals said to me. “The way to do it,” once you start a website, is to get a team of people to scrape email addresses from the web, and spam the hell out of them. If they want to opt out, they can do it. We do this with every website we launch. Once they’re in, you can make money sending mailers, or you go and pitch that database to an advertiser.” 

This was a couple of years ago. We’d met outside a popular pub in Bombay, and I had been, in a way, cribbing about MediaNama’s small email newsletter base (even now around 3400-3500). To me, this was (and is) the most valuable reader base, and despite the fact that we have a significant number reading us via RSS and a substantially large Twitter reader base (almost 44,000), there is some sentimental value I attach to those to visit us multiple times a day directly, and read our daily newsletter readers, because they spend maximum time reading us. Still, I hate spam and we have an only-opt-in-and-no-spam policy for our newsletter – we do not add you to the newsletter without your permission, and we at max, communicate MediaNama related developments. Now that that’s out of the way, here are some of the things about email marketing that I’ve heard of and/or noticed (difficult to validate some of this), and followed up with a confession right at the end.

This post has been instigated by something that OnlyGizmos reported over the weekend: that Rocket Internet backed FoodPanda had sent out emailers to a database of LetsBuy users. That information was shared with OnlyGizmos by Aditya Sengupta of InstaMojo, who (smartly), creates a separate email address on the fly for many sites he signs up with. For example, he claims he created an email address letsbuy@… and FoodPanda sent out an emailer to that address.

– Sharing or selling of conferences databases by organizers: When you sign up for a conference, your email address becomes public property. We’ve heard of instances of some of the top global ventures that ensure that email databases are received as a part of a sponsorship deal. In our case, it happened once that a sponsor didn’t notice a no user data sharing clause in our sponsorship contract, and was a little upset when we refused to share it. Apparently it is common practice. When you sign up for a conference, do check about their privacy policy. For us, it’s a sponsorship dealbreaker.

– Sharing or Selling of  databases by websites: publishers sometimes offer their database to marketers, we’ve heard, so that marketers can send emailers via their own internal mailer platforms. Then, of course, marketers use these multiple times.

– Scraping of email addresses from the web, opting users in: It’s auto opt-in, until you choose to opt out, whereas the ideal approach should be one of auto opt out. When we get a business card, we sometimes (not always) send a request to sign up, or an email asking for a confirmation, but never opt people in.

– Poor unsubscription practices: The unsubscribe link in the newsletter doesn’t work, and goes to a database error or a 404 error page. You don’t know how to unsubscribe.

– Constantly changing email addresses: websites constantly change the email addresses, porting who have been unable to unsubscribe, or marked an email address as spam. For example, mailer@abcx3fsaf.com will become new-mailer@abcx3fsaf.com or mailer@in.abcx3fsaf.com or mailer@abcx3fsaf.in

– Poor data base storage practices: wherein publishers share their database within their organization by uploading an excel or a text file on the web. Sounds incredulous, but it has happened. I’ve come across such a database myself.

– Employees stealing databases for mailers: data security issues abound when you store your database in your own mailer software instead of a public one. Employees can steal this info. I’ve heard of an instance where a publishers employee took the entire database, started a new website publishing mostly press releases, and offering mailers to potential clients at Rs 10,000-15,000 an emailer. (p.s.: we don’t do paid mailers. Only newsletter ads)

– Sharing of databases by email marketing companies: We’ve heard rumors of email marketing vendors that offer targeted database from other clients, just in case the publisher they want signing up doesn’t have it.

– Pooling of databases by publishers and companies: This is something which was attempted in the past, and it is a grey area: For example, you might be giving your database to your bank. Multiple banks could monetize this database by sharing this information with a single entity, that brings in campaigns. As a user, you haven’t signed up to be marketed to. Your bank is your vendor, and ideally, they shouldn’t be sending these mailers.

A confession: While we were organizing the #NAMA Conference, the signups were not taking place quickly enough, and there as tremendous pressure to increase sign up. Someone shared a database with us for marketing to, but eventually, we didn’t do it. There are monetary pressures and pressures to deliver can be particularly high in some cases. In the end, the conference did go off well and we didn’t send that mailer out, but frankly, I regret even considering the option.

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That said, we at MediaNama do occasionally send out an email (typically once a quarter) to potential advertisers who have been in touch with us, or have advertised earlier. I’m not sure of the best way to approach that, because it is akin to cold-calling, so if there is a better method, do let us know. Also, we’re not taking a holier-than-thou stand, but I just thought it necessary to clarify our position on some these practices, and let people know what has been going on.

Also, you might notice that no names are named in this email, apart from developments reported elsewhere. This is because many of these points are via informal conversations over the last few years.