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What's an inbox worth?

As Yahoo and AOL begin charging marketers to reach the inboxes of their subscribers, it's time to consider the value of a customer's inbox. One cent? 1/4 cent?

The right inbox? Priceless.

Unwanted e-mail, or spam, continues to be an obstacle for most consumers. It's not uncommon for inboxes to average hundreds of e-mails a day, of which only five to ten percent are either welcomed or relevant. Most consumers have some degree of spam filtering in place. However, this sometimes contributes to the problem, as unsolicited messages continue to bypass filters and welcomed messages mistakenly find their way to the recycling bin.

Certified e-mail: a flawed solution

America Online and Yahoo, two of the largest providers of e-mail accounts, are about to start using Goodmail, a system that gives preferential treatment to messages from companies that pay from 1/4 of a cent to a penny each to have them delivered.
Goodmail, Yahoo and AOL tout the partnership as a means to guarantee delivery of e-mail to opt-in recipients. Critics call it an unwarranted tax. Both sides have weak cases. It's not a tax because no one is forced to pay. And it's not a solution that benefits consumers.

For responsible e-mail marketers and consumers, the end result won't look much different.

According to Goodmail, "Those who have had no issues with fraud and are satisfied with their current practices, will not need the service." And it won't significantly increase or reduce the amount of spam that consumers receive.

The only winners of initiating the surcharge are Goodmail, Yahoo, and AOL. Internet companies that adopt the practice stand to earn millions of dollars a year from such a system if it is widely adopted.

It shouldn't be. I plan to drop the Yahoo e-mail account that I've had for more than 15 years when the program becomes active on the platform. Certified e-mail is, at best, an insurance policy for reputable emarketers. At worst, it's a backlash against well-intentioned e-marketers for the unscrupulous acts of peers.

Consumer-certified e-mail: a better idea

If companies like Yahoo, AOL, Google and MSN (providers of HotMail) really want to reduce the amount of spam traffic, they should abandon Goodmail-like programs. Instead, they should consider instituting 'consumer-certified' e-mail. That is, let consumers determine fhow much unsolicited vendors must pay to reach their inbox. The actual value of an inbox is whatever it takes to have a consumer welcome an otherwise unwelcomed message. One cent? One dollar? Ten dollars?

Let the consumer decide. Let them determine who gets a free route to their box, who will have to pay for the privilege, and how much.

Such a system would allow reputable emarketers to purchase bulk e-mail addresses of individuals who are interested in their products – and pay for the privilege of reaching all of their inboxes. I can imagine a scenario where users publish some basic demographics, their interests, and the price of their inbox. Even a poorly targeted e-mail provides a small financial benefit to an aggravated consumer.

It allows consumers to both opt-in and opt-in for the right price.

Beyond opt-in: best practices in the real world

Reaching individuals who opt-in isn't enough. Although it has become the cost of entry for reputable emarketers, building an opt-in list is just the beginning. It's equally important to use the list responsibly by only delivering relevant content to your customers. One of the best ways to do this is to learn how customers are using your web site and apply what you learn to emarketing efforts.

The benefits of using web site behavior, often called "clickstream data", to power e-mail marketing campaigns can be significant. A 2005 JupiterResearch study found that, on average, targeted e-mails that leverage web site clickstream data generate nine times the revenue and 32 times the net profit when compared to "undifferentiated" campaigns. Before sending an e-mail to customers, ensure that you've answered these essential five questions:

Are you reaching the right individuals? The most valuable e-mail lists are composed of individuals who visit your web site and have at least a moderate level of interest in your products, services or industry.

What content will customers value? You may want to target promotions to individuals who recently visited your shopping cart, but failed to complete their transaction. If an individual is new to your industry, or purchases beginner's gear, it's a great time to provide some basic instruction, recommendations, or information that will increase their use and satisfaction.

When are individuals visiting your site? Are you using e-mail as a means of attracting new customers (those who visit rarely), loyal customers (those who visit often and purchase frequently) or both?

Where are individuals who visit your web site coming from? Are they visiting informational sites related to your industry? Are they searching competitors' sites?

Why should they look at your e-mail? Is the information, offer or promotion compelling? Can you communicate the relevance in the subject line? It's not uncommon for consumers to throw away e-mails, even ones they've opted into, without reading.

Until my concept of consumer-certified e-mail becomes reality. E-marketers need to work harder than ever to reach the right customers.

Troy Janisch is president and founder of the Icon Interactive Group (, an industry leader helping companies integrate Internet and other Interactive media into sales channels, marketing strategies, and overall branding. He can be contacted by e-mail at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Johnathan Crawford responded 9 years ago: #1

Your article was very good.

As Goodmail certified email moves into place at AOL and Yahoo, we are using text on our form-capture pages to purposely discourage consumers from submitting email addresses from those domains. "We can not effectively deliver mail to aol and yahoo email addresses, please use another address." If the consumer sees this enough, perhaps they will change ISP providers.

Also, you are very correct: Until the money reaches the end user, who should rightfully be getting it (not Goodmail), the problem will not be solved. For years, the recording industry has been using licensing agents like BMI and ASCAP to collect fees and in reality all, not just part, of the money should be going to the artists. Once the money starts flowing directly to the consumer, they will readily accept, and probably read, their email.

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