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COLUMBIA, S.C. – A combination of attitudes and technology is making marketing to members through the electronic channel no picnic in the park. Giving them the option to opt in or out of receiving marketing messages has long been the standard way to try to make sure members don’t feel spammed, but the growing use of e-mail filters is complicating things Filters not only screen out mail by keywords, but also by the origination of the e-mail themselves. The problem is exacerbated by the growing use of filters by Internet service providers, including the major vendors like America Online and MSN, whose latest versions include built-in spam blockers that can stop a lot of what members and their credit unions consider to be very legitimate traffic. The big boys have good reason to intervene. Unsolicited commercial e-mails, spam, comprises an estimated 70% to 80% of the traffic at large commercial domains like AOL and MSN, and about 50% of all e-mail, says Alan Mosher, research director at Probe Group, a New Jersey-based telecommunications research and advisory firm. “Spam has forced ISPs to implement additional tools that give subscribers greater control over what messages reach e-mail in-boxes. They have also had to add third-party services to intercept the bulk of spam before it reaches subscriber in-boxes,” Mosher says. Credit unions might be well served to advise their members on how to use their ISP’s options to change their settings to allow e-mail in from their credit unions. “It’s not spam if the member asks for it,” says Ron Daly, founder of Digital Mailer, a Virginia-based vendor of e-statements, electronic surveys and other member services. “But veteran CU e-mail marketers now have to seek ways back into the very in-boxes they have permission to use.” That includes asking members to add their e-mail addresses and Web sites to the “approved” list in their spam blocking software. Daly also advises credit unions to run their outbound e-mail through different filters before sending them out. Regulators also are weighing in, Daly points out. “Emerging state regulations and penalties regarding spam and controlling the amount out there, with my home state of Virginia leading the way, will mean CUs want to stay out of the spam category,” the Digital Mailer founder says. “You may have noticed the new ADV: code on the subject line of some your e-mails, or will soon. I have set my spam filter to run all e-mails with ADV in the subject line to go directly to my junk e-mail folder. But I’m nice. Most members let the software automatically delete filtered mail before reviewing,” Daly says. Please, Not Here Members may not be so nice. While generally unwelcome anyway, spam is particularly inappropriate for credit unions, given their special relationship with consumers, and that in itself presents a challenge in today’s electronic marketplace. “As credit unions increasingly venture into the world of electronic communications with members and the communities they serve, it is imperative that they maintain their strong position founded upon trust, great service and good rates, and differentiate from other services, including financial services, by NOT engaging in unsolicited e-mail marketing campaigns,” says Stephanie Shah, vice president of marketing and product management for Harland Financial Solutions. “More so, for their electronic delivery strategies to be successful, credit unions must be able to engage with members online. All the more reason to avoid spamming members,” Shah says. Brian Siegel couldn’t agree more. “It’s extremely important that member don’t perceive our e-mails as spam,” says the vice president of marketing and e-commerce at $2.5 billion Wescom Credit Union in Pasadena, Calif. “And as the volume of spam increases, consumers are becoming increasingly intolerant of e-mail thought to be spam.” Avoiding that perception goes beyond letting members decide whether they want to receive the mail in the first place, Siegel says. “We try to position our e-mails with a friendly, informative tone, with no-hard sell tactics,” he says. “We also try to target e-mails at members who are likely to be interested in the offer. For example, we would make sure that only homeowners would receive an e-mail promoting home equity loans.” That’s also the philosophy at $1 billion Northwest Federal Credit Union in Herndon, Va. “First and foremost, we don’t send unsolicited e-mail messages to our members. They must first opt in to receive them,” says Casey Krol, e-marketing specialist at NWFCU. “Second, we make sure that the messages we send have value for the member, whether we’re informing them about an upcoming first-time homebuyer or retirement planning seminar or a reduction in auto loan rates,” Krol says. Even so, there’s the issue of filters. Krol says NWFCU has had a problem with e-mails being returned as undeliverable, “due in part to spam-filtering technology. To combat this, we try to educate our members about the technology by placing information on our Web site about what they need to do to change their Internet settings to allow our e-mails through.” Wescom also has had to deal with that issue. “When putting e-mails together, we’re conscious of the key words and phrases that trigger spam filters,” Siegel says. “For example, we try to find ways to say `free’ without using that word. And before we send an e-mail to members, we send a test to accounts at Yahoo, MSN and other providers to make sure we’re not being trapped by their spam filters.” The need for such tactics is not likely to vanish soon or without some effort, including creating new standards, industry participants observe. “There is an ongoing battle between spammers and filters, and the good guys are caught in the middle,” says John-Ashley Paul, vice president of marketing for CUTech Inc., which provides e-mail marketing and member communications technology to several of Harland’s large ULTRADATA credit union clients. “There will have to be some sort of codified certification for opt-in only e-mail systems that spam filters will have to recognize for opt-in only e-mail systems that spam filters will have to recognize and automatically let through to users in that specific domain,” Paul says. “Because consumers that opt-in to receive electronic services will be a key factor in this process, look for more opt-in e-mail services working on standards that will be supported by ISPs and spam-filter software vendors,” he says. -

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