On Political Speech, DOI, and Mr. Poopyhead

Ken Magill (or shall I say, Mr. Poopyhead) makes a funny, yet very insightful point, in his recent article about an email he recently received from the Obama campaign. His article is fun, and silly, and it accurately highlights what can go wrong when you don’t confirm or verify information received from a web form.

A bit surprisingly, an email marketer has an issue with Ken's article. In his response, Dylan Boyd takes Ken Magill to task. He asks, “When you do this, do you realize how many hours a year the marketing and email marketing industry is spending to clean out crap like this?” He explains that “people that mess with email marketers data with false names, fake names, friends names, or my favorite asdf@asdf.com (look at your keyboard) make our jobs hard.”

Who, exactly, is responsible for that verification? Let’s ask Laura Atkins. She very simply says, “the problem is not that Ken gave the Obama campaign Stupid Poopyhead as his name, the problem is that the Obama campaign is not doing any data verification. Ken did give the campaign a valid email address, but there was no reason he needed to do so. Anyone could have signed up Stupid Poopyhead and put in Ken’s address.”

Very true! I'm sure Dylan is not the first or last person to ever suggest that this job wouldn't be so hard if it weren't for all those darn users. But, Dylan's argument about end consumers being the problem, polluting marketers' email streams, it just doesn't make sense to me. As Laura points out (and I agree with), Dylan's response leaves us with an incomplete understanding of what the actual problem is, and I also think that it leaves us without a solution.

Running a web form, especially one that requires that an Internet user provide information before handing over something, whether it be a login to a website, a free download, or a subscription to a political newsletter, is a bit like putting a box in the middle of the sidewalk, somewhere up the block, and writing “Please put my free kitten here!” on the side of the box. You might end up with something in it, but it most certainly is not going to be that kitten you were hoping for. No matter how hard you wish, there is no agreement between you and the people who stumble across that form that they must behave, and must act a certain way. And, if you’re a savvy marketer, if you know how email works, you already know that certain people who stumble across your form are NOT going to behave. (Unless you're just going to blindly assume that whatever you received must be a kitten, because that's what the box is for. Duh!)

So, what’s the right thing to do? Continue to complain about how unfair it is that somebody put garbage into your web form? That strikes me as unproductive. Just getting frustrated about something doesn’t fix it. You have to do more than just call out to the broader internet, or to any certain reporter, and complain that they’re not doing what you want, if you want things to get better. You need to actually take action. You need to figure out what’s broken, quantify the problem, and come up with a plan to fix it. You need to, as somebody somewhere once mentioned, TAKE A STAND.

What better way to take a stand, than to take positive action? What better way, than to share information on how to do the right thing? That way, people looking for guidance can find it. That’s my goal here; to raise the bar overall, by making sure people looking for information can find that information. By actively sharing that guidance with the people I work with, day in, day out. For everybody who fights spam, who cares about the future of email, that’s their goal – to "rise the tide" of email overall, raising everybody up to a better level, more aligned with best practices.

It strikes me that this is also an excellent goal for email marketers. Figure out how to address issues like these, to prevent bad signups, to prevent bad data. Doesn't that help them further their own marketing objectives? It seems obvious, from where I sit: Avoid bad data, discard bad signups, and you don't end up sending spam. Avoid sending spam, and more of your email gets delivered, and you make more money. Duh!

In a comment on Laura’s follow-up post, Dylan asks, “when people continue to expect to get things with false data, where does that leave us?" Uh, what? That’s actually a very easy question to answer. When people continue to expect to get things with false data, it’s time to step up, to shore up your own processes to eliminate opportunities for false data. To guide others on how to fix their processses similarly.

It sounds hard, but it’s not. It’s easy. In the case of signup forms for political email lists, it’s time for double opt-in. Going all the way back to the original article from Ken Magill, Dylan’s complaint was that Ken had entered “Stupid Poopyhead” as his name when signing up.

The true point, though, has been missed. The real issue here isn’t that Ken put in a funky name. Like Laura said, the issue is that anybody can put in a funky name for anyone else. You could go sign me up as Mr. Poopyhead. I could do the same to you, or worse. When that mail is sent, it’s horribly insulting to the recipient, and the campaign, if notified, is likely to be embarrassed. This is the primary pitfall of personalization. I’ve been down this road before, and I know how you prevent and minimize this kind of problem.

To fix it, all they really need to do is move this process to double opt-in. Duh! Why?
  1. People tend to put less garbage into a double opt-in signup form. Why? Because you tell them it’s going to be validated, they see that, and they tend to abuse it much less. Many web surfers, who were going to put in some sort of cheeky data, realize that it’s going to get them nowhere, so they don’t bother. This is one of those “I don’t know why it works, but it does” kind of things. I have been there, done that, and I have the t-shirt to prove it. When I worked for a large e-commerce service provider lo those many years, I saw ample evidence, multiple examples, time and time again, that when you confirm signups through double opt-in, or even if you ask for a credit card number during a purchase, end users are less likely to fill in your forms with garbage.
  2. People who continue to try to put garbage in a double opt-in form are less successful at their efforts to be cheeky and/or harassing. A colleague of mine at a past job thought it was funny to sign me up for various email lists run by the party the opposite of my personal political extraction. Thank goodness I’ve left that job; I’m sure that email address is still making the rounds between data-whoring political organizations. The fact of the matter is that a significant non-zero amount of the people on a political list are people who do NOT want to be there, signed up by some friend, or more often, by an enemy. Somebody who thought it would be funny to sign them up. Along with that, those merry pranksters often put in cheeky or offensive data in other fields, either just to tease their friend, or upset the target of their harassment. Move the signup process to double opt-in, and the target victim never confirms the fraudulent submission, and they never receive any emails addressed to Mr. Poopyhead.
  3. If you do end up with a Mr. Poopyhead on your list, you have verifiable, absolute proof that the end user did it to themselves. If a user signs up for your list calling themselves a bad name, that’s entirely their problem. It's not your problem, and it's not your fault. Yeah, it might be good to have a profanity filter, but even so, somebody will find a way to get a strange variant of an uncommon swear word past the filter. Make sure that when this happens, that you’re covered, because you use a process that ensures that the only person any idiot can do this to is themselves.
Look, I hesitated to even blog about this. But others took it and ran with it, and I figured I had better throw in my two cents as well, to make sure something really important wasn't missed. I don't know how I can make it any clearer: Ken Magill wasn't the problem, Obama's signup process is the problem. If you think otherwise, you've missed the boat.

Stuff like this isn't really rocket science. It's information I already share with the list managers, marketers, and organizations I deal with every day when talking to them regarding policy compliance issues and offering up best practice guidance. But, apparently, something this obvious hasn’t spread as far or wide as it needs to. That's why I’m doing my bit-- I’m stepping up, to get the word out. I am, as has been suggested, taking a stand.

Here’s a challenge to everybody else reading this. Now, it's your turn: Take a stand. Positive action is what counts, more so than just words. You can’t change the world, but you can change one list, you can stop one spam issue. When’s the last time you’ve done that?

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