Early this month, Catalog Choice passed the half-million member mark with its database of customers who have asked to be removed from catalog mailing lists. So it is not surprising that direct marketers and the Direct Marketing Association took notice.
Launched in October by the Ecology Center and endorsed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nonprofit Catalog Choice (www.catalogchoice.org) is among a handful of new services that have popped up in the past year to help people reject unwanted direct mail. Environmental concerns that are in vogue these days have helped fuel that desire. A headline on the Catalog Choice home page exhorts people to "Simplify your life and save natural resources."
Responding to the popularity of such sites, DMA has beefed up its own opt-out service (called Mail Preference Service), which enables customers to opt out of direct mail and has been available for 36 years.
DMA enhances opt-out
In December, DMA did away with the $1 fee it had charged for registering with MPS, and it enhanced the service so that people can now opt out of particular catalogs and brands individually. Previously, the DMA service only allowed users the option to opt out of all commercial mail.
"We upgraded the site so you can do that via the Internet, "said Steve Berry, exec VP-government affairs and corporate responsibility at DMA.
In addition, preferences are now updated more frequently. "We also now require all our members to run their lists against the MPS list every month instead of every 90 days," Berry said.
Berry said the changes were made in part in response to new groups such as Catalog Choice.
"It is in response to these groups that have popped up, as well as surveys we've done," he said. "It was a wake-up to the industry. There is pent-up demand out there. As direct marketers, it is our job to listen."
And the people certainly have spoken. April Smith, project manager for Catalog Choice at the National Wildlife Federation, said "there is a need for Catalog Choice."
"If the [DMA's] mail preference service was doing its job, then why would half a million people sign up for this service in four months? It behooves us to offer a complementary service."
Catalog Choice currently has 136 catalog merchants that have agreed to abide by the site's opt-out requests, including Crutchfield Electronics, Lands' End and Office Depot.
George Ittner, president of the apparel catalog Territory Ahead, said third-party opt-out providers are not only unnecessary but confuse the process.
"I think we provide a valuable service to the consuming public by printing catalogs containing quality merchandise for their selection or rejection," he said. "They can contact us directly or through DMA. Why should we have third parties that want to pile on?"
One of Ittner's concerns about third parties is data integrity.
"I think Catalog Choice is confusing, and there are issues in my mind about the integrity of their data," he said. "What are they doing with the names that they get? Are they using them for marketing purposes?" Ittner also said he is concerned about how marketers can verify that the names provided by these third parties are legitimate.
A database industry source said catalog merchants such as Ittner are taking different approaches when it comes to such services as Catalog Choice. "Some are processing the opt-outs, but many aren't because they don't trust the data and its integrity," said this observer, who asked to remain anonymous. Another worry is that Catalog Choice and others are sending address information through email, which "is not a secure mode of transmission for sensitive data," according to the source.
Smith said that concern is unfounded. "We meet industry standards," she said. "We use the same email verification system as the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry. That minimizes fraud."
DMA noted that third-party opt-out lists are neither verified nor authenticated, and that there is no explicit promise from the third parties that address data will not be used for marketing purposes.
The American Catalog Mailers Association sprang to action two months ago by forming a task force dedicated to better understanding new groups like Catalog Choice so that it would be able to advise its membership.
"This is a very real issue," said Hamilton Davison, executive director of ACMA, an advocacy and lobbying group for catalogers. "Catalogers are divided about what they think is the right answer here," he said. "There's no broad consensus on how to handle the issue."
Davison said the task force is discussing the issue with Catalog Choice, DMA and other concerned parties to come to some agreement. He said ACMA will soon publish its findings based on those meetings.
Catalogers, he said, are particularly affected by the acceleration in popular interest in opting out of direct mail. Strict federal regulations on the mail would have disastrous consequences not only on catalogers but also the mailing industry and the public at large, Davison said, since advertising mail provides a significant percentage of the U.S. Postal Service's revenue.
Stakeholders say DMA will need to react quickly if it hopes to avoid a repeat of the National Do Not Call Registry, one of the most popular pieces of legislation among consumers in recent history. At the time, observers said marketers and DMA were too slow to react meaningfully to complaints and paid the price in the form of a federal law. Currently nine state legislatures are considering bills that would create state-run do not mail registries.
Meanwhile, a pro direct mail group that is part of DMA called Mail Moves America is working with state business groups and communicating with legislators about the importance of direct mail for consumers, businesses and the economy in order to lobby against the creation of a do not mail list.
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