Here’s a Modest Proposal for Batch-and-Blast Email Marketers and Robocallers

The increased volume of data-driven marketing initiatives have taken digital marketing to the top spot in the media universe. There, it’s likely to be king of the mountain until the next fashionable tsunami comes along. Enter, batch-and-blast email marketers and robocallers.

Unnumbered terabytes have been squandered recently as the increased volume of data-driven marketing initiatives have taken digital marketing to the top spot in the media universe. There, it’s likely to be king of the mountain until the next fashionable tsunami comes along. Enter, batch-and-blast email marketers and robocallers.

Consumers who formerly complained about getting too much mail are increasingly (and rightly) up in arms about the intrusiveness of unsolicited emails, ads jumping onto their Internet pages — visually blocking desired content, just when they want to see it — location-driven cell phone promotions advising them of the goodies inside the retail shop they are passing (remember them) or receiving endless robocalls.

Anything is possible! In today’s world of almost endless permutations and combinations of digital sales messages, what faster than a speeding bullet Superthing can stop them before they plunge irretrievably into some black hole, never to be seen again?

Would you believe that the answer is neither a superman nor woman? No: It’s not even a humanoid. It is quite simply that elusive substance that is said to make the world go ’round: money.

The useful website AlterNet recently carried what could be the game-changing story for our industry. Why stop with the industry? It could be a game-changer for our society and sanity. Consumers may not complain as much about emails and push ads as they do about robocalls, but you can bet they get nearly as angry about their privacy being invaded. Wrote Matthew Chapman:

Americans are being bombarded with robocalls. It’s an epidemic, and it’s getting worse. By a recent estimate, 71 million of these scam calls are being placed per hour, [my highlighting] often completely illegally.

Robocalls make up the top source of complaints to both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC); both of which, in theory, have power to police robocalls. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to get rid of them.

Almost; but not impossible. As Shakespeare wrote:

“If money go before, all ways do lie open.” —Ford, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Act 2, Scene 2

Chapman reported that Roger Meiners, a professor of law and economics at the University of Texas at Arlington, has a brilliant proposal for how to defeat robocallers, once and for all. It has exquisite simplicity and can, by extension, apply to almost all of our batch-and-blast outrages. Professor Mainers’ proposal, which deserves nothing less than a Nobel economics nomination:

Levy a 1-cent tax on every outgoing phone call.

If codified into the law of the land, it would be collected automatically and digitally. Individuals and small businesses would hardly notice it. We’d all pay the tax but even for a heavy individual user who made 50 calls per day; his tab would be only $15.00 per month.

In the Wall Street Journal, Meiners explained how it would work:

Most taxes aren’t popular, but this one will be. Call it the Penny for Sanity Tax: a 1-cent tax on every call made. Fifty billion robocalls would cost $500 million — a powerful incentive to stop.

Because the tax would apply to all calls, it would avoid litigation about what can be legally disfavored. It would be impossible to evade by sneaking around classifications of calls. And it would not necessitate hiring more bureaucrats to enforce a complicated rule.

What a huge effect it would have if put into practice. The amount could be easily raised if it didn’t act as a sufficient inhibitor of batch-and-blast. The whole idea might also inform an app where the consumer could choose to get paid to look at ads. As the Bar proclaimed “ … all ways do lie open,” if there is coin to pay the piper. And imagine how even a little of this money might be used for the environment, the public good or worthy charities.

Now let’s stretch and imagine the application of the Meiners’ formula to email. The Radicati Group estimates the worldwide number of consumer and business emails sent per day in 2018 at more than 281 billion. If these were taxed at 1 cent each, (same as the calls, but harder to collect), the cost would be $2.8 billion per day. You get the idea.

Where technologies have run well ahead of the business models they support, not a lot of thought has been given to the actual costs of emails and robocalls. “Let’s mail another million. It isn’t costing anything. And then we can go to lunch” has an all-too-familiar ring to it, even if it happens to be more apocryphal than true. There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as a free email or robocall or lunch.

Because very few marketers have done the math to determine the real comparative bottom-line effect of over-promoting or looked at the medium- and long-term commercial and societal damage it causes, they might as well go off and enjoy lunch. Their C-Suite days are numbered.

Soon, they are likely to be replaced by a tribe of literate data nerds, a species currently in short supply. Their recruitment is driving up costs like international soccer stars. They are just what giant consulting firms, such as Accenture, need to support their acquisition of “creative” shops with funny names and casual dress and time-keeping habits certain to annoy the hell out of the senior partners, who are mostly former three-piece, dark-suited accountants who daily commute from the suburbs and arrive at the office with Swiss punctuality.

Imagine the culture clash. And imagine how in this radically changed game, our vision of response rates and costs — in fact, almost everything in our marketing sphere — would change for the better.

Best of all, when the telephone rings, we wouldn’t have to worry we were about to be propositioned or otherwise engaged in a time-wasting conversation with a robot.

Revisiting Do-Not-Call — With 7 Lessons for Us Today

I was a big fan of President Bush 41. I believed strongly in his career of service, which prepared him well as our nation’s leader. I indeed voted for him — twice. I miss his civility and quiet effectiveness as a world leader.

I was a big fan of President Bush 41. I believed strongly in his career of service, which prepared him well as our nation’s leader. I indeed voted for him twice. I miss his civility and quiet effectiveness as a world leader.

But I won’t forget one act of legislation that he signed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. Initially, the law required private-sector telemarketers to maintain individual do-not-call lists and honor consumer requests to not call them at home, mirroring industry self-regulation codes at the time. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) monitored the marketplace and enforced the law but passed, for the time being, on any united do-not-call registry administered by the government, though it had the freedom to do so.

Eventually, however, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under Bush 43 stepped in and established a government-administered National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry, which took effect in 2003. As many as 72 percent of Americans may have placed a number on that list.

And so ended most outbound consumer telemarketing … at least those by legitimate companies, that is.

Gee, Has Your Phone Rung Lately?

Now I ask you, today, how’s that still working for us?

During coverage of President George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral last Wednesday and Thursday, my cell phone, home phone and office phone registered 11 unsolicited, masked and robocalls regarding health insurance, offers of credit, energy savings and a fundraiser.
Now, business-to-business calls are exempt from TCPA. So are non-profit calls and calls from politicians, and calls from businesses where I, as a consumer, have conducted transactions (and have not requested an opt-out).

But I can’t help but think of this law, the registry and its original purpose. There are some lessons for us to consider here.

Lesson 1

Lawmakers love to exempt themselves from regulation of marketing activity they find offensive somehow from the private sector but very effective when it comes time for their own outreach. Funny how that happens.

Lesson 2

Easy government-administered and mandated opt-out solutions National Do Not Call Registry look good on paper. They may even be politically popular. But are they effective in stemming unwanted intrusions? Ah, 15 years later, I think not.

Lesson 3

In setting up the DNC registry, the FTC effectively elevated a mere annoyance unwanted calls at dinnertime to a level of privacy protection that really harmed no one. A simple, albeit repeated, ring on the phone was equated to an outright intrusion into the home. I agree, a ringing phone interrupts. That elevation, however, was unprecedented: Prior restrictions on marketing use of information focused on real harms.

Lesson 4

The private sector has plenty of ways for the consumer to manage in-home peace and tranquility is a DNC registry even needed anymore? Time, technology and circumstances change sometimes rapidly. Advanced in age and wisdom, even my mom and dad know how to screen incoming calls for legit vs. bogus calls. We have plenty of tools that help us manage.

Lesson 5

In the late 1980s, ’90s, and 2000s, consumers had a free, easy way to opt out of national telemarketing calls: the Direct Marketing Association’s Telephone Preference Service. Even a state or two chose TPS as their own state’s DNC registry. Why the FTC even needed to spend taxpayer millions vs. DMA’s dimes to run a registry is a curious mystery. Often, the private sector through self-regulation or marketplace innovations offers consumers no-cost or low-cost options to limiting commercial free speech at the consumer’s discretion.

Lesson 6

Data quality in the hands of the government can be suspect. Eventually, the National DNC Registry became bloated and loaded with cellphones, disconnects, reassigned numbers and other data miscues. Industry complaints in their use of DNC did eventually bring some resolution here but if a private-sector data asset ever got the same lack of quality treatment, then it would have been abandoned years ago by the market.

Lesson 7

Fraud is fraud is fraud and bad guys lurk. Nefarious players are going to flaunt or ignore laws and regulations, anyway so policymakers and enforcers might rather pursue courses of action that still allow beneficial economic activity to happen, while focusing on fraud that is indeed harmful, and not merely an annoyance to some.

Am I Jaded: Is the DNC Registry Today Really About Fewer Calls?

There are some people who measure Do-Not-Call registry success and possibly other would-be Do-Not marketing mandates based on how many Americans have signed on and that’s enough for them (read, easy votes). Blah! The law effectively killed a legitimate marketing activity, undermined commercial free speech and has not kept pace with fraudsters.

Sign-ups are the exact wrong metric to pay attention to … if they care about why such a DNC registry was purportedly designed in the first place. Fifteen years on, this registry has lost its way. What matters is less ringing at dinner time and during funerals.