The reading level for this article is Novice

I frequently stumble upon ideas that don’t merit an entire column. And, judging by some (but not all) of my reader mail, several others have noticed this as well. However, this time, I know it in advance. Cripes, this is a tough room.

1. The Future of Business Email

Have you heard the one about the corporate spam-filtering software that’s blocking all emails from Taiwan (.tw)? No joke. And guess who finds it particularly unfunny — legitimate Taiwanese businesses that are simply trying to gain access to the U.S. market.

Along those same lines: In the not too distant future, you and the business you work for may have XML-based intelligent agents and profiles that will filter your email according to user- or business-specified preferences.

Here’s how Barry Briggs, vice president of marketing at OneName, the company that is working on something called “eXtensible Name Service” (or XNS) technologies, describes it:

There are many solutions for filtering spam and XNS used as the foundation for a spam filter. For example, an XNS-based solution could give email users the ability to set access filters that all incoming email must pass. Someone who wishes to send an unsolicited email might need to agree to the recipient’s privacy terms and, by so doing, would create a legally binding contract governing that email transaction. Thus, if an individual sets a filter to block commercial email (spam) and a commercial email vendor asserts that they are sending private email, this assertion would be captured in a contract, thereby providing legal recourse to the recipient.

Though Briggs’s example is focused on consumers, the technology applies in the business-to-business (B2B) realm, as well.

For more information about XNS, the open source technology for identity services, visit the XNS Public Trust Organization.

2. On Ethics: My Own and Others’

I don’t like hidden agendas. If I ever write a word in favor of one of our agency’s clients or about a company that I have a financial interest in, I’ll tell you in the first sentence or two of the column.

Now, let me ask you a question: If I download something from your Web site and have given you my email address in exchange for this privilege, is it OK for you to go ahead and add me to the subscribers of your email newsletter? The purists among you will have a quick answer — and I want to hear it. But, I’m also interested in hearing from folks who are not so sure of what the ethically correct answer is.

Speaking as a world-weary pragmatist, I have come to expect that when I enter my contact information at a Web site — even though I’m not requesting any further information — I will get contacted, that is, pestered.

However, don’t push me. About two years ago, I visited an executive conference company Web site. Noting that the company had an email newsletter, I entered my contact information to sign up. The next morning, I received a phone call from one of that company’s more aggressive sales representatives. The conversation, albeit short, had nothing to do with the email newsletter. I never received the email newsletter. I doubt they ever had one.

This is clear-cut breach of ethics. It’s also bad business.

3. The Question

You probably have strong emotions that you don’t draw upon in your work. Why should your work be impoverished?

4. The Merchant Virtues

There exist certain characteristics I call the “merchant virtues.” (In case you haven’t noticed, I have a term for just about everything. You see, I get this Adamic feeling when I find labels that I think fit the beasts and flowers and patterns of this world.)

Merchant virtues are those winning traits and behaviors that I remember from visits to shops when I was a kid.

I was raised in the shadows of one of the nation’s earliest shopping malls, Houston’s Meyerland Plaza. The world that was the Plaza — it’s now completely different and has no common area or mall — is never too far from my thinking. For several years, the mall was my public life.

I recall the rhythm of retail days: the waking up of the little shops, the sense of anticipation at the front doors, shop-girl chatter, the white sales, the business slowdowns, the new managers. I remember stepping into shops and either being watched like a thief or greeted like a welcome regular; seeing adulterers meeting for afternoon liaisons in the parking lot behind the cinema; buying baseball cards in a dark little store on the second floor of Meyer Bros.; yelling just to hear my voice echo in the empty mall after hours on summer evenings; buying my first suit; being confronted by the matronly Mrs. Hess, the mall owner, when we kids were flying kites in her parking lot on Sunday afternoons. I recall hearing canned music as the background for serious conversations; scrounging for dimes and quarters between the Naugahyde swivel stools in the malt shop at Madings Drug Store; peering in at the idealized representations of life in shop windows; watching the annual Meyerland Plaza fireworks display on July 4th from the wrought iron chairs in our backyard; staring, unbelieving, as giant Easter bunnies parachuted into the mall parking lot distributing “Bunny Money” as part of a promotion; teenagers dancing outside the record shop; making breathless, awkward payphone calls to a high-school girlfriend; and my Uncle Sonny, who worked at the JCPenney, standing stone still as he watched a barn owl perched in a dying tree not five steps from the front door of Gibraltar Savings.

When I think of Meyerland Plaza, I write like flocks of grackles sing: messy, riotous. I can’t help it. There was so much there.

But I am clear about this: I remember optimism, steadiness, consistency, moments of cheer, courtesy, conscientiousness, and hard work on cement. (I also remember a specific variety of drabness and life-exhaustion. Think of the word “shopworn.”)

These are the merchant virtues. Perhaps, they are just habits of mind and behavior that are, at base, motivated only by a desire to sell me something. Still, as Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet”: “Use almost can change the stamp of nature.”

Next time you’re considering an email campaign, think about these merchant virtues. Remember the importance of greetings, thank-you cards, speaking in a different tone with regular customers than you do first-time visitors, timely reminders, being helpful but not pushy, and being consistent. Establish a communications rhythm. Don’t try to do too much with any one email. You have time. Repeat: You have time.

This Ebusiness article was written by Chris Maher on 3/18/2005