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Best of the Banter: Is "refer a friend" UCE?
by Donna Stryk, Moderator of the Online Ads Discussion List


We've all seen them: Requests to "send this site to a friend" or to send them an email telling them about a particular feature. In most cases, it seems harmless, but when does it go too far? Are there instances where it crosses the line of viral marketing into the realm of Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE) or SPAM?

On February 29th, Mark Welch asked the Online Ads List members for their opinions on the Fogdog.com "Draft-A-Friend" program. In this program, customers and affiliates are asked to submit their friends' email addresses in exchange for rewards from the site. According to Welch this practice is blatant UCE because the email sent out to these "friends" is commercial in nature, is not from their friend directly, and was certainly not requested by the receiver. Welch asked for the members of Online Ads to share their opinions on the matter and wondered, "Am I being too strict in my definition of improper email marketing practices?"

The first question is what makes the Fogdog.com referral program so controversial? Ian Blackman wrote, "I am not happy with the idea of paying customers for the referral. The payment blurs the line between a friend recommending a service they find useful to providing a list of emails in return for the possibility of payment."

Another problem with the system is that the message sent is from Fogdog.com with their marketing message rather than from the person's friend. Ramon Ray explained his "tell-a-friend" feature as a tool where "visitors to my site put in 'their own message,' their email address and who they want to send the email to - no intervention from me, I'm just the conduit of communication." This is an important point because it addresses the idea of perception. Regardless of the origin or intent of the message, every company must consider how the audience perceives the communication. A message from their friend, in their own personal style, is less likely to be construed as UCE. This means that the company is likely to gain the reputation of sending out SPAM.

In defense of Fogdog.com's program, Adam Lasnik listed three criteria that make their practice legal in the eyes of the Internet audience and which Fogdog.com appears to be abiding by. He said that they, "1) Stress that the email is only to be sent to friends/associates/people who the sender has a pre-existing relationship with. 2) Limit the number of people one can send to. 3) Respond aggressively to substantiated SPAM complaints." His third point is very interesting. If they fail to explain how they will retaliate against abuse of the system, they are leaving themselves open to visitors entering random email addresses and thereby ruining Fogdog.com's reputation. John Whiteside said that, "Perhaps these programs need a penalty for abuse - you get points for referring friends, but you lose them all if there are any complaints."

Antonio Romero also felt that the program was a legitimate form of viral marketing. He said that the only way their system would become UCE is "If Fogdog retains the email address of your friend after the initial solicitation from you…and wants to use that name for some subsequent contact." The main point of this argument is that the original message technically came from the recipient's friend and not from the company. The company simply provided a convenient way to recommend the site by using their server.

There is also the issue of the friend who actually gave Fogdog.com the email address in the first place. Aren't they at least partially responsible for any SPAM? Shouldn't we hold the individuals to the same high standards that we are setting for the site? Maria Helm said, "For my part, I have informed my friends that I don't wish to be included on any referral or chain letter and I refuse to respond to them. I point out how angry they'd be if I gave their phone number to a telemarketer." Helm also deduced that this type of marketing would continue to thrive as long as people continue to submit addresses and recipients continue to act on them.

Ken Ruck supported the idea of the responsibility being with the referrer and not the site by quoting a guideline from the Council for Responsible Email (CRE), which states, "The CRE opposes sending bulk unsolicited commercial email to an email address without a prior business or personal relationship." He then continued by defining a prior relationship "as any previous recipient-initiated correspondence, transaction activity, customer service activity, third party permission use, or proven offline contact." This pretty much clears Fogdog.com of any blame as long as they aren't using the addresses to send out mailings other than that initial recommendation.

There were very strong arguments on both sides of this thread. In the end, it came down to how the program is carried out rather than the whole idea of referrals being bashed. It seems that there are many steps and precautions that companies can take to avoid being thought of as SPAM producing monsters. The important thing is to know your audience and to take a strong stance against abuse of the system.

You can read everyone's thoughts on the issue at http://www.adbanter.com/wordsearch/fogdog.shtml.



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