June 29, 2008

Catalog Choice: You Decide What Gets In ... Except When They Market Catalog Choice Webinars To You?

Catalog Choice has been a blessing for consumers who do not wish to be marketed to via catalog advertising. When my clients ask for advice, I recommend they partner with Catalog Choice. Honoring customer requests is a good thing! Catalog Choice is like a "widget", if you will, and can be used to make the opt-out process easy.

This past week, Catalog Choice used marketing techniques that are very similar to those employed by catalog marketers. Allow m
e to explain what they did. I will ask you for your thoughts at the end of this essay.

Thursday, June 19: I receive the following e-mail from Catalog Choice. Please click on the image to enlarge it.

There are several things that are unique about this e-mail marketing message / webinar invitation.
  1. I did not opt-in to receive marketing messages from Catalog Choice. They chose to send this marketing message to me without previously obtaining my permission to receive marketing messages from them.
  2. The "from" line of the e-mail message is from an individual at a PR agency. The subject line does not mention Catalog Choice. The body of the e-mail message is from a staff member at Catalog Choice. I'm not sure where this stands from a can-spam standpoint. At minimum, the strategy is not aligned with standard e-mail marketing practices.
  3. The PR agency employed by Catalog Choice graciously agreed to answer my question about how they received my e-mail address (they visited my website and copied the e-mail address), an act I appreciate.
  4. The e-mail message does not offer me a link with the option to opt-out of future Catalog Choice e-mail marketing campaigns.
  5. The privacy policy at Catalog Choice suggests that they may collect information on users, should the user ever send an e-mail to Catalog Choice (I previously responded to an e-mail from Catalog Choice. and may have sent an e-mail to Catalog Choice in the past). Catalog Choice offers an individual like me the opportunity to opt-out of marketing communications by e-mailing them at a unique e-mail address. Catalog Choice offers the following language, regarding volunteered PII: "Limitation of Liability By providing us with any PII you expressly and unconditionally release and hold harmless CatalogChoice, and our subsidiaries, affiliates, directors, officers, employees and agents from any and all liability for any injuries, loss or damage of any kind arising from or in connection with the use and/or misuse of your collected PII."

Wednesday, June 25: I received a phone call from Catalog Choice, asking if I was planning on attending their webinar.
  1. I never gave my phone number to Catalog Choice.
  2. I never gave Catalog Choice my permission to market webinars to me via telephone.
  3. My phone number is part of the national do not call registry, though I give it out to my clients, family, and to potential clients at business-related conferences. It is probably true that .org brands can market to the do not call registry.
  4. Catalog Choice volunteered to me that they obtained my phone number from a presentation I gave in early 2007, a presentation they found via a hyperlink online. My thanks to Catalog Choice management for being honest and forthright about answering my questions.
  5. Catalog Choice did, via e-mail and during the phone call, offer to remove me from future marketing campaigns, good for them!
  6. I did not get to have a say (in advance) in the marketing frequency employed by Catalog Choice. In other words, I did not get to say whether I wanted one or two or seventy marketing messages. This is comparable to the practices of the Catalog industry.

Why Is This Important?

Catalog Choice goes by the tagline ... "you decide what gets in". When it comes to catalog marketers, Catalog Choice aims to give consumers control over what goes in their mailbox. When Catalog Choice markets to me, the marketing strategy is comparable to the practices of the Catalog industry, practices Catalog Choice are hopeful to change within the Catalog industry.

We also know the following:
  1. Catalog Marketing requires that forests be harvested, potentially damaging the environment.
  2. E-Mail Marketing uses electricity and plastics (computers/servers), often sourced from coal and petroleum, potentially damaging the environment.
Obviously, Catalog Choice has a right to run their business model as they wish, a business model that benefits consumers, catalog brands, and the environment --- win/win/win.

Here is my question to you, the e-mail, online marketing, multichannel, and direct marketing leader who subscribes to this blog:
  • Is it reasonable for an organization to strongly request that the Catalog industry institute permission-based marketing, yet in their own marketing programs execute the very strategy that they are trying to get the Catalog industry to stop?
I am torn by this topic, since I have always recommended Catalog Choice to my clients. I genuinely believe that Catalog Choice means no harm. It is my opinion that they simply did not think through the parallels of their strategy and the very catalog marketing strategies they are trying to influence, making this an honest mistake. My hope is that the Catalog industry and Catalog Choice can have a strong, collaborative, and beneficial relationship. My hope is that, in the future, Catalog Choice employ marketing strategies consistent with those they wish to encourage Catalog marketers to adopt.

I'd appreciate your thoughts in the comments section of this post. Please forward this post to your colleagues, as the topics outlined are worthy of general discussion in the direct marketing community.


  1. Anonymous7:14 AM

    Please re-write the definition of irony in the dictionary. The above story highlights it perfectly.

  2. I am hopeful that they simply made an honest mistake, and did not consider the similarity in the marketing techniques they use vs. the techniques employed by the very industry they are trying to modify.

  3. Anonymous3:37 PM

    Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post on Catalog Choice.

    The focus of Catalog Choice is on unwanted catalogs. We hope to help consumers reduce unwanted catalogs, while still receiving those catalogs they want and from which they plan to order. Like the merchants who have created accounts on our site, we see the importance of honoring the preferences of our users and contacts in being contacted by us.

    I assure you that the list of Catalog Choice users, or those who have created accounts on the site, receives only emails that follow the guidelines you mention. All of our marketing emails contain opt-out information and are only sent if the user gives us permission. We adhere strictly to our privacy policy, and we use the same standards as industry in gathering and verifying user data. We are committed to honoring all requests to opt out.

    Outreach for this webinar was targeted to a small list of 20 consultants with whom Catalog Choice had already communicated through other means, and with whom we already had a relationship. This list was created just for this webinar; it is not being established for making regular contact. Contact information for a Catalog Choice staffer and a public relations advisor were provided in the email, and both of these people would be happy to remove someone from the outreach list on request.

    I'd like to assure you that Catalog Choice does hope to have a strong, collaborative and beneficial relationship with the catalog industry. This is the very reason why we are holding this webinar. We understand the importance of holding ourselves to the same standards, and we are continually striving to find new ways to improve our practices. We appreciate you starting this conversation and welcome you to contact us at any time with concerns.



  4. I almost died laughing at this post, Kevin. Wow--like anonymous said--the ultimate in irony.

    It's very similar to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) sending so many duplicate brochures about their conferences. I guess they haven't heard of database management or a thing called merge/purge...

  5. Thanks for responding, Mr. Teller. I included a link to your comment as a new post.

    The strategy of outreach to consultants, especially in my case where you did not previously have my phone number and did not have prior permission to market to me via the phone number, is not fundamentally different than the strategy you are discouraging catalog marketers from executing.

  6. Anonymous3:52 AM

    Curious...you wrote last week about attracting wrong audience by defending Catalog Choice and that when you went back to main subject of your blog, you lost that audience and audience you had prior.
    Now you post a comment picking at Catalog Choice---trying to draw back fans that may have been turned off by your pro-catalog choice posts before?
    The original email from them was targeted likely due to your positive relationship with Chuck Teller who had posted on your blog from before.(his comment seems to confirm that)
    Does one email really count as a "marketing campaign"?
    You do have a point with the follow-up phone call. That does tarnish their image of Opt in marketing.
    Devil's advocate---if it is a business phone number, does that qualify on the do not call registry? I thought Do Not Call registry is for personal(white pages) numbers.
    Obviously Chuck Teller would have gotten further if instead of email and phone, he had done a more personal email or post on your blog.

  7. Sure, anonymous, you have a point. I'm not sure picking is the right word, however ... frustration might be a better word, or exasperation might be a better word.

    As a sole proprietor, I only have one phone number ... so it is business and personal. You may judge that as you wish, it is entered in the do not call registry.

    You may also judge "just one e-mail" as not being a campaign. In that case, you would have to allow a customer receiving "just one catalog" as not being a marketing campaign either, right?

    I would have liked to have not written about Catalog Choice anymore. I did attract the wrong audience. Since they marketed to me, I wanted to ask my audience, the ones Catalog Choice is trying to modify behavior with, what they thought. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything. Thanks for the thoughts.

  8. Anonymous --- a few additional thoughts.

    You mentioned that "just one e-mail" doesn't make a campaign. That is worthy of a separate post, completely independent of this topic. Just what exactly, in the mind of the customer, is a "campaign"?

    Finally, I want to make it very clear --- I am addressing my loyal audience about this topic, not the peripheral audience that I gained early last year, then lost right away. Last year, I wrote a few topics, saw that the subscriber counts increased, and thought that was a good thing. Yesterday, I noticed that my visitors were from catalog brands, the exact audience I was speaking to.

  9. Anonymous7:25 AM

    I'm a bit late to the discussion, as I've been dealing with an unexpected death (one of our beloved parrots) for the past week.

    As a consumer, my perspective is that I rarely feel harassed until the third catalog arrives. I generally shrug off the first prospecting effort or two. Heck, I'll even admit that if the cover is unusually appealing, I've been known to actually flip though an occasional catalog to check for anything I might want or need. I'm a tough audience, though. I haven't received a single mailing this year that's caught my eye.

    Catalog Choice is designed for people like me. It's not meant to eliminate the initial contact between a prospecting marketer and a potential customer. The system is set up to facilitate communication from users who've seen at least one catalog and who wish to decline further mailings.

    It's unfortunate that CC didn't provide an unsubscribe option in that e-mail even though it was a one-time, extremely targeted, nonprofit type of thing. Hopefully they will respond to your critique, Kevin, and modify any mailings of this type that they do in the future. But otherwise, I guess I'm not seeing any real ethical or even ironic issues with the way they handled this particular situation.

    The one other difference I'm noticing—and please correct me if I'm wrong about this—is that there doesn't seem to be a charge for the webinar. We could start a discussion about whether time is money. But an e-mail saying "Hey, here's a free educational opportunity, if you're interested" doesn't feel the same to me as a catalog that's going after my hard-earned cash. (And despite the fact that I absolutely love my calling, massage therapy does involve significant physical labor. Most of the time, a $50 trinket is not a good trade for an hour of simple pleasure with my feet up and a bird on my shoulder. However, I almost always enjoy learning new things, and when I'm learning online, I can still put my feet up and be near my birds.)

    Anyhow, hope that makes sense and wasn't too gawdawful lengthy. This is one of the few places where these issues are being intelligently discussed. I appreciate that you're providing a venue for that, Kevin, even if it was by accident.

  10. If there's been any recurring theme I've identified through this process, it is this.

    One side of the argument sides with the fact that an organization, especially a non-profit, can market free services without obtaining prior permission from the consumer. This side of the argument has a problem with large corporations hawking merchandise without consumer permission.

    The other side of the argument looks at the marketing tactics used by catalogers, and in this case, Catalog Choice, and believes that the marketing tactic is essentially identical. If the marketing tactic is identical, then how is Catalog Choice any better than the industry they seek to modify?

    As always, both sides are right in many ways. And that is why I wanted reader feedback.


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