It may not be the new kid on the block, but email is, for many companies, one of the most effective and profitable digital marketing channels.

It's not hard to understand why: an email address, like a physical address or phone number, gives companies a means to connect with a known individual across time and space, making it a compelling medium for relationship-building.

Given this, it shouldn't come as a surprise that many companies are eager to collect email addresses of customers and potential customers. Most reputable businesses do so through legitimate means, but the perceived value of an email address is often so high that some companies are willing to consider shadier tactics.

How shady?

Recently, Sumit Suman visited a website of a social media marketing firm, uberVU. He browsed a couple of pages and left. He did not purchase anything, nor did he sign up to receive emails. So he was rather baffled when, shortly thereafter, he received an email from uberVU thanking him for his visit. He posted a screenshot of the email to his Google+ page and asked how the company obtained his email address.

The apparent answer was provided by Darren Nix, the founder of a company called 42Floors. On his blog, Nix explained:

I've learned that there is a "website intelligence" network that tracks form submissions across their customer network. So, if a visitor fills out a form on Site A with their name and email, Site B knows their name and email too as soon as they land on the site.

Nix became aware of this when the network, identified by others as LeadLander, emailed him to promote the service. Curious but skeptical, he signed up for a demo and installed the network's JavaScript on his site for a brief period. "As promised, I began to see personally identifying information about our anonymous visitors," Nix wrote.

Wrong, but real

The posts by Suman and Nix have received a good amount of attention this week. And for good reason: what appears to have taken place has revealed a privacy can of worms many are learning about for the first time and has highlighted activity that may even be illegal.

Privacy cans of worms like this are bad news for the advertising industry, which is battling the notion that it simply can't police itself and needs to be more tightly regulated. Regulated by bureaucrats whose medicines are often worse than the illnesses.

Email addresses are not created equal

Unfortunately, networks like LeadLander exist for a simple reason: many companies overestimate the value of an email address.

Savvy, experienced email marketers understand that the value of an email address is highly variable. For obvious reasons, the email address of a loyal customer who has opted in to a list is, for instance, likely to be much higher than the email address of a prospective customer obtained through a list broker, even if the list broker is selling an opt-in list.

So what's the value of an email address of an individual who visited your website but didn't provide you with her email address? In reality, it's probably not all that high, but for companies like uberVU, it's perceived to be high enough to warrant the use of a questionable service to obtain.

It's the 'how' and 'why', not the 'what'

The bad news for uberVU, of course, was that acquiring Sumit Suman's email address did not prove fruitful because Suman was obviously not interested in uberVU's services, at least at the time he decided to leave uberVU's website. Reaching out to Suman via the questionably-acquired email address didn't change that; instead, it led to a social media black eye for the social media marketing firm.

The reason: uberVU focused on the what -- Suman's email address -- and not the how and why. How you acquire the email address of a customer or potential customer matters, as does the reason why the individual provided it.

Businesses that use email marketing successfully understand that a large portion of the value of their email addresses comes from the how and why and companies trying to bolster their email efforts should recognize that without a legitimate how and compelling why, the what isn't all that valuable.

Patricio Robles

Published 14 December, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (7)

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Mike G

This is true. Best practices should apply however, look under your own kimono and you will find the following tracking codes:

Google Analytics
Twitter (known pii violator)
quantcast (known pii violator)
Google Retargeting
kampyle (known violator of data collection)
addFacebookTracking - come on now

over 5 years ago



So, if I understand correctly, that guy didn't fill any form, isn'it? Data has been collected from the form the contact filled in the past (so, basically, stolen from the cache of his browser/cookies). It's a real threat for privacy

over 5 years ago



I'm sorry but it's this type of bad practice that leads law makers and compliance departments to over regulate and make the provision of excellent customer experiences all the more difficult.

No wonder privacy is a real concern to many these days.

over 5 years ago


Stephan Jäckel Business Consultant

I am not a lawyer but would

a) consider this incompatible with EU data-protection laws (at minimum its absolutely a no-go in Germany with its high level of personal data protection)

b) refuse to endanger the customer experience by using ruthless methods kile those above to obtain their email-address and message them then.

Whoever uses such techniques has not learned anything in the past 15 years about E-Business. And they should not be surprised to find more and more surfers (the "useres" will follow) using one-time email-adresses or tools like Ghostery or Privalert, which Comodo now includes in its Chorme-variant named Dragon.

The best words on tracking and tracing (stalking) people online were written by music-artist Sting: "If you love somebody set them free."

People to whom you achive to become relevant in interaction will at their own will hand you date with the permission to use it and they are more likely to stay loyal, compared to those you tried to force into a relationship.

Ask yourself: How many stalkers are successful with the way they are "courting" their object of desire?

over 5 years ago

Emma North

Emma North, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

I think it is an interesting point to question whether companies overestimate the value of email addresses and I agree that many do. I have worked in an environment where obtaining an email address for prospective customers was the most important factor in data collection, so that the company could include them on email advertising and win the business. In reality, the success rate of these mailings was low. Granted, you could argue that the email content and positioning played a part but realistically people get so much advertising email that they consider junk or salesy that many don't even bother to read them anymore.

It seems to me like many businesses are going to lengths to extreme to justify and that includes invading privacy using cookies then it should be dealt with firmly.

over 5 years ago



Isn't Google and Facebook doing same? By means of Analytics, Like button etc they do the same! I guess the reason Google and Facebook isn't pointed out is because they mainly focus on 'how' and 'why' instead of 'what'?

over 5 years ago


Darren, Online Marketeer at Muffin Mouth Marketing

We are just speaking to a company who offers a similar service to leadlander, they have approached us to help with their online presence and I'm on the fence whether to work with them. Having looked around at what people have said about this service, the general consensus is that it could be over the line morally.

The tech doesn't actually involve cookies, it uses the users IP address, so not all users can be identified, even though, it struck me as shady. I'm thinking if there is anyway it could be used to make it 'less' intrusive, to help identify any problems with the site or to ask feedback from the user on their experience. I guess either way the main problem is still there, the user hasn't specifically supplied their data to the co.

about 5 years ago

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