It' s time for e-mail marketers to shape up.

That seems to be the message suggested by a new round of research measuring click-through rates. E-mail lists, which once looked like a cheap silver bullet for marketers and publishers, are proving to be less effective than once thought. But that doesn' t mean the strategy should be abandoned. " There' s no question e-mail marketing can work if companies were to use it judiciously, to wait until a really good offer came along," said Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader. " They' re just way overusing it, and in the process killing it as a media form."

The [Third] Party' s Over
At first glance, the latest numbers from New York research firm eMarketer look bleak. Click-through rates on opt-in e-mail lists plummeted from 3.2% in 2001 to 1.8% in 2002, according to senior analyst David Hallerman.

But similar research from marketing firm DoubleClick, vouched for by Hallerman, tells a different story. According to DoubleClick, click-throughs on marketers' email lists were a respectable 8.03% in Q1 2002 - down from 9.73% in Q1 2001, but up from 6.75% in Q4 2001.

The difference is in the definitions. There are four kinds of e-mail marketing. Unsolicited commercial e-mail is spam, the scummy stuff that respectable marketers say is damning their industry. Opt-out is almost as bad. While approved by the Direct Marketing Association, opt-out lists show up as spam and put the onus on consumers to, somehow, get off mailing lists. Neither of these marketing methods are measured by eMarketer and DoubleClick.

First-party opt-in is the e-mail that consumers are most comfortable with and that marketers find most fruitful. These are mailings that consumers consciously sign up for, from a site they were visiting anyway, and they are the source of DoubleClick' s strong numbers.