Coming soon to a discussion list near you: advertising by e-mail. At least if the Sift people have their way. One of dozens of Stanford University spin-offs, the Silicon Valley firm is trying to make e-mail advertising legitimate. Sift matches advertisers like Wired magazine and Dell computers with the most desirable on-line discussion lists-the digital answer to direct mail.
After attracting an advertiser to a list, Sift president Jeff Wilkins asks the list's moderator for permission to effectively rent the names of subscribers for a onetime fee-usually $50 for every one thousand subscribers. Then, he delivers the text-only ads to the e-mail boxes of each subscriber, often with an explanation from the list moderator.
So far, more than one thousand lists have signed up with Sift for ads. Many of these discussion forums are concerned with technological subjects such as the virtues of IBM mainframes. But Wilkins says that other kinds of discussion lists are starting to follow suit. Will subscribers to Chaucer-L be hearing about discount fares to Canterbury any time soon?
Since as many as a third of existing lists are run on university software, it may be only a matter of time before e-mail advertising becomes a regular source of university revenue. After all, in the increasingly entrepreneurial world of academe, the ad money that Sift offers can go to a department, a lab-even into the list owner's pocket. "Academic institutions have historically been shielded from the economic realities of the world," says Wilkins. "That may be ending. I know of a lot of places that are under pressure to find ways to underwrite what they're doing."
Of course, the academic setting presents considerable challenges for e-mail advertising, ranging from the logistical to the philosophical and legal. But the biggest challenge may be finding advertising-friendly academic lists. "Advertisers don't want to be in a market where people are upset about advertising, and with academics there would always be people who would be upset," says Philip Agre, an associate professor of communications at UC-San Diego, a popular writer on cyberspace issues, and a list publisher himself.
Ad-resistant professors might be especially upset about Sift's capacity to monitor their on-line debates. Besides maintaining a public directory of some 159,000 discussion lists (available at www.reference.com), Sift stores the "archives" of more than fifteen thousand lists at no cost to the owners. Then, using search tools which Sift licenses from Stanford, the company regularly mines those archived lists for mentions of particular products or services. The results of these data forays can be forwarded to advertisers on a daily basis. Wilkins, a Stanford Ph.D. in electrical engineering, concedes that some e-mailers may wish to keep their conversations hidden from marketers. Joining the archive is at the option of the list owner, he says, and all subscribers are informed of an electronic command that will keep their postings out of the archive.
Slowly waking up to the possibilities and liabilities of Internet commerce, most universities are cautiously revising existing policies. At the University of Notre Dame, for example, that means no advertising. "Notre Dame is very protective of its image," says Larry Rapagnani, assistant provost for information technologies at the school. "We don't have advertising on campus. We don't have advertising on our Web site. To have advertising on a list.... we probably wouldn't do that."
Yet at many schools, the rules aren't entirely clear-particularly if the proceeds go to the university. Says M. Stuart Lynn, associate vice president for information resources and communications at the University of California system, "The electronic world is raising so many new questions that we don't always have the time to get the answers in advance. Selling on-line advertising space is not within our current framework of possibility, but I don't want to rule it out. After all, we publish print magazines in which people buy advertising space."
At the University of Alabama, systems programmer Darren Evans-Young got around university red tape with a simple decision: He chose not to charge a rental fee for ads posted on his IBM mainframe list. When Sift approached him, he was initially skeptical about running ads.
But after polling his membership, he discovered that "most of them feel short advertisements are reasonable, as long as they're not too frequent." There's one more restriction. "If the ad does not pertain directly to IBM mainframes, I will not allow it," says Evans-Young. "That would just get the readership mad at me. I don't want twelve hundred subscribers sending me personal e-mail."
Even as the rules for e-mail advertising sort themselves out, academic publishers are bypassing middlemen like Sift and attempting to reach discussion-list subscribers directly. The MIT Press began experimenting with the medium about three years ago, according to promotion manager Gita Manaktala. "It tends to be useful in research areas that are new or not fully formed so that you can't advertise in a professional journal or at a meeting," she says. University press notices are one kind of ad that strikes list owners as benign. "We want people to know when books are published," says Seth Wigderson of the on-line humanities and social sciences network H-Net. But, he says, he cuts out "classic advertising materials, testimonials, blurbs, and so forth."
MIT Press publicists now post e-promotions by the hundreds. And most lists accept them without charging a fee, though that may change. For now, at least, the press prefers not to call what it does advertising. "It's written as an announcement," explains a publicity assistant. "It's more matter-of-fact in tone. People on listservs are just not attracted to something that sounds really sales-y."