Credit card issuers are experimenting gingerly with e-mail marketing techniques, knowing that e-mail is an easy and inexpensive way to reach customers and prospects, but fearing that unsolicited messages will anger the people they are trying to court.

Some card companies have begun circulating e-mail "newsletters" highlighting different promotions and ways to use their products. These missives, the companies emphasize, are being sent only to customers, and only to those who explicitly "opt in" in some way.

Some companies are sending notices to online customers warning them when a bill is about to be due or a credit limit about to be reached. These are generally met with some gratitude, the companies say.

But there is one line that the issuers know better than to cross. While most of them have no qualms about sending unsolicited letters to prospective customers' physical mailboxes, they have not resorted to cluttering people's electronic mailboxes.

"I think our No. 1 sensitivity is spam," said Colleen Zambole, vice president of e-commerce at Discover Financial Services, the card-issuing subsidiary of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. Ms. Zambole, who is in charge of e-mail initiatives, said Discover sends messages only to those cardholders who have explicitly opted in through the Web site.

Four bills that would regulate e-mail marketing to eliminate junk messages, or spam, are currently pending in Congress. The one that has advanced the farthest would give consumers the right to remove themselves from Internet mailing lists, and would penalize companies $500 for each violation, up to $50,000 per consumer. That bill, HR 718, sponsored by Rep. Heather A. Wilson, R-N.M., and adopted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, would also give consumers the right to sue, but would prohibit class actions. The Federal Trade Commission would enforce the provisions.

Similar legislation overwhelmingly passed the House last year but was not acted on by the Senate. Many banking, insurance, and securities firms have voiced objections to the bill and warned of possible unintended consequences.

Discover started e-mailing its customers in fall 1998 and since then has expanded its e-mail marketing to include "news" updates and merchant discounts.

"We're also very sensitive to frequency," Ms. Zambole said. "Just because someone has opted in, if you start sending them e-mails every week or twice a week or whatever, they're going to unsubscribe. They are not going to want to hear from you anymore." Discover sends its e-mail newsletters once a month.

American Express Co., which also e-mails monthly newsletters to cardholders, has "definite e-mail policies that govern the kind of marketing we can do, including how many times and how many different kinds of messages we send," said Judy Tenzer, an Amex spokeswoman. Cardholders opt in to the service by submitting their e-mail addresses, and every subsequent message includes an opt-out notice.

"We don't want to flood customers," Ms. Tenzer said. "We want to communicate in ways they want to hear from us."

Acquisitions "are quite a different thing than communicating with current customers," she explained. "We do e-mail newsletters to cardholders to push different kinds of rewards programs and offers, but we do not attempt acquisitions through that channel." Nor does American Express solicit new customers by phone, she added.

Citigroup Inc. does not send unsolicited e-mail, and its privacy policy dictates that only customers who have activated their accounts online are contacted by e-mail, spokeswoman Maria Mendler said. It does "some targeted e-mail marketing to existing customers," she said.

Deborah Pulver, a spokeswoman for Fleet Credit Card Services, said FleetBoston Financial Corp. has also resisted the temptation to send e-mail solicitations. "At this time, we are not using outbound e-mail for account acquisitions," she said.

The peculiar intimacy of e-mail has led to an etiquette system that is quite unlike other methods of customer contact. Even some companies that make outbound telemarketing calls and send a lot of snail mail will stop short of sending out unbidden e-mail solicitations.

"E-mail is different," said Gina Lambert, vice president of marketing and client services at Quris Inc., a technology and consulting firm in San Francisco that specializes in marketing by e-mail and other Internet-connected devices. "It's a very personal way of reaching a customer. Your message comes up right in front of their face. If they take offense, you're wasting your time and invading their privacy."

Ms. Lambert said the stakes for financial companies are very high. "If you do it right, they'll love you," she said. "If you do it wrong, they'll hate you, and you'll never get them back."

Ms. Lambert, whose company was hired by Discover in February to help with e-mail marketing strategies, says most companies do not know how to send a proper e-mail. (Discover is Quris' only financial services client besides Charles Schwab Corp., which has a majority stake in the company.)

Corporate marketing executives "think they know how to do it because they know how to market on the Web and through the mail," Ms. Lambert said. "They think that e-mail is just cheap and easy, but you have to be more sophisticated than that."

One way some companies err is in overdoing a "personalization" strategy, targeting messages based on what marketing data tell them about a consumer's life and identity. There is too much room for mistakes, Ms. Lambert said, as well as a big risk of spooking people by showing off how much the company knows.

"Personalization is wonderful," she said, "but it's wrong to send inappropriate products, or to send too much, or to use information about the customer that was taken from another Web site."


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