If you follow the public companies within the Internet advertising space, you should have some familiarity with the rise and fall of Valueclick. The stock went from around $13 in the middle of 2006, doubled within five months before the start of this year, and then added roughly 30% more by late May. And, it managed to do this despite much press surrounding its lead generation practices and even an inquiry by the FTC. In that wonderful period between July 20th and August 3rd, though, it lost more than 30%, a backlash against the company lowering its estimates slightly due to expected changes as a result of the government inquiry. Always ready to pounce, this drop has even prompted one law firm, the corporate version of the ambulance chaser, to file a class action lawsuit against Valueclick alleging that the company’s lead-generation practices violated the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Federal Trade Commission Guidelines. Now comes word that some mortgage ads might have violated FTC guidelines. You can almost understand why when you consider that one of the largest mortgage lead generation firms advertises to consumers for them to calculate their new payment; although, they only receive a form upon clicking and phone calls upon submitting. Says Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection “Many mortgage advertisers are making potentially deceptive claims about incredibly low rates and payments, without telling consumers the whole story.” Whether that burden falls on the advertiser (usually the lead generator) or the one actually servicing the lead remains open. Regardless, much like some of the upcoming issues in mobile, we see more evidence of an environment where marketers feel they must push the envelope to make money.
That Valueclick has received attention for its lead generation practices hurts more than just Valueclick. It has the potential to cast doubt on all of lead generation. Look again at what the shareholder lawsuit alleges, i.e. “the company’s lead-generation practices violated the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Federal Trade Commission Guidelines.” If you were not intimately familiar with Valueclick, and especially if you did not currently operate in the online direct marketing space, what would you think? What you see is a billion dollar company, one mentioned as a potential acquisition target in the same breath as names you trust like Microsoft and Yahoo. Additionally, what would you think when reading that mortgage ads may have violated FTC guidelines? Even a company with online experience, even some lead generation experience might shy away – turning down vendors, less open to new ideas, etc. All of which is misinterpretation of the issue at hand. Both the Valueclick questions and the mortgage ads stem from the same issue – pushing leads rather than the pulling of leads. It’s about whether consumers filled out the form for the right reasons and the ultimate benefit to the buyer of the lead.