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Permission: Black, White... and Grey?

  |  September 15, 2003   |  Comments

Is permission to e-mail black and white, or does every marketer have a unique set of circumstances?

You sent many responses to my column on the definitions of confirmed and double opt-in. Many readers seem to view this as a black-and-white issue: E-mailers are either closed loop, double opt-in, or spammers.

In truth, every emailer is different. Each has a unique set of circumstances surrounding the way she acquires email addresses.

Business Versus Consumer Recipients

Let's start by clearly differentiating business-to-business (B2B) from business-to-consumer (B2C) email. Business email recipients have much more focused email needs. To marketers, this is of great importance. Most business recipients are content driven. The content they seek is specialized and must be relevant to their individual needs. Considering time sensitivities and the deluge of email sent to the average businessperson, requiring a closed-loop subscription can result in a considerable number of drop-offs.

Questions B2B (and all other) emailers should ask themselves prior to creating a closed-loop permission strategy are:

  • What's the value of each subscriber and each potential lost address?

  • What are the risks for fraudulent subscriptions, such as with offline address collection?

  • Is there a transaction relationship in the subscription? Will the email require password confirmation or transmit sensitive information?

The other primary consideration for B2B emailers is delivery, as with bulk consumer email. Most B2B email is more rigorously filtered by corporate servers than it would be by ISPs. Administrators often have limited flexibility changing these corporate filter settings. They pose a great obstacle for measuring email deliverability.

Content Versus Commercial Messages

Most ISPs don't differentiate between the volume of commercial solicitations and those of pure content messaging. An emailer's permission strategy is contingent on type of content and/or solicitation sent. When considering content, emailers should ask themselves if this message is unique compared to others in their recipients' inboxes. If the content is similar to spam or could be misconstrued as coming from a third-party source, an extra confirmation step to identify subsequent messaging components may be important in establishing a long-term relationship.

Personalized and/or relevant information is an issue in commercial solicitations. Direct marketers pride themselves on their ability to target and segment. Yet deriving relevancy from transactions or behavior alone often will not suffice. Many savvy marketers request profile creations during the acquisition process. A confirmation email can reaffirm the subscriber's profile. Marketers can then send more personalized, relevant messages.

The most important (and obvious) point in commercial messaging is recipients' interest level. During acquisition, potential email recipients need collection and use information clearly spelled out. Previous columns have discussed the specifics of acquisition requests. Spell it out so your grandmother could understand it.

Sensitive Versus Public Information

Brand is as critical as relevancy. E-mailers must ask themselves whether the message could damage the company or brand if sent to the wrong recipient. There's little question a bank will do everything it can, including mailing passwords via post, to ensure an email address is accurate when transmitting financial information. That same bank's newsletter offers publicly available promotions. Can it be sent under a different permission strategy to collect the greatest number of addresses?

First- Versus Third-Party Senders

Most negative responses to email aren't associated with first-party brands. Rather, they stem from two types of third-parties messages: ads for third-party products and ads sent as a result of sharing data with third-party advertisers. It's an important distinction. Sensitivity to such messages is high indeed.

Often, third-party commercial messages are sent by the first party. Many free e-newsletters send third-party ads to subscribers, which is disclosed in the sign-up process. As sender line, header, and footer are all associated with the first party, there are few negative reactions to this type of message, and no need to change the permission. The emailer is clear at the point of acquisition subscribers will receive this type of message from the first party. E-mailers might explain suppressing third-party messages may cancel the free subscription.

There are many reasons why email addresses are shared with third parties that email independently of the first-party source. Reasons aside, transparency regarding the collection source and clarity at the point of acquisition that the address will be shared, is paramount.

Many email addresses are collected offline. When this is the case, marketers should strongly consider confirmation or double opt-in. There's high potential for error in compiling and transmitting data from paper or a call-center into a database.

Do you think different types of email require different levels of permission? Are permission strategies black and white? E-mail your thoughts!

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Ben Isaacson

Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.

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