When a Rose Isn't a Rose in Permission-Based Marketing

  |  March 25, 2010   |  Comments

An online florist sends out an e-mail marketing message to subscribers of a sister company's list. That's a thorny practice.

One afternoon, I was minding my own business when an e-mail landed in my inbox and prompted me to do a double take. Not in a "wow that is something uniquely cool" kind of way. But in a "legitimate brand just spammed me" kind of way.

Some may shrug their head and say "duh." Still, I was surprised, frustrated, and wanted to try to make sense of this.

Here's what happened: I received two e-mails from two different brands within two minutes - RedEnvelope and ProFlowers. I sensed something was wrong.

I had previously opted in to receive e-mail messages from RedEnvelope. While I rarely buy from RedEnvelope, its e-mails are generally well done. On the other hand, I haven't had any contact with or purchased anything from ProFlowers in years. I unsubscribed from e-mail marketing lists for ProFlowers and other florists because they were sending out too many e-mail messages.

As an e-mail marketing purist and true believer in permission-based e-mail marketing, I replied to RedEnvelope, asking why it transferred my e-mail address to ProFlowers. I also replied to ProFlowers asking exactly how, when, and where I opted in to this list.

The good news? Each quickly replied to my queries, which is often a surprise. The bad news? Representatives at both companies didn't fully understand the concept of permission marketing.

RedEnvelope responded:

"I apologize for the confusion, however Proflowers is our sister company which is why you have received an email from them."

I hope you, dear reader, find this as unsettling as I did. After about 10 exchanges with customer service, one rep from RedEnvelope, Stephen S., provided the following explanation about how and why I was added to ProFlowers' database.

"Basically Proflowers owns RedEnvelope. We are one in the same company operating in the same offices. No information was sold/given to any third party affiliate.

...RedEnvelope and Proflowers are the same company. We operate in the same database with the same customer base. Our customers know that RedEnvelope and Proflowers are the same company because of the logo's that are displayed on each website. If you go to www.redenvelope.com, you can clearly see proflowers at the bottom where it reads, "Our Family of Brands". We even offer proflowers and Shari's berries items on the redenvelope site. Because we operate in the same building under the same management, no information has been given to any third party affiliate."

Indeed, San Diego-based Provide Commerce owns RedEnvelope and ProFlowers. However, none of that matters to me. Nor does it automatically transfer my permission from one company to the other. I didn't sign up with Provide Commerce (the parent) or ProFlowers (the sister), so the background family noise is irrelevant to me. I would assume 99 percent of their customers feel the same way.

The official response from Grace Lee in its PR department is:

"Through our emails we offer a wide range of gifting options, and great savings and deals that consumers might not otherwise receive. In our privacy policy we state that we may offer free electronic newsletters and promotional e-mails for products and/or services offered on any one or more of our sites, such as the email you received from a sister company of RedEnvelope. If anyone wishes to unsubscribe to our emails, there is an unsubscribe link at the top of the page, or they can call our Customer Service Department at anytime."

When I asked Lee if she thought this practice of non-permission was generally acceptable and in the customers' best interest, she replied:

"Consumers give permission to receive emails from our family of brands through our privacy policy."

Most people don't consider the privacy policy to be part of opt-in; Provide Commerce is committing an egregious offense in my book. I wish I could say that this circumstance is a rare exception, but the sad reality is that many companies see this as fair game.

Customers typically don't know or care who the parent or sister company is. Unless I sign up with the corporate parent or a broad newsletter that outlines what I'll be receiving (and why), I better not get an e-mail from another brand, company, or anything else affiliated with whom I provided my consent to for future mailings.

"These are customers! Why assume that they will want a sister brand?" said Stephanie Miller, VP, market development at Return Path and a fellow ClickZ columnist. "It's a great way to increase spam complaints and unsubscribe requests. It is OK to cross-promote. Why not send a great offer from RedEnvelope, featuring ProFlowers? That way, RedEnvelope serves its customers with cool, timely offers and adds value to the relationship."

A cross promotional e-mail would have been acceptable and probably relevant. But a full transfer of my e-mail address from RedEnvelope to ProFlowers is unacceptable.

Did RedEnvelope violate CAN-SPAM? Nope. Did it cross the boundary of permission e-mail marketing? Absolutely.

Bill McCloskey, founder of Email Data Source, disagrees and offers an alternative view of this practice. (He analyzed ProFlowers' recent Valentine's Day campaigns and called it one of the more inventive and successful e-mail marketers.

"I think the definition of best practices is often misunderstood," McCloskey said. "Best practices should refer to the e-mail practices that ultimately generate the most revenue, not some arbitrary code of conduct. If you spam people, your delivery will go down, you will be blacklisted, and you will make less revenue. In the case of cross promotion and sharing of sister company lists, the standard we need to look at is: does this practice increase or decrease revenue in the short run and in the long run."

It's not my intent to embarrass either RedEnvelope or ProFlowers. My goal is to highlight a continued gap in e-mail marketing - a battle between people who care about permission-based e-mail marketing and those who "blast" e-mails to a "list."

Advocates of permission-based e-mail marketing must keep fighting the good fight. If we don't, we'll all just be sending e-mails instead of delivering relevant, valuable, and targeted messaging to people who asked for them.

What's your take on this situation?


Simms Jenkins

Simms Jenkins is CEO of BrightWave Marketing, North America's leading email marketing-focused digital agency. The award-winning firm specializes in elevating email marketing and digital messaging programs that drive revenue, cut costs, and build relationships. Jenkins has led BrightWave Marketing in establishing a world-class client list including Affiliated Computer Service (A Xerox Company), Chick-fil-A, Cox Business, Phillips66, Porsche, and Southern Company. The agency was recently ranked among the fastest growing private companies by Inc. Magazine.

Jenkins was awarded the prestigious AMY 2010 Marketer of the Year from the American Marketing Association for being the top agency marketer and the Email Marketer of the Year at the Tech Marketing Awards held by the Technology Association of Georgia. Jenkins is regarded as one of the leading experts in the email marketing industry and is regularly cited by the media as such and called upon by the financial community to provide market insight and consulting.

Jenkins is the author of two definitive and highly regarded books on email marketing; The New Inbox (published in April 2013 by ClickZ/Incisive Media) and The Truth About Email Marketing (published by Pearson's Financial Times Press in 2008). Jenkins is currently the Email Marketing Best Practices Columnist for ClickZ, the largest resource of interactive marketing news and commentary in the world, online or off. His industry articles have been called one of the top 21 information sources for email marketers.

He has been featured in Fortune Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Bloomberg TV, Wired Magazine, and scores of other leading publications and media outlets. Jenkins is a regular speaker at major digital industry and general business conferences.

Additionally, Jenkins is the creator of EmailStatCenter.com and SocialStatCenter.com, the leading authorities on email and social media metrics. Prior to founding BrightWave Marketing, Jenkins headed the CRM group at Cox Interactive Media.

Jenkins serves on the eMarketing Association's Board of Advisors among other civic and professional boards. He is also a mentor at Flashpoint, a Georgia Tech-based startup accelerator program. Jenkins is a graduate of Denison University in Granville, Ohio and resides in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood with his wife and three children.

Follow and connect with Simms on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, The BrightWave Blog, and his book websites at NewInboxBook.com and SimmsJenkins.com.

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