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Opt-in vs. Opt-out: It's a Business Decision

  |  October 4, 2010   |  Comments

An opt-out e-mail acquisition strategy is legal, but is it the right thing to do? Consider these factors.

I'm a huge proponent of opt-in e-mail marketing. In my experience, it's the most effective way to use this important channel. That said, there are some organizations, even big, well-known brand names, that don't adhere 100 percent to an opt-in e-mail acquisition strategy. And there are other, less savory players that are 100 percent opt-out. Deciding whether to go opt-in, opt-out, or something in between is a business decision. Here's a brief look at the issues you need to consider.

Just to be clear, opt-in means that the recipient has knowingly given you, the sender, permission to communicate with them via e-mail. An easy test to determine whether or not your e-mail is opt-in is to ask yourself if the recipient will be expecting to receive e-mail from you. If so, it's opt-in. If not, it isn't.

Those of us in the e-mail world talk about opt-in being a best practice. Even so, it's not required under CAN-SPAM. Which is why many companies play fast and loose with their acquisition techniques; as long as it's not illegal it's okay, right?

It's not illegal. But there is a business risk involved with using acquisition tactics that aren't opt-in. You need to weigh the pros and cons of your acquisition strategy and, if you decide not to go opt-in, build in some protection against the worst-case scenarios.

In a MarketingSherpa survey done last year at this time, 74 percent of people identified "e-mail I did not sign-up to receive" as spam. When a group of people that had complained about e-mail messages in the past was surveyed, the percentage rose to 77 percent. Spam is in the eye of the beholder. You may believe that your message is relevant to the recipient and that this relevance will overcome any negatives created by not getting an opt-in, but in the end it's what the recipient thinks about your message that matters.

Which gets us to our first business risk of not going opt-in: increased likelihood of spam complaints.

It's not good when someone reports an e-mail from you as spam. It's even worse if the outcry is large enough to get you blacklisted, meaning that any ISP relying on that blacklist will block all e-mail from your server. If this happens again and again, it becomes more and more difficult to get off the blacklist and get any of your e-mail delivered.

Large anti-spam organizations like Spamhaus will usually require you to contact your list and get an explicit opt-in from everyone on it as a condition of getting off their blacklist. These efforts typically garner response rates of 25 percent or less – so your list instantly shrinks significantly. The good news is that then you'll have a 100 percent opt-in list, but it will be significantly smaller.

By not having a 100 percent opt-in acquisition program you also limit the vendors and suppliers that will be willing to work with you. Legitimate e-mail service providers (ESPs), whether they're dealing with large or small clients, all require opt-in permission. They're doing it to protect their IP addresses from blacklisting. I've seen situations where ESPs actually threaten to "fire" clients that are receiving spam complaints – and situations where the ESP requires the customer to go back to their list and ask for an explicit opt-in. The customer can't send further messages to any e-mail address that doesn't respond affirmatively to this request. Again, you're back to having a much smaller, but 100 percent opt-in, e-mail list.

I've also seen situations where organizations that aren't able to meet the permission requirements of legitimate ESPs try to go it alone. They build what is in essence a "mini ESP" in-house to handle their e-mail sends. This involves not just IT but also deliverability expertise, which is both an art and a science and is much more complex than just the send. It's an expensive proposition for start-up and ongoing costs. And it's difficult for an organization that's not focused on this to get it right.

Building an e-mail program on opt-out is like building an expensive house without a cement foundation. It may remain stable for a while, but eventually it will begin to sink and you'll begin to have structural damage. The only fix is to tear the house down, lay the foundation, and start over. That makes all the time, effort, and resources you put into the first building a waste.

Until next time,



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Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a 20 year veteran of the online/email marketing industry, having started her career with CompuServe in the late 1980s. As Vice President of Global Strategic Services for Alchemy Worx, Jennings helps organizations become more effective and more profitable online. Previously Jennings ran her own email marketing consultancy with a focus on strategy; clients included AARP, Hasbro, Scholastic, Verizon and Weight Watchers International. Want to learn more? Check out her blog.

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