Friends, Friendly Acquaintances, and Your E-mail List

It’s tempting, isn’t it?

You go to a business conference or just attend an industry event. You talk to people and exchange business cards. Back at your office, you do your standard one-to-one follow-up via e-mail and then…what?

Do you add all these people to your company’s mass e-mail list?

Based on the content of my inbox in April, many of you are probably shaking your head yes.

Years ago a colleague floated the idea that, someday, we would all have “private” e-mail addresses and “public” e-mail addresses. She predicted that the private e-mail addresses would be safeguarded, much like Social Security numbers and unlisted phone numbers, and only given out to a chosen few contacts. Everyone else would be given the public e-mail address — which would be heavily filtered for spam and probably have a high rate of false positives (legitimate e-mail messages mistakenly filtered as spam).

I think I’m headed into implementing my colleague’s “future world.”

I did a quick audit of the e-mail that my most private e-mail account received in April. This e-mail address appears on my business cards and in communications with clients, but nowhere else. It’s not on my Web site and I never knowingly use it to opt-in to receive mass e-mail messages — never.

The result? I had 171 e-mail messages that fell into the “mass e-mail — why are they sending to this address?” category. That’s more than 24 percent of all the legitimate e-mail messages I received to this address in April (all spam messages were filtered or deleted).

These “why are they sending to this address?” messages came from 42 different organizations. Five of them (12 percent) sent me more than 10 separate e-mail messages during April; two of these sent me over 20 messages during the course of the month.

I did a breakdown of senders, putting them into one of three categories:

  • 40 percent are what I called “unknown senders.” The question here is: how did I get on this list?

  • 38 percent are what I refer to as “known senders,” meaning that I’ve heard of these companies, and I guess it’s possible I met someone at a conference and swapped business cards. But I don’t recall opting in with this address (although I may have opted-in to receive e-mail from them with a secondary address).
  • 21 percent fall into the “relationship with sender” group. These are organizations where I have or had a business or personal relationship with someone that works there (but they aren’t clients).

Let’s tackle each group separately.

The unknown senders shouldn’t be sending me e-mail at this address. If I don’t even remember meeting you, how could I have given you permission to send e-mail to my most private e-mail account?

That said, I’m uncomfortable unsubscribing. I don’t know these people — they could note the action and sell my name to another organization (or 100 other organizations) and the unwanted e-mail to this account would increase even more. Best course of action: set a rule in Outlook to automatically send these directly to the junk mail folder. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars, do not see the inside of my Outlook inbox.

The known senders aren’t blameless either. Many of these e-mail communications also come to one of my secondary accounts — which I used to opt-in. So these e-mail messages to my primary e-mail account are redundant.

Here I plan to unsubscribe my primary address — and just keep the e-mail messages coming to one of my secondary addresses.

By far my biggest conundrum has to do with the “relationship with sender” group. I know these people; many of them are friends and/or friendly acquaintances. As with the “known senders” group, I’m probably also receiving their e-mail messages at a secondary e-mail address, which I used to opt-in.

This one is tough, because I feel a little preyed upon. We have a personal relationship so they just assumed it would be OK to add me to their mass e-mail list.

In some cases, I actually don’t want to get their e-mail, but I’m afraid they’ll be offended if I tell them that. In other cases, I’m fine with their e-mail messages coming to a secondary account, but unhappy that they felt comfortable loading my primary e-mail address into their database without permission.

What were they thinking? Most of these people are in the e-mail/online realm, so the idea of opt-in isn’t foreign to them.

By the way, I recognize the value of business cards. Years ago when I was a product manager for a publishing company I attended an event we sponsored. Business cards were collected for a giveaway.

After the event was over, I was speaking with the event host as she dumped the business cards that weren’t drawn into a trash can. I quickly asked if I could pull them out of the trash can and take them back to the office with me. She gave me a funny look and said something like “sure, I guess.” She had no idea how valuable those business cards were.

I did not go back and add the e-mail addresses on those business cards into my employer’s database. However, I turned them over to the sales team so they could cold call them. Which is fine; telemarketing doesn’t require opt-in permission; e-mail does.

The moral of this story: don’t assume you have permission. Don’t assume it if you meet someone briefly at a conference, or if someone is a friendly acquaintance, or even a friend.

Until next time,


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