Get the “And” Out!

What’s wrong with this terms-and-conditions statement? (Actual company name changed to protect the clueless.)

    By submitting your information, you agree that GreatBigCompany.com may use your contact information for purposes of GreatBigCompany.com’s marketing efforts and/or to send you future correspondence regarding, without limitation, its promotions, offers, coupons, newsletters and, except for these purposes, GreatBigCompany.com will not disclose your information to unaffiliated third parties.

One little word makes my blood boil, speaking from the e-mail user’s standpoint: the conjunction “and.” It forces me into taking your e-mail even if I only wanted only to register on your site or claim an incentive.

I have several problems with this, as, I expect, your own subscribers or customers will if your terms language is written with that particular “and” in it:

  • It constitutes notice, not choice. I don’t care if you did give me a little checkbox, not even if you did the right thing by not loading it prechecked. You are forcing me to accept all your e-mail to complete the action that brought me to your page, like registering for a service or claiming an incentive. That’s not permission.

  • “Future correspondence,” which here is listed as “promotions, offers, coupons, newsletters,” is way too vague. Maybe I want your newsletter or your company news, but I might not want to buy anything from you. You don’t give me the option or tell me anything about those options.

    We know that people who sign up for newsletters don’t always want offers. Those are the ones who are the most likely to click the spam button even though, technically, they gave you permission to e-mail them by signing up for your site.

Here’s what the person who wrote this terms language just doesn’t get: The permission world has changed, because consumers’ view of what constitutes permission and spam has changed.

We used to think permission was forever. Now, it doesn’t even have to last until “forbid.” The spam-complaint button is used for revoking permission but not for recalling you ever provided it.

Today, the standard must be meaningful choice. The consumer knows all the options and chooses what he wants to receive with full knowledge and can change those options whenever he chooses.

Meaningful Choice Trumps Permission

No, I’m not going off on another permission rant or debate on the virtues of opt-in over opt-out. Let’s face it: you get 10 marketers together and you will end up with 10 different definitions of e-mail permission.

Instead, we must go deeper into how we use e-mail to see why meaningful choice has to be the standard now.

The issue is no longer opt-in or opt-out but a request to become more sophisticated in understanding just what opt-in, or permission, means today. Also, I want you to see how your site language can undermine your efforts with just that little “and” in the wrong place.

Study after study of consumer attitudes toward e-mail shows clearly that consumers today view any unwanted e-mail as spam, even if they signed up for it. When you force e-mail on them by using the conjunction “and,” you’re practically guaranteeing that anything you send will be more than your recipients want and a great big target for spam complaints.

Permission Isn’t Your Shield Anymore

Go back to GreatBigCompany.com’s terms statement. What do you think will happen two or three months from now, when the e-mail recipient who registered at its site gets a third-party e-mail coupon from the company on behalf of a subsidiary and clicks the spam button because she doesn’t recognize the sender or even know why she’s getting it to begin with?

Maybe in your marketer’s mind, the coupon is allowed because it’s part of the marketing efforts mentioned in the terms statement. If this is how you do business, your permission shield won’t protect you here.

The ISP your customer complains to won’t take your side, either. Too many marketers have abused the permission privilege and tried to hide behind conjunction-laden terms statements.

Now, here’s the sad part. I really like GreatBigCompany.com. If it had been more upfront with me, if it had given me the specific option to receive just a newsletter, I would have been willing to sign up.

But with no options spelled out and a vague and overly broad permission granted in the terms statement, there’s no way I could in this case.

Meaningful Choice Done Right

At the recent Authentication and Online Trust Association‘s summit, one speaker singled out Lauren Skena of National Geographic for her company’s excellent sign-up program.

Before you check it out, let me point out why this is such a good process and why you should try to copy it for your own use:

  • The newsletter descriptions are shown first, before users are asked for any data about themselves.

  • Content is succinctly described, but with enough info to make an informed decision.
  • Each description includes the frequency.
  • The page is laid out for easy navigation, with text links to samples.
  • The page links to the privacy page, which highlights the full privacy policy in plain language, not legalese like in the GreatBigCompany.com example. There are no conjunctions, except where appropriate.

Given the page layout and all in the information provided, National Geographic’s process really does allow me to request as much or as little e-mail as I’d would like and doesn’t imply that I’ll have to accept anything I don’t want. That’s what I mean by “meaningful choice.”

Remember, today’s customer-driven e-mail climate means sending subscribers what they want, not what you want to foist on them. Deception or forced acceptance gets you nowhere.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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