Glossary: Opt-In, Opt-Out and the Grey Area

Just when we think a subject has been discussed to death, more questions pop up, reminding us once again how quickly both people and concepts shift positions in this industry and how important it is to continually define and clarify.

Last week’s column generated a loud response. Our email boxes filled up with readers wondering if we were saying opt-in, opt-out and optionless emails should all be treated equally. It was hard to tell if those writing were really curious or simply looking for a fight, but we’re choosing to assume that the questions were well intentioned.

So, from our humble points of view, here are the definitions as we see them:

Opt-in: The recipient is given the option of choosing to be on a mailing list. Recipients have to take a specific action to be added to the list (check a box, offer an email address, click a submit button, etc.).

The more specifically recipients are told what they are agreeing to, the more valuable and qualified the list. For example, an opportunity to opt in to “future mail from us” is much less qualified, no matter who is making the offer, than an opt-in criteria that specifies, “We would like to send you our bimonthly newsletter on online advertising and its impact on awareness.” That second example will get fewer opt-ins, but those who sign on will be much better qualified and more desirable to marketers.

Opt-out: The list builder assumes that the recipient wants to get email but offers the recipient the chance to remove his or her address from the list. The default position for opt-out is yes, and the recipient has to take an overt action to get his or her name off the list. Since many less-experienced users are not trained to watch for the small type and sometimes subtle opt-out box to uncheck, this audience is considered by many to be less qualified.

Though proponents of opt-out will argue that the end user does have a choice, we assume that choice is less clear than the chance to opt in, and, therefore, the list is less valuable to the marketer.

No option at all: OK, now it’s time for some controversy. Much of the prevailing sentiment on this topic says that when consumers receive email without knowing how or why they got on the list, even if the email includes a way to remove oneself from future mailings, it is spam, pure and simple. Serious marketers interested in building and defending a brand wont want to engage in this sort of mailing.

Not so fast, say we. We believe there is a place for an occasional unsolicited email (with an opt-out option, of course).

For example, we both get emails from the organizers of conferences we attended in the past, alerting us to upcoming conferences. While we didn’t specifically opt in for them, because we’ve attended a conference in the past, we understand why we’re getting them and are not offended by them. We don’t really consider this spam, nor do we think it hurts the organizers’ brand.

Of course everyone hates the “Make big $$$$ working at home” emails just as we all hate the irrelevant crap that junks up our mailboxes each day. But, as in direct mail, the issue is relevancy and frequency. So, in our book, we don’t automatically think unsolicited email is a bad idea as long as the topic is very targeted and has a high likelihood of being of interest to the people receiving it. This may be the politically incorrect opinion in the Internet world, but we believe that we’re removing a powerful marketing tool when we damn all non-opt-in email.

Grey area: A respondent opted in for mailings from a business but was unaware of that company’s intent to sell the names for outside usage. We call that inappropriate use of opt-in, and since the recipient did not actually intend to receive what was sent, it meets the letter but not the spirit of opt-in. Marketers who value customer relationships won’t want to go there. More and more sites are getting very specific about their intended use of user information, and we applaud this increased level of disclosure.

Another grey area is an unsolicited mailing to member or customer lists. As we noted above, there can be good reason to do this, but the key is not to overdo it. In addition to occasional, relevant sales messages, unsolicited emails are sometimes necessary if there is information that affects usage that the membership base would want to know about (a planned outage for maintenance when members might plan to use the service, a concern for safety that the business feels compelled to report, etc.).

In a perfect world, every web site would have secured permission to communicate such timely and important information, and would have learned from the members what level of communication each finds acceptable. But it’s not a perfect world, and businesses sometimes realize the need to communicate only when the emergency is upon them, with no chance to go back and get all members to opt in.

Be aware though that no matter how valid your reasons for sending the message, it’s still unsolicited email, and some people will object. So, we say, do what you must to handle your client base responsibly, but don’t do it lightly. You won’t win friends.

We know many readers will disagree with us, in both directions. Do you have a good argument for seeing this field differently? Let us know, and we’ll report back the consensus of what we hear.

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