Is Unasked-for Email Always Spam?

Well, we expected reactions to last week’s article, and we’ve gotten them. But, we are pleased to report, the early response on email guidelines has brought in informed and well-considered refinements, not the flaming we’d geared ourselves to expect.

Most of our respondents, even those who disapprove of unsolicited email, agreed that there are times and situations when unasked-for email is acceptable. We do develop some level of relationship with any enterprise we’ve done business with (for instance, if we’ve attended one of their conferences, bought something or requested information from them, etc.), and we are less apt to object to the occasional and contextually appropriate message from that entity.

But what about a business we have never been in direct contact with? Is selling to a business different than selling to consumers? In the B2B arena, many firms cold-call or send snail-mail to individuals with titles that imply they might be interested in the product for sale. What is the reaction to an email application of the same tried-and-true lead-generation approach?

What if I attend an industry conference and use the attendee list to build an email list? Is that a bulk mailing? Does the answer change if I was a sponsor of that conference, and I collected business cards for a raffle at my booth? Does that imply permission to mail to those people? How about if I was a speaker and sent an email with a copy of my presentation to all the attendees? What’s OK, and what’s not?

For some respondents, the answer lies in the size and suitability of the message. Whereas a bulk mailing for a generic product is annoying, a mailing to a carefully crafted list targeting people likely to be interested in a niche service or application is less likely to disturb, says one thoughtful writer. Sounds reasonable.

But who decides what constitutes “bulk”? How many is too many? And who gets to serve as the judge and jury for suitability and frequency? Perhaps those merciless spammers who fill our inboxes with “cheap long distance!!!!” or “get rich by accepting credit cards!” actually believe we might be interested? Whose call is it?

So, therein lies the problem. When the standard for acceptability lies with individual judgment, you can be sure that one person’s targeted and helpful offer is another’s irritant.

Since you’ve asked us to lay down the law on this subject, we know some of you will be disappointed that we left some questions open. But we neither assume the authority to do so nor kid ourselves that our version of right and wrong would be enforceable in any way. So, instead, we are offering guidelines for salespeople and marketers that may serve as a starting point for your own personal and company policies.

Remember that we write this column to assist businesses in selling more and selling more effectively. We don’t believe that aggravating your intended customer base is a very smart way to reap sales. So we suggest that mailing only to those recipients who have explicitly granted you permission to do so be your default mode and that diverging from this policy merits serious thought.

What if your list is less clean than you thought will you be aggravating current or potential customers? What would being considered a spammer (even if you deem yourself innocent of that charge) mean to your personal relationships and to the power of your brand? What is the cost to your business or reputation if even one recipient judged your email efforts over the line and reported you to an antispam group? Or if a good customer took the message as evidence that they would prefer not to work with your firm?

Ultimately, using nonsolicited email to promote your company is a calculated risk, just like many other business decisions you make. There’s no magic formula, no “right” answer that makes sense in every situation. But if you can answer all these questions comfortably and still feel good about your email plans, you may well be OK.

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