Mother, May I?

The idea of getting permission from a prospect or group of prospects strikes me as one of the toughest concepts in email marketing. I say that it’s a tough concept because plenty of people out there just plain don’t get it.

Real permission, the kind that allows for a deeper relationship between a brand and a consumer, starts with the brand specifically asking the prospect whether it’s OK to use email as a commercial communication channel. To claim that anything else constitutes permission is misleading and has the potential to do damage to a brand. Permission comes in three stages:

  1. Introduction. This is the stage at which the commercial entity introduces itself to the consumer. An organization that is especially concerned about respecting a consumer’s right to privacy would make this introduction outside of an email. At this stage, the company needs to let the consumer know what it is, what it does, and how it is relevant to the consumer’s life.

  2. Asking permission. This stage involves putting a value proposition in front of the consumer and asking that consumer to either accept or decline an exchange of value. For example, if I represent Cannondale ATVs, I might ask consumers if they would provide their email addresses so that I can send a twice-monthly newsletter about my line of all-terrain vehicles, including special offers. At this point, the consumer should have the option of accepting the value proposition and providing the address, or declining.

  3. Confirmation. Should a consumer accept the value proposition, the commercial entity should immediately confirm that the consumer has opted to accept that proposition. At this point, a double opt-in mechanism should also confirm that the company is talking to the person it thinks it’s talking to (preventing people from signing others up without their knowledge).

Once that permission is granted and confirmed, the work isn’t over. Maintaining the permission requires the fulfillment of certain requirements. A company needs to deliver on the original proposition as well as give consumers the ability to opt out of the program whenever they desire.

My point in outlining all of this is to provide some context for looking at an email practice that has been bugging me as of late — the practice of opting in millions of consumers to a rentable list, which results in people receiving commercial email from a great number of companies. Ostensibly, the consumer email addresses that appear on such lists represent individuals willing to receive email offers from anyone who rents the list. I would argue that that’s not the case.

If you’re a media buyer, think about some of the offers you’ve recently received from list brokers and other email companies. Several of them claim to have email lists consisting of tens or hundreds of millions of consumers who have opted in to receive special offers. The smart media buyers, when pitched on the idea of renting such a list, would try to ascertain the reality of the situation.

In many cases, buyers will find that these consumers, in filling out a form on the Web, failed to uncheck a box next to language that reads something like, “Yes! I’d like to receive special offers from Company XYZ and its affiliated partners.” As marketers, we quickly realize that failing to uncheck that box will essentially permanently revoke your right to privacy, and you’ll start receiving offers from anyone and everyone. But consumers who do not possess marketing savvy do not understand that. All they understand is that their email box is being filled up with hundreds of spam communications from organizations they don’t know.

Remember this whenever an email marketing company offers you a huge list of opt-in names. While in theory it sounds OK to ask consumers if they want offers from affiliated companies, in practice consumers can’t grant email permission to a company that they don’t yet know. Any opt-in process that asks a consumer to do so is really just asking them if they want to receive spam.

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