Permission: Standard or Best Practice?

We believe permission is the engine driving the email marketing train. So, it’s a rude shock to wander back into the dining car and find people still arguing opt-out as an acceptable strategy.

Permission — opt-in, double opt-in, confirmed opt-in, whatever form you use — is no longer one of several options for responsible email marketers. It’s even evolved beyond being a best practice, something to shoot for or debate at conference workshops.

Permission is now a required practice and is critical to your email program’s success. Sending email without permission hurts three critical facets of your email program: deliverability, customer brand experience, and ROI (define).


Major ISPs require all bulk email sent to their users to be permission-based. From the AOL bulk-email guidelines:

All bulk email to AOL members must be solicited, meaning that the sender has an existing and provable relationship with the email recipient and the recipient has not requested not to receive future mailings from the sender. Documentation of the relationship between the sender and the recipient must be made available to AOL upon request.

AOL’s whitelisting service requires permission, as does its feedback-loop service, which alerts you to email blockages and failures.

MSN’s policy reads:

You may not use any MSN services to send Spam. You also may not deliver Spam or cause Spam to be delivered to any of Microsoft’s MSN Services or MSN customers.

And Yahoo’s policy states:

Don’t send unsolicited email. Make sure that all email addresses are confirmed with an opt-in process that ensures the recipient wants to receive your mail.

Permission is also the standard for accreditation and trusted-sender services, which helps email pass through filters and get delivered to the inbox instead of the junk folder. Some even specify the highest level of permission: double/confirmed opt-in.

Customer Brand Experience

The ill will a recipient feels toward your unsolicited email can transfer to your brand. A 2003 Harris Poll found 79 percent of Americans were “somewhat” to “very” annoyed by spam, which included not just the typical financial and pharmaceutical mailings but also any unsolicited email, even from brand-name advertisers.

Annoyed customers inflict long-term damage, too, when they click their spam-reporting buttons and submit your email to blacklists. That can get your email blocked entirely or filtered to the junk folder. This is the most direct link to deliverability damage.


Permission-based lists significantly outperform unsolicited mailings. Sure, the contrarians argue, but permission-based lists are much smaller than lists built through unsolicited means.

True, but every analysis we’ve done or seen demonstrates the higher response rates from permission email deliver more sales, leads, and desired actions than does unsolicited email to larger lists.

Companies that send to permission-based house lists typically receive CTRs (define) of 5 to 15 percent or higher. An exceptional response to non-permission-based email from house lists would be 1 to 2 percent.

E-Mail Marketers Take the Pledge

Another argument that permission is a standard: The Email Sender and Provider Coalition (ESPC) now requires “prior affirmative consent” for members who send or manage email programs.

This amounts to an industry mandate, because the ESPC’s membership represents all sides of the email-marketing equation: senders who run their own programs or manage campaigns for an estimated 250,000 businesses representing hundreds of millions of addresses; ISPs that decide whether to block or pass the email; and MTAs (define) and reputation services serving both senders and recipients.

The ESPC recently updated its Member Pledge to include prior affirmative consent as defined by the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act and the European Commission’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive:

1. Unsolicited commercial email must not be sent.

2. Commercial email must not be sent to an individual’s email address [without”… prior affirmative consent of the individual… as defined by the CAN SPAM Act of 2003… or prior consent of the individual… as defined by the European Commission Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive.

The Debate Continues

Despite these arguments, not all marketers agree permission is a requirement for email success. We’re asked in best-practice workshops, discussion-group chatter, and questions from prospective clients: why is email held to a higher standard than other marketing channels such as broadcast, print, or direct mail?

Our reply: It costs no money and very little time to skip a TV commercial, pitch a catalog, or read past a print ad. Deleting spam wastes the recipient’s time and access charges or per-message fees, and degrades the user’s experience and trust in email. Recipients have been telling us that since email evolved to a viable marketing channel. Permission is the logical conclusion of that decade-long evolution.

Permission should’ve been the standard as far back as 1978, when the DEC Corp. sent out the world’s first spam message on ARPANET and got a stern talking-to from the Defense Communications Agency.

If you agree, help us build our case. Send us your stories or statistics showing how your email program has benefited from a permission model. And if you remain firmly permission-optional, make your case. Back up your argument with numbers, if you can.

Keep on deliverin’ (with permission)!

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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