Permission to Spam?

Ask most respectable marketers, service providers, or legislators to define spam, and you’ll typically hear something like this:

Spam: bulk email sent without recipients’ permission or a prior business relationship.

Ask the average consumer what she thinks spam is, and you’ll most often get this:

Spam: anything in my inbox I don’t want or don’t remember requesting.

Catch the disconnect between the two definitions? Like print, TV, and radio before it, email continues to evolve along with its “audience.” For many email recipients inundated with messages from friends, family, legitimate marketers, and unknown/unsolicited sources, that means setting up personal filters. Perhaps the greatest hurdle in today’s challenging delivery environment, personal filters enable users to segment, delete, and label communications based on relevance, frequency, and value, despite the level of permission obtained by the marketer.

Personal filters increasingly take different forms, some exclusive to email. From ignoring messages to hitting the delete key to clicking on the increasingly popular “report spam” button, consumers are challenging marketers to be more relevant.

Initial euphoria and novelty surrounding email as a marketing medium are subsiding as email becomes more embedded in our daily routines and lives. But is it really? Though email is often held to a different standard due to its personal nature and interactive qualities, these qualities are also email’s strength compared to preceding media. E-mail offers marketers a unique opportunity to build cost-efficient and profitable long-term dialogues with customers, which ultimately can yield true competitive marketplace advantage.

No doubt, the battle to conquer inbox clutter and differentiate legitimate, permission-based email from junk continues to escalate (see Rebecca Lieb’s recent ClickZ column detailing the latest sobering spam stats). Marketers who understand these challenges, leverage the medium’s power, and combine technology capabilities with old-fashioned, proven direct-marketing and relationship-building proficiency will distinguish their communications. More important, these marketers will succeed in building communication solutions and dialogues within an evolving medium. Marketers who ignore the disconnect between their own definition of spam and their customers’ will face an uphill battle for consumer attention over time.

What to do? Don’t believe permission gives you free rein to blast away. E-mail is a consumer-controlled medium, and you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself starting now. Build relevant email communications delivered within explicit expectations agreed to by both recipient and marketer. Here are areas to consider when building a win-win situation focused on relevance and trust and avoiding the perception of spam:

  • Permission gathering and preference pages. When requesting permission to deliver future email communications, be very explicit about how the address will be used. Make it clear what kind of communication the individual is agreeing to receive and at what frequency. An opt-in for a certain type of communication does not constitute broad permission to blast away at that person’s inbox with different categories of messaging, unless that broad permission is explained and agreed to upfront. Someone who opts in to receive a newsletter about personal health may not be thrilled to unexpectedly receive an unrequested travel newsletter, a third-party promotion, or a monthly company update from the same organization.

    Mailing to lists gathered through partner sites is not recommended. Many spammers love to use the line, “You’re receiving this email because you opted in at one of our partner’s marketing sites.” Don’t go down that road. E-mail users are very protective of their inboxes. They expect to receive email directly from the people and organizations they willfully gave their email addresses to.

  • Confirmations. When an individual registers, remind him at the point of registration to look for a confirmation email. In the confirmation, include the type of communication (weekly newsletter, news alerts, monthly promotion, etc.) he will receive, and at what frequency. This establishes expectations and helps ensure the recipient is not surprised when your email arrives.

    Make sure to include unsubscribe information. Tell the recipient if he wants to unsubscribe from the email at any time to use the unsubscribe link in the email — not the “report as spam” button many are increasingly clicking as a quick way out. Remind the recipient to add your sender address to his personal whitelist so email is properly delivered to the inbox instead of a bulk-mail folder.

  • Surveys. It’s critical to learn more about your recipients’ needs, wants, and preferences over time to build more relevant and successful communications. Yet asking for too much information at initial preference pages is a classic cause of registration abandonment. Therein lies the rub. A solution: Surveys are a great tool to gain more information about your recipients.

    Don’t feel comfortable sending an email survey to recipients who may have granted only limited permission? Include a promotional cross-sell for the survey in a newsletter or alert they already receive according to the terms of the relationship.

  • Analytics/click-stream tracking. Information gleaned from preference pages and surveys reveal a great deal about recipients but is only part of the picture. What compels an individual to click or not? When she does click, how does she interact with your site? Go a step further: How does she interact with your call center or retail location? Analytics, behavioral data, and post-click-stream tracking say a great deal about what makes recipients tick, what they like and dislike. With that additional information in hand, you can build even more relevant email communications.
  • Touch-point intelligence gathering. Pooling information about customers gathered from all your touch points can go a long way in fleshing out a 360 degree view of your email recipients. Call centers, direct mail campaigns, retail locations, trade shows, conferences, and other touch points all represent potential intelligence sources vital to a successful email communications program.
  • Personalization and testing. As clutter grows, personalization and testing are more critical to email return on investment (ROI) than ever. Personalized email reminds the recipient you know his name and value the relationship. Testing is the backbone of smart marketing. If you are unsure your customers will be receptive to an email, test it on a smaller subset before rolling it out to your full list.
  • Content and subject lines. Ensure all email communications are what you promised the recipient when she signed up. Someone who opts in only for a newsletter wants to receive a newsletter, not product promotions. Use clear, concise copy and highlight your brand in the subject line. If you deliver a daily or weekly newsletter, include “daily” or “weekly” in the subject line so it’s easily recognized. Consumers are extremely perceptive; if you try to dupe them with a misleading subject line that doesn’t match the email’s content, you’ll be labeled a spammer (and possibly incur the wrath of the government and lawyers). Content and subject lines that correlate with each other and adhere to recipients’ expectations set a positive framework for building strong email relationships.

Internet marketing’s original promise was to create true, one-to-one experiences between organizations, their customers, and their prospects. There’s not yet a single solution to the spam problem. But by keeping the above considerations and tactics in mind when planning and executing your email program, you’ll discover permission, trust, and relevance help you build strong, long-term relationships with recipients on an individual basis.

Until next time,

Al D.

Meet Al at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

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