Three Scenarios, Three Solutions: Non-Opt-In Legacy Email Addresses

A ton of articles provide advice on building an opt-in email list from scratch. What if you’re just now putting an opt-in policy in place? You have a database of email addresses but don’t have opt-in permission to send to them. What if you acquire or merge with another company and it has an email list? Do you need to go back to these groups and request permission to communicate with them via email?

Clients and readers alike have asked me these questions recently. It’s something I struggled with a few years ago, when I was hired by a company with over a million email addresses in its database but with no explicit permission to send email to any of them.

Back then, I scoured the Web for information to guide me. I found a few articles and case studies. When I repeated the process for this article, I couldn’t even find the information I found back then. Here’s a framework for handling the situation, based on my experience.

The Balancing Act

What we’re really talking about is risk versus revenue. Companies want to take full advantage of email as a low-cost communication tool (that’s the revenue side). They also want to protect themselves from blacklisting and the other negative repercussions associated with spam accusations (that’s the risk part). They also want to do the right thing with respect to the email addressees, that is, their customers and prospects.

Many organizations fear a move toward an opt-in policy will require them to jettison their existing database of email addresses that don’t meet this standard. This isn’t necessarily the case — but they will need to move forward with caution.

Here are a few real-life examples I’ve faced lately, along with criteria for determining how to handle them.

Addresses Mailed to Regularly

The organization has a database of email addresses that aren’t opt-in but to which it has been mailing to on a regular basis. Typically, the messages consist of one or more email newsletters. If you’re mailing to them on a regular basis, there should be no harm in continuing to mail, as long as future communications are similar to those you’re currently sending. If you’re sending an email newsletter, continuing to send an email newsletter should be OK.

But… if you’re sending an email newsletter and you want to start renting the email addresses to third parties, I recommend you obtain opt-in permission for the new use. In this case, you’re not continuing in a way consistent with the past. You’re changing the nature of the relationship. You need the recipient’s permission to do so.

Bottom line: Any names in the database that are emailed to on a regular basis are grandfathered for future emails in the same vein. The organization needs opt-in permission to send email of a different nature.

Addresses Not Mailed to Regularly

The organization has a database of email addresses that aren’t opt-in. It has not been mailing on a regular basis. This situation is very different from the first. There is no preexisting email relationship to grandfather, so the organization must go back to this group and request opt-in permission to communicate via email.

Most email experts agree in this instance, it’s OK to send one email to these folks. Note this one email requests opt-in permission (not opt-out). The tone is important. Below is a good example. It’s an email I received years ago, requesting this type of permission:

From: Company Name
Subject: We don’t mean to bother you…

Dear Reader,

Somewhere along the way, you gave us your email address. To be honest, we are uncertain about whether or not you asked to receive email updates about new products and special offers from Company Name.

We’d love to share these announcements with you, but your privacy is important to us. If you’d like to receive these special announcements, you’ll need to respond to this email…

Be forewarned: Your opt-in rate will be 25 percent or less from such an effort. The older the list, the higher the bounce rate as a result of people changing email addresses. That said, this is still the best way to proceed. Your risk of negative repercussions will be less than if you assume you have permission and start sending to the entire list.

Bottom line: Send a single email giving these folks the option to opt-in. If they don’t, don’t email them again.

Acquired Email Lists

An organization merges with or acquires another organization that has an email list. The guidelines above, based on whether the organization had been sending to the list on a regular basis, still apply. But this situation requires a little additional effort.

If folks have been receiving regular emails, you’ll want to explain the merger/acquisition and let them know the current type and level of communication will continue (although it will be coming from your organization rather than the old one). As an additional precaution, I’d include a brief explanatory paragraph in the footer of future mailings for anyone who missed the original announcement.

If the list hasn’t been getting regular email communications, it’s best to request opt-in permission as described above. You’ll want to explain the merger/acquisition, which should help get people to opt in. Again, expect an opt-in rate of 25 percent or less. Understand the age of the addresses may result in a high bounce rate on the send. As in the previous scenario, only one attempt should be made to get permission from these folks.

Word to the Wise

Every email should contain basic footer information, including an unsubscribe option to allow recipients to easily remove themselves from the list.

If you have an email list, it’s good to communicate on a regular basis. This keeps the list viable for future use. If done properly, you’ll build relationships with the recipients, which was probably your goal in collecting email addresses in the first place. Email lists are an asset that, when not nurtured, erode with time. If you have them, use them.

And communicate in a responsible way.

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