Top Five Phrases That Raise a Red Flag

If you work in any industry long enough, eventually you encounter certain words and phrases that set off alarm bells. These phrases almost always indicate that the speaker has a misconception, unreasonable expectation, or has simply lost the plot in regards to what e-mail marketing is all about. The following are my current top five red-flag phrases.

5. Prior Business Relationship

This red-flag phrase came about because the CAN-SPAM Act permits unsolicited, permission-less e-mail when there’s a “prior business relationship.” Although it typically indicates that the speaker has some idea of what is and isn’t permitted under CAN-SPAM, unfortunately it usually also signifies that she has relatively little understanding of what’s permitted by ISPs, of industry best practices or of recipient expectations. Prior to the CAN-SPAM law, these were often the “just hit delete” people when users complained of unsolicited e-mail.

Marketers who aim to utilize prior business relationship as a substitute for clear and conspicuous consent also wish to push the limits of what constitutes such a relationship — often with unfortunate results.

A related phrase is “but we’re CAN-SPAM compliant,” which is a common response from “prior business relationship” people when told that we won’t send a campaign without proper opt-in permission.

4. Personal Relationship with ISPs

This phrase is commonly used in requests for proposals (RFPs) where companies desire prospective e-mail providers to have personal relationships with the major ISPs. In addition to raising a suspicion that the prospective customer’s lists are less than clean, this provokes a concern that a company largely misunderstands the relationship between ISPs and senders.

Most ISPs have no desire for relationships with senders, personal or otherwise. What they really want is for senders to follow their guidelines and industry best practices and, in so doing, to not even show up on the ISP’s radar. As the postmaster at a major ISP famously said, “If I’ve never heard of you that’s a very good thing.”

3. Force the User

This is an old phrase that typically comes up in the context of landing and subscription management pages. For me though, it dates back to the beginning of online marketing. A long-time traditional marketing manager who’s new to the online world usually utters it.

This phrase raises a red flag for me because it indicates that the manager believes she can control the conversation with the customer and, more importantly, the customer’s behavior. Such a manager often tries to do things such as hide or obfuscate unsubscription mechanisms in the misguided belief that this will reduce list attrition. The reality, of course, is that it simply increases complaints and leads to delivery issues.

No one likes to be forced. In these days of spam buttons, social networks, and blogs, attempting to coerce users is simply a bad idea.

2. Soft Bounce/Hard Bounce

This is less a red flag and more of an “oh no, not this one again.” Almost every marketer who I’ve spoken with that deals with e-mail believes in hard and soft bounces. Almost every deliverability specialist I’ve spoken with hates the terms.

The first issue is that, as I’ve said before, the terms are poorly defined so people are rarely on the same page. The second is that bounce processing by professionals is typically far more nuanced than simple soft and hard.

1. It’s Not About Batch and Blast Anymore

This is a phrase most commonly uttered by e-mail marketing professionals, both senders and list managers. These are the same people who were all about batch and blast for the last 10 years, and many of them built their businesses on batch and blast.

Sophisticated marketers know that it should never have been, and often never was, about batch and blast. Batch and blast specialists have slowed the development of more sophisticated marketing and undermined the value of e-mail. Many of the former batch-and-blasters are the same people who bitterly complain how undervalued e-mail is as a medium and e-mail management as a service.

So those are the five phrases I dread hearing or reading. Write to me and tell me what your top red flag phrases are.

Until next time,


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