Permission e-mail marketing — commercial e-mail messages sent only to customers and prospects who’ve asked to receive marketing messages from a particular company — is a double-edged sword.
Even marketers with good intentions run the risk of developing e-mail campaigns that, to customers, may appear to be spam. Some inexperienced marketers make the mistake of translating acceptable direct mail practices (e.g., buying prospect names and addresses) to permission e-mail, where the same practices are unacceptable to consumers. Marketers with more e-mail marketing experience still face difficulty in defining what constitutes permission and understanding how to both obtain it and avoid straining its boundaries. In all cases, marketers’ confusion over the gray areas between permission e-mail and spam threatens to undermine their permission e-mail efforts.
To address the challenges of these gray areas, here are five guidelines that marketers should use to successfully navigate the permission/spam divide, greatly minimizing the risk that customers will view a company’s e-mail marketing efforts as unsolicited commercial e-mail.
1. You cannot buy online relationships “off the shelf.”
Buying or renting names and addresses is an established practice of direct mail marketers. However, the e-mail equivalent-buying or renting e-mail addresses from a list broker and administering an e-mail campaign inhouse-is unambiguously spam. One of the fundamental rules of permission marketing is “permission is not transferable.” Marketers should be extremely skeptical of list brokers who claim that e-mail addresses for sale or rent are opt-in or permission-based. IMT Strategies’ research clearly indicates that very few e-mail users would knowingly offer their e-mail address to be indiscriminately resold to any company willing to purchase the address.
A responsible alternative to list brokering has emerged in the form of permission networks. These companies – such as yesmail.com, MyPoints.com and NetCreations – maintain databases of consumers and business e-mail users who have signed up with the permission networks to receive information and offers on specific subjects or types of products. Permission networks do not sell, rent or even reveal subscriber addresses outright to marketers; instead, marketers supply their message to the network which then relays it to the relevant subscribers.
2. Online Customers are Different from Offline Customers
The majority of click-and-mortar companies’ customer base is offline – customers who have made purchases through direct sales, retail partners, catalogs, toll-free numbers and other traditional channels, but who have not registered with the company’s Web site or otherwise opted into an e-mail relationship. Marketers may be tempted to go to a direct marketing list broker to append the records of offline customers with e-mail addresses and then send them e-mail promotions. However, if these customers have never expressly consented to an e-mail marketing relationship, many such customers are likely to view any such e-mails as spam.
The fact that several major list brokers (notably Experian) have decided to avoid collecting consumer e-mail addresses to avoid running afoul of the spam debate highlights the dubious nature of appending addresses. The bottom line is an offline customer’s purchase history does not constitute permission to e-mail market.
3. Active consent (opt-in) is safer than passive consent (opt-out).
The two primary approaches to asking permission are “opt-in” (positive/active consent) and “opt-out” (negative/passive consent). The appropriateness of each is the focus of current debate among e-mail marketers.
IMT Strategies’ research indicates that an opt-in practice is preferable because it ensures customers have actively granted their permission for e-mail marketing. Opt-in requires customers to take an action, such as clicking a box or button, to receive e-mail messages from a company. By contrast, opt-out requires a customer to deselect a box or button to avoid receiving e-mail messages, which will otherwise be sent by default. This can be a problem as some customers who unwittingly give passive consent to receive e-mail promotions are likely to perceive messages from that company as spam.
The vast majority of the 403 e-mail users IMT Strategies’ interviewed in a random phone survey preferred to opt-in to a permission e-mail relationship (79%) rather than opt-out to avoid one (14%).
4. Make sure ‘Yes’ still means ‘Yes’
Marketers need to develop strategies for eliciting customer permission on an ongoing basis to ensure that marketing messages remain relevant and welcome.
There are instances where a customer’s interest in a particular company or product extends over a limited period of time. A customer may, for example, decide to opt in to an e-mail relationship with an online auto dealer because she is shopping for a car. After she buys a new car, she is unlikely to continue to welcome weekly car offers. As a best practice, companies should allow customers to edit their own permission profiles to accommodate expiration dates and other factors affecting their ongoing interest in an e-mail relationship.
Marketers should strive to create a permission relationship where consent is repeatedly granted by the customer, not perpetually assumed by the marketer. Customers should be free to modify the terms of their permission or withdraw it entirely with every message sent.
5. Know how much is too much
Gaining customer consent to an e-mail relationship should not serve as the marketer’s green light to unleash a torrent of marketing messages. Unpersonalized, too-frequent permission e-mail messages are unlikely to elicit much besides customer annoyance. Customers themselves say they feel negatively towards e-mail marketing messages (including permission e-mail) when “companies send too many,” “the messages are pushy” or “the offers are not interesting.” Those are common dimensions of spam, in customers’ minds.
To avoid eroding customer goodwill, marketers must tune the frequency of their messages with customer expectations, e-mail program objectives and common sense. Campaign frequency depends heavily on the type of service being provided. Customers may welcome multiple messages per day from a service that alerts them to fluctuations in local pollen counts or changing bid prices on an online auction service, for example, but would where they may not want to hear about new CD or book releases from an e-commerce site more often than once a week or once a month.