Winning the e-mail opt-in battle

Marketers can easily find themselves caught in a difficult situation when it comes to maintaining opt-in e-mail lists. While the sales department pressures marketing to help establish new account relationships through awareness and lead generation programs, the legal department must ensure that marketing is sending e-mails only to recipients who opted-in to receive communications, complying with the CAN-SPAM Act.

The restriction of only sending e-mails to opted-in contacts makes it difficult for marketers to establish a relationship with new accounts. To resolve this problem, some marketers elect for expediency by purchasing lists that claim to have contacts that have previously opted-in to receive third-party communications on some subject matter.

Purchased lists claiming opt-in status of contacts produce a large amount of bounces and spam complaints, which results in Internet service providers (ISPs) blocking your sending server IP addresses or outright blacklisting all future e-mails. Unfortunately, this can include transactional e-mails to existing customers generated by other departments, such as finance or customer service that are being sent to legitimate opt-in contacts. The net result is a lose-lose scenario where sales is unsatisfied with the low number of qualified leads produced while legal is threatening to shut down all your e-mail communications due to compliance and legal violations.

Another approach used by many marketers is “trolling” for opt-in contacts. Marketers will create compelling content like a whitepaper or video, and post it to a number of third-party content sites. Users interested in the content will generally have to register before accessing the content. The registration page will usually show a box for electing to receive future communications; these are typically checked off by default.

Because users have the option to uncheck the box, all registrations coming back with a check for future communications will be immediately categorized as having opt-in. Most marketers will feel they are within the bounds of best practices, because the contacts they are collecting elected to receive future communications. 

A certain percentage of contacts had one purpose in mind — give you what you want in order to obtain that one piece of content. Two weeks later when you send out your routine opt-in communications, they have completely forgotten your identity and simply click your e-mail as spam.

One way to combat this issue is to make sure you set up feedback loops with your ISPs where you can receive feedback on how many are clicking your e-mails as spam. Building and maintaining opt-in lists requires a dedicated commitment to not only establish who truly wants to receive your communications, but also to periodically verify they want to receive ongoing communications as well. 

The first step in maintaining someone’s opt-in status is to provide compelling content on an ongoing basis. Make sure to prominently display your unsubscribe links at the top and bottom of the e-mail. Companies that provide a set of diverse content or frequently send e-mails to their lists should provide a preference center where contacts can choose the content they prefer and how often they want to receive it.

Marketers must also maintain clean lists. When the sales department pushes marketing to produce more leads, marketing needs to remain disciplined and compliant on how they expand and engage their contact database. Remember, contacts that click spam are indirectly casting a vote against your brand.

In addition, legal can exert pressure on marketing to adopt an ultra-conservative opt-in practice. Marketing needs to navigate between the sales and legal agendas and use common sense business practices to advance the company’s brand and its ability to communicate as a legitimate sender to the market.

Richard Harrison is the president of

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