Email marketing permission is not what you think

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The #1 Factor for Inbox Placement

Inbox placement is instrumental to email marketing effectiveness, so it makes sense to manage the influencing factors. Inbox placement is largely determined by your sender reputation, and whether or not the recipient server correlates your past email behavior with unwanted email. Obtaining explicit permission before sending email is the most important method for maintaining a good reputation because it ensures that recipients want to receive your email and greatly increases the likelihood that they will engage with it. It also helps to prevent the major causes of spam complaints, hard bounces and sending to spam traps, all of which can cause your email to be identified as unwanted and sent to junk, or worse, blocked entirely.

Getting permission to show an advertisement is not even a consideration for other marketing channels like TV or print media, but with email (and SMS) it’s inherently part of the system, and there are real consequences if you ignore it.  This practice is so fundamental to email deliverability and inbox placement that it is required by reputable email service providers and has become part of the current trend of anti-spam laws. Even if you think you already have permission to send marketing email, you might be surprised about what your subscribers have to say.

Permission is in the Eye of the Subscriber

Permission is an agreement between you and your subscriber to send them email from your business with particular content and at a particular frequency.  Since your subscriber solely determines whether or not your email is wanted and expected (and consequently whether they’ll report it as spam, delete it, ignore it, or read it), the subscription agreement is not valid if they don’t understand the terms, or if the terms are not clearly defined.  At the end of the day, what the subscriber thinks is all that matters.  For explicit permission to be valid from your subscribers perspective, it should have these qualities:

  • Freely given – Truly voluntary. Denial or withdrawal of permission must not imply negative consequences for the recipient.
  • Specific –  Clearly communicate what your email content will be, how often you’ll send email, and who the email will come from (your sender domain, branding, logos, colors etc.). Subscribers should know the specific purpose for which they are providing their email address, and if there is more than one purpose, there should be separate consent for each.
  • Informed – Details of the permission must be clear and distinct from other text - not buried inside a paragraph or terms of service.
  • Unambiguous – Permission must be indicated through an affirmative act or declaration, preferably a checkbox that is defaulted to un-ticked. A pre-ticked box or lack of objection (e.g. “they didn’t say they didn’t want marketing…”) does not constitute permission.  Using a checkbox is a major differentiator between explicit permission and implied permission.

Common Misconceptions

Many common sources of email addresses don’t qualify as explicit permission because they fundamentally can’t meet the above criteria:

  • Third Party Lists -   Addresses gathered through an association, affiliates, joint venture partners or purchased lists may have signed up to receive email from someone, but unless it was explicitly and solely for your business, it doesn’t qualify.   Additionally, using third party lists puts the details and execution of obtaining permission out of your control, but you’re still held accountable since you’re the one sending the email.
  • Implied Permission - Customers who gave you their email address to facilitate a transaction or purchase, create an account, register for an event, or put their business card in a bowl should not be sent any marketing email unless they specifically provided explicit permission when they gave you their email address.  They may have given you their email address, but it’s not for free and unlimited use.
  • Old Permission - Lack of email communication degrades permission.  For example, if a recipient subscribed to your monthly newsletter 2 years ago, but you haven’t sent them an email yet, you can consider that permission to be expired.  In cases like this, you should re-acquire permission before sending.

8 Steps for Obtaining Explicit Permission

  • Create a landing page with a web form, or modify an existing form to ensure it meets the criteria for explicit permission.
  • Make sure the recipient is freely providing their address and not coerced into subscribing.
  • Create a checkbox that is un-ticked by default with an accurate description of what the checkbox does.
  • Tie the checkbox to a field in your CRM so you always know exactly what the recipient signed up for.
  • Use multiple checkboxes for multiple segments (e.g. monthly newsletter, deal-of-the-day, etc.)
  • Make sure that between the web page branding, form details and checkbox text, you’ve set clear expectations for your sender identity, email content and mailing frequency.
  • Only send email to those that checked the box, and only send them what they expect to receive.
  • To avoid mistakes with data entry, ask the subscribers to confirm their request by clicking a confirmation link the first email that you send, and don’t send any more email to those that don’t click the link.

Obtaining permission via a web form has additional benefits over offline collection: it provides an electronic record to help you maintain proper segmentation and protect yourself against potential legal issues, and with marketing automation you can deliver the confirmation email immediately.  Once your form is setup, don’t forget to drive traffic to it. If you’re already sending out transactional email to your customers like order receipts, it’s OK to add a link and encourage recipients to subscribe to your newsletter or regular marketing. Just don’t send email without permission asking them to provide permission - that is definitively spam.

There’s a Person Behind the Address

The end goal of explicit permission is to make sure your email is wanted and expected by the recipient.  Remember that email is not a one-way street - you’re fostering relationships with your recipients and it’s important that they desire and value the content you provide.  Implementing industry standard best practices like obtaining explicit permission when generating leads is a surefire way to avoid reputation problems that can ruin your inbox placement and marketing effectiveness. As a not-so-minor side effect, you’ll also build some trust with your future customers.