Opt-in permission is the Holy Grail for e-mail marketers. Once you have it, it becomes easier to connect with a prospect who has, in theory, raised his or her hand and asked to hear more. Doing anything else, according to conventional wisdom, would be foolhardy, if not dangerous. But at a growing number of companies, e-mail marketing executives are being pushed to try different tactics, which is resulting in some prospects receiving unsolicited e-mails.
“The clients we are working with are combating pressures to change the opt-in process,” said Kara Trivunovic, senior director of strategic services for e-mail service provider StrongMail Systems. “We have clients who have been asked by upper-level executives to try opt-out instead. Most are really fighting it, but we have some who are giving it a try.”
Executive edicts aside, the idea may be catching on because the marketing landscape makes such a move much easier. Networks such as LinkedIn and online business directories give marketers unprecedented access to prospects' personal data, including name, address, e-mail address and even where they are in the buying cycle. In addition, at least here in the U.S., there's nothing legally stopping anyone from sending unsolicited e-mails as long as they are CAN-SPAM-compliant. Plus, said one e-mail expert, marketers who are sending e-mails without an opt-in are often even more careful about e-mail relevance than those who have an opt-in.
“Just because you have an opt-in doesn't mean you're sending something people want to get, enjoy or find relevant,” said Rick Buck, VP-privacy and ISP relations, e-Dialog Inc. “At the end of the day, how much time and effort people spend with your e-mails boils down to the type of relationship you want to have with them. If [e-mails] are based on reciprocal trust, opt-in or opt-out, it doesn't make a difference. If you're annoying someone with volume, frequency or content that doesn't interest them, you're going to run into a problem.”
Ross Kramer, CEO of e-mail marketing firm Listrak, said the move to opt-out e-mails is also being precipitated, at least in the b-to-b arena, because people have become so used to being marketed to via e-mail that it's becoming more accepted. “If you're an e-mail marketer, you almost have to send e-mails to non-opt-ins if you're prospecting,” he said. “Where it's not acceptable? On the consumer side.”
Those marketers that decide to go the non-opt-in way should be very careful about their approach, Trivunovic said. Don't e-mail everyone at a particular company, and never send to general e-mail boxes, such as email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. You should also consider putting frequency and duration best practices into place, she said.
“Send an e-mail for four weeks, but if there's no open or click behavior, you should suppress them,” she said. “The preferred best practice is sending a single e-mail expressing what your value proposition is, why [the prospect] should want to receive e-mails and a link asking them to opt-in.”
From a design perspective, e-mails that go out to people who have not opted in should focus on branding, with very clear links so people can both opt out and opt in, said Whitney Hutchinson, group strategy director with interactive agency Razorfish. “While our official position is that we would probably not recommend [opt-out] e-mailing to a client, if you're going to do it anyway, you'll want to include testimonials and anything that will justify the validity of your company,” she said. “You want to be a prospect's trusted source, so you need to look for ways to build up that trust.”
Subject lines should be clear and include topics rather than cryptic headlines, and messages should be short and to-the-point, said Dave Lewis, CMO with message management services firm Message Systems. “If you send out something of interest and you've done a great job at targeting someone, you're likely to get an opt-in,” he said.
Trivunovic also suggests eschewing the hard sell for a while, even if someone opts in. “During this courtship process, it's time for you to give them something. It's not the time to ask them to buy something or attend a webinar,” she said.
Still, because there's always a chance your recipient won't be thrilled to get something they didn't request, it's important to think about maintaining the sanctity and quality of your existing e-mail list, Lewis said. “If you're going to do this, you'll need to be segregating your mailstreams so the mail that you're sending to those whom are engaged with your brand is separate from those who you're reaching out to using LinkedIn or Jigsaw,” he said. “If you don't do this and you get a lot of complaints, you can be put into the position of not being able to get any messages through because you've been blocked for spam complaints.”
Once someone does opt in, make sure you record how they were acquired, and don't automatically share their information throughout the company until you've developed a strong relationship, Lewis said. “Just because someone opts in doesn't give you the right to propagate that opt-in to the rest of the company,” he added.
Also, keep an eye on the social networks to see what people are saying about your company, Hutchinson said. “You want to make sure your actions aren't branding your company a spammer,” she said. “Are bloggers and others disparaging you on social channels?”
You should also avoid practices that you know may harm your brand. For example, some e-mail marketers may be tempted to automatically opt anyone in who purchases something or has some other type of contact with the company, said e-Dialog's Buck. This practice is extremely risky, he said, unless you provide complete transparency and let people know upfront before you sign them up for your e-mails that, by making contact with you, they will be added to your lists. “It needs to be crystal clear at the point of sale that here's what's going to happen to that person's information.”
In the end, though, one e-mail expert said even though opt-out e-mailing might be gaining acceptance, it doesn't mean it's right. “Relevance is driven by permission, and those marketers that act without permission will always be one step behind those that embrace every notion of relevance, including permission,” said David Daniels, CEO of research and consulting firm the Relevancy Group.
Originally published July 12, 2010