Duplicitous Permission Practices

A debate raged in a meeting last week that I’d love your ideas and feedback on. We were talking about the duplicity found in so many permission practices—particularly in ecommerce sites.

Yes, I know that duplicity is strong word. But consider that most retailer email programs are opt-in—until you buy. Then, it’s either a pre-checked box on the checkout form—easy to miss and decidedly opt-out—or worse, it’s a notice buried in the fine print. Since these folks are buyers, they are by nature pretty active with the brand and products, so there isn’t a huge penalty for this practice in ISP complaints or unsubscribes. In many cases, these buyers are sometimes the most active folks on the file.

So what is wrong with that? I say nothing, if the marketer is clear about it. They no longer have an opt-in permission file. Don’t claim it in your promotions or when dealing with ISPs on deliverability. Worse, subscribers have no input into the frequency, content or value of the program—which is easily corrected.

I’d feel a lot better about these practices if marketers also sent a very clear welcome message and gave these buyers some control over their inbox. There was some heated debate that these buyers should be permissioned in via a double opt-in mechanism after the purchase. Personally, I feel that is not necessary if the marketer follows best practices for confirming the subscription with a welcome message that arrives instantly and provides both clarity around the program pace and content and a chance for subscribers to quickly unsubscribe or change preferences. The welcome message is also a great opportunity to encourage another purchase.

Double opt-in (sometimes called confirmed opt-in) is the highest level of permission. Double opt-in will ensure that your subscribers are more actively aware of your program (but not that they will be active—you still need to create relevant, compelling subscriber experiences), but it also pretty much guarantees that you’ll have a smaller file. Small but active is a pretty good deal, but it’s hard to sell internally. And I think many marketers still resist anything that reduces the size of the file. If you offer any marketer a million records that are untargeted vs. 100,000 very targeted records, most of us will go for the million every time.

We are ever hopeful, we marketers. Someday, we think, that person just might want my product! I can’t let go of the opportunity to remind them I’m here, even if they will ignore my email messages.

So what do you think? Is it important or a mandate that marketers double opt-in these buyers?

For purposes of discussion, here is what I’m using to define the four permission levels:

1. Opt-out: The assumption is that you are on the file, until you unsubscribe—usually a pre-checked box or use of a customer file/
2. Single opt-in: The subscriber actively requests to be on the file—usually an un-checked box.
3. Confirmed (or validated) opt-in: After requesting to be on the file, a confirmation email is sent.
4. Double opt-in: After the initial request, a confirmation email is sent requiring a second action to be placed on the file.

—Stephanie Miller

2 thoughts on “Duplicitous Permission Practices

  1. To me, it is all about *expectations*. Everyone on your subscriber list should know what the emails will look like and how often they will receive them…at a minimum. As email marketers become smarter, they should send to smaller, more targeted lists based on what subscribers want to receive (and a little bit of what marketers want to send).

    If you are legally opting subscribers into your list, I don’t care if it is opt-in, opt-out, double opt-in, or confirmation. As long as you set proper expectations and deliver relevant content, subscribers will engage, read, click, purchase (and repeat).

    *If I buy a shirt from Busted Tees, am opted-in through a pre-checked box, and start receiving boring emails that I am not interested in, I am more likely to unsub and/or complain. However, same opt-in with clear expectations of frequency and content – best delivered via a welcome message – an I am a happy repeat customer.

    *I honestly can’t remember how Busted Tees handles opt-in. This is just an example.

  2. Stephanie, as you know, you’re hearing a common drum in email marketing: the debate about where to draw the line between business need and distinguished corporate behavior.

    Speaking from the client side, the debate is made all the harder if you can’t show a business impact for marketing to folks who may not wish to hear from you. We can intuit that sketchy behavior drives opt outs and privacy complaints, creates derogatory word of mouth, reduces trust in our brands or increasing the risk of a CAN-SPAM action. But until we can quantify those issues, the "gimme a million surprised recipients vs. 100K eager recipients" is difficult to counter.

    Every good emarketer needs to go the exercise of trying to estimate the value of bad email marketing behavior. And maybe we as an emarketing community could collaborate on it as well.

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