Marketing

Unless you have explicit permission, your email is spam

Michel Hogan /

email

Source: Flickr.

A request lands in Tom’s inbox: ‘Hi, I’d like to connect with you.’ He gets a few every week, and after a quick look at the person’s profile he clicks accept and doesn’t think much more about it.

A few days later emails start appearing from a company he’s never heard from. He usually wouldn’t notice among all the unsolicited spam, but this time the email stands out because he has a new address and so wants to know how it got there.

A few minutes later the how is clear. Tom’s new connection has grabbed the email from his contact information, added it to their database and is now spamming him with offers for their business.

At a desk across town, Karen is going through her email and sees one from a group she’s been part of for a few years. Usually limited to invitations to a discussion night, this time the person who runs the discussions is sending her a note about their new business with a link for more information.

She feels conflicted because while she knows the person, she’s only given permission for her email to be used for the event invites. It feels spammy, but is it?

Many people and organisations expend enormous effort to achieve a brand result people will care about. Then systematically undermine what they’re doing with email practices ranging from overzealous to careless to downright nefarious. After all, it’s only one email what’s the harm?

Neither of the above examples is the kind of blatant spam which loads up our inboxes with advertisements for erectile dysfunction pills or offers of 20 million dollars from a Ugandan prince. Instead, they are a kind of spam creep — when it feels sort of, but not quite like, spam from people and organisations we know. Where everything from overreach, grab-and-go tactics, microscopic opt-whatever checkboxes and rambling authorisations masquerade for permission.

The godfather of permission marketing Seth Godin describes it on his blogReal permission is different from presumed or legalistic permission. Just because you somehow get my email address doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because I don’t complain doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because it’s in the fine print of your privacy policy doesn’t mean it’s permission either.”

The first step to permission is you have to ask for it and be clear about what you’re asking for.

Signing up for a newsletter does not give you permission to send me other information (see above point about fine print). Buying something from you doesn’t automatically mean it’s okay to use my email to promote other products and services. Unsubscribing from your list shouldn’t elicit an email confirming it — clearly, it hasn’t worked, because you’re still sending me an email!

Unless you have my explicit permission to contact me about something, it is spam. If I take back my permission and you contact me, it is spam. Even if you assume permission (such as opt-out), once I remove it, it is spam.

The critical phrase is explicit permission. That means I say you can use my email for X. Not X and a bit later Y. Not X and sharing it with someone else for Y.

It’s tough out there, and amid the masses vying for attention, it’s easy to feel justified about a little fudge in the basic rules of permission.

Let’s go back to the examples. I think you’ll agree Tom got spammed. Sure, connecting with someone on a social platform is a license to have a conversation, so have the conversation. And if throughout the back and forth you ask, and Tom gives his permission to get offers or information about
X, you’re all set. Send X (and only X).

Karen was conflicted, and here things appear murkier. Because the person sending the email wasn’t a stranger or someone she just met. She’d been part of the event list for a while, so maybe it was okay. But it still felt like spam because the ask and permission steps were absent. And as the saying goes: ‘If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …’

It’s easy to erode your brand result with email. To avoid it, remember unless you have my explicit permission, it is spam. How you get that permission is a topic for next time, and will vary depending on who you are and what else you’ve got going on.  

See you next week.

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Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is an independent brand thinker and adviser dedicated to helping you make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com.

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