Targeted opt-out email: busting some myths
We're not talking classic random spam here.
We're talking "targeted" opt-out email, where the sender has data on the email address that suggests the email might have relevance to the recipient.
So is this a legitimate tactic? After all, every email marketing book out there stresses the importance of permission as the foundation of good email marketing.
Ask those who sell business contact data, and they'll say of course it's legitimate. And they wheel out three convincing arguments to counter the objections of permission advocates...
Argument #1 As long as my emails are valuable and relevant, it's fine
You read a lot about relevancy and value in email marketing. The implication is that a "good" marketing email is one that is relevant and offers value to the recipient.
Which leads opt-out enthusiasts to say "hey, opt-out is fine as long as my emails to those folk are relevant and valuable."
And if my aunt had testicles, she'd be my uncle.
The problem is that targeted opt-out emails are invariably not targeted at all. Not relevant. Not valuable. Here's why...
Every proponent of opt-out I've ever talked to overestimates the value and relevancy of their email. Every single one was convinced that their product or service was so good that people would be grateful to hear about it. Here's the reality:
However much data you may have, you cannot know enough to accurately guess what I'm interested in. Which is why opt-in works better because I self-identify my interests by signing up for that email.
Opt-out email invariably uses cues and clues that are entirely speculative in nature...
- He has a business, he must want accounting services.
- He has a website about email marketing, he must want to rent email lists.
- He is male, he must want a bigger...
Unless your information comes from the email's owner, errors inevitably creep into your data. Examples:
1. Stefan Pollard writes on collecting email addresses through email appends:
"...you can end up with addresses that actually belong to other people, not your customers."
2. One well-known supplier of business contacts has me listed as working for Return Path. I've never even met a Return Path employee, let alone been one.
(And my website is apparently based in New Jersey, which is only out by about 4,300 miles.)
Still think opt-out is targeted?
Here's the crux...
Most opt-in email isn't terribly relevant or valuable (check average clickthrough rates for proof). And these are sent to people who self-selected themselves as interested and made the effort to sign-up.
How can you imagine that bulk opt-out email would do a better job?
Opt-in is holding up broccoli in a room of kids and asking who wants some. Those who put their hand up get it, like it and want more.
Opt-out is picking out kids on the basis that they "eat food" and then forcing them to eat broccoli.
Who's going to be more popular?
Argument #2 It's not spamming because it's legal
There is nothing in the US Can-Spam legislation that says commercial email has to be opt-in. (This comes as a surprise to many people, but it's true.)
First, note that most anti-spam legislation elsewhere in the world does require an opt-in for commercial email, except in particular circumstances.
Second, both recipients and those who manage incoming email (ISPs, webmail services, corporate IT departments) are more interested in the migration patterns of the black-tailed Godwit than the legal definition of spam.
Spam is whatever they define it as and Can-spam compliance is no defence against spam complaints or blacklisting.
Opt-out practices usually exclude you from any deliverability help through whitelists, certification, feedback loops etc.
And most email marketing service providers (ESPs) won't let you use their systems to send bulk opt-out email.
For more on this, see "Legal compliance is for lawyers not marketers."
Argument #3 I've done it and it works: nobody ever complains
Still, the opt-out folk remain defiant. "You're wrong" they say "...because I've been doing opt-out for years and nobody's ever complained."
I won't lie to you. People send out opt-out email campaigns and get some positive responses. The problem is that the problems caused by the opt-out approach aren't immediate or obvious.
But they are very real.
People may not always complain to the sender, but they'll complain to their ISP or their colleagues. Or their social network.
I've covered this in the recent post "What's the worst that can happen." While you might be out celebrating a new sale, your brand and future deliverability is potentially disappearing down a large black hole.
The arguments about opt-out or opt-in all boil down to one of the commonest questions I get asked: "If I send this, will people think I'm spamming?"
(If you have to ask, the likely answer is yes.)
Whatever protagonists on both side of the debate may claim, there is no simple answer.
Whatever email you send and whoever you send it to, you will always get a spectrum of responses. Some will welcome your email and respond positively. Some will call you a spammer. And most will fall somewhere in between.
The further you get from the permission ideal, the more responses will fall in the "you're a spammer" end of the spectrum, with all the horrors that brings. And opt-out is a long way from the permission ideal. It's your choice, but choose wisely.
Further reading: Marketing email or spam?
As far as recipient inboxes are concerned and your deliverability to that ISP, every negative response is bad, permission is the way forward.
If you treat the people, who interact with you the most, very well, they will do the marketing for you. I have found that Seth Godin has some very interesting view on this and how to implement it.
By captaininbox, on 23 April, 2009
Yep, all the trends of recent times point to greater control going to customers. Not just in email, but generally. Opt-out ignores that momentum.
Love Seth Godin, too.
By , on 23 April, 2009
Great post Mark, especially the point about over-estimation. Everyone thinks their product is relevant. "Darn, if only we could convince those stupid customers to understand how great we are!"
Heck, I think I should have been a professional baseball player. Unfortunately every team in Major League Baseball thought otherwise!
By Morgan Stewart, on 24 April, 2009
Thanks Morgan. Funny, because I had the same problem with the professional football clubs in the UK. They just couldn't see the talent!
By , on 24 April, 2009
Great post as always Mark - and loving the increased infusion of your true personality.
In the many years I've been in the business,I've yet to hear a compelling argument for opt out - the "it is legal (in the U.S.)" just doesn't hold water.
By Loren McDonald, on 27 April, 2009
Thanks Loren. If my true personality came through, though, people would probably stop reading. I have to be careful ;-)
By , on 28 April, 2009
Lol- Love the article! Particularly the stats on over-estimation. You know, I heard the other day that 27% of statistics were made up on the spot ;)
Serious though, I'm printing this off and using it in my arsenal against my company doing Opt-out email campaigns.
By Lara Walsh, on 05 May, 2009
27% are made up? You know, I'd have said at least 35%. Still, you can't argue with statistics ;-)
By , on 05 May, 2009
In Australia, sending of opt-out campaigns is legal in only a few exceptions, and being a political party is one controversial way to do it. One specific party's target seems to be the entire country, since everyone gets to vote right?
The interesting parts is the response from ISPs (and also of the the government media body) is that this party's messages comply with the relevant Act, and suggest addressing any complaint to the sending party in question. The ISPs seemingly do not act to impede deliverability.
Although not exactly a great insight on marketing, since I'm sure their sender reputation is otherwise trashed, it highlights a case where opt-out exemptions apply, ISPs may be obliged to follow law, or not wish to bother themselves with possible legal issues that could arise if they were to take action.
By , on 05 May, 2009
Interesting. I'm not familiar enough with Aussie law to make a meaningful comment. But I know that elsewhere ISPs are given free reign by law to block any email they want to. I wonder if ISP laziness here is less to do with legal issues and more to do with keeping politicans happy?
Of course the other issue is whether using opt-out is getting them more or less votes ;-)
By , on 05 May, 2009
About a month ago I subscribed to two sites which promised heavenly riches. This was to examine the quality of e-mails they would be sending me. Not only have they sent me about 30 e-mails, they are quite poor in quality. (I'm not complaining about spamming, I asked for it.) I have never responded to any of the mails.
The point I am making is that a lot of people out there need to be educated. Had I been a serious customer I would have been irritated.
The second point is that they have not made any effort to collect any information about me.
By atul chatterjee, on 09 May, 2009
Yes, if you're going to send out daily emails, then reader's need a good reason to stay interested. Otherwise you will just wear them down.
By , on 10 May, 2009
Nice post and agree with it all...
Opt-out is dead.
The bigger problem is that a whole lot of opt-in based email marketing also sucks (for lack of a better word).
The permission dichotomy is no longer opt-out or opt-in, but "good opt-in" or "bad opt-in".
Good opt-in marketers do a much better job of providing notice and setting appropriate expectations.
By Jordan Cohen, on 26 February, 2010
Thanks for such an insightful post. What amazes me is why a reputable online publication such as B2B would consider publishing content that purports marginal email marketing behavior?
By fred, on 27 February, 2010
Bulk email is SPAM period. Opt-in, opt-out, whatever. Same thing.
By , on 27 February, 2010
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