What You Suggest Will Kill Email for Everyone

I had another thought today about Gretchen Scheiman's recent MediaPost article. (You can read my thoughts from yesterday here.)

In Mickey Chandler's follow-up post, Gretchen commented and was careful to clarify that her position of "my inbox is open, come and get it" doesn't apply to every marketer in the world. She writes that "the email was addressed very specifically to companies a customer has done business with." Implying that she wants a world where every company she's ever done business with to be able to email her, sans permission.

How many companies have you done business with? I've done business with hundreds of companies over the past few years. How many times do they get to email me? Every day? Every week? How long until I wear out my fingers from clicking on all of those "unsubscribe" buttons? How long until I say "to heck with this" and walk away from email all together, because my inbox is swamped? (Not very long.)

Way back in 2001 (it's amazing how bad ideas can resurface years later), the DMA proposed something similar. Patricia Faley of the Direct Marketing Association explained back then: "We call it the 'one bite at the apple' rule," she says. "Give me one chance to show you what I have to offer you, and if you don't like it, then I won't contact you again."

Back then, smart anti-spammers laughed at this poorly considered position. "That's way too many apples," they were quick to point out. There are so many businesses in the USA (approximately 29 million today, depending on whom you ask). How many of them get to email me? How often? How can that even scale, to allow that much mail into my inbox? If I split that up so it takes two years for every company to email me, that breaks down to about 40,000 emails in my inbox each and every day. And which marketer is going to want to go last? Nobody will want to wait until their turn, will they?

That's the worst-case scenario. It's certainly not as bad as what Gretchen proposes. The problem, though, is that in either scenario, "my inbox is open, come and get it" breaks email. And, it doesn't even work well for marketers. As Laura Atkins pointed out, the more people there are doing the same thing, the harder it is for anyone to stand out. Fill everybody's mailbox full of email, and no marketer gets the chance to stand out.

That's a big part of why email works the way it does.  If it doesn't work that way, the ability for end users to use their email inbox will collapse. The ability for marketers to market via email will collapse. It will, in short, destroy the email ecosystem, wrecking it as a viable marketing platform for commercial enterprise, and wrecking it as a viable one-to-one messaging platform.

That is why permission is necessary -- that's why the only people that can get into the inbox are the ones that get invited there. Without that, the inbox dies, becomes useful for no one, marketer or consumer.

It's amazing to me that some people are so blind to that outcome. A savvy marketer ought to already know that it's not all that smart to burn up the medium in a way that arrests your future ability to make money from it? A savvy marketer ought to run their brilliant new idea by somebody who actually runs a mail server and make sure their plan to unleash unwanted mail upon the masses won't actually irrevocably damage email as we know it today.


  1. They are not blind. They simply work within their time-frame of maintaining their job in email marketing. How much is this going to be? Three, Five years? Then they will switch subject and will not care for the ruins left behind. People in marketing and management are always that "blind" because they care more about their bonuses than the lifetime of the company they work for. As for the demise of their previous company, it is never their fault, right?

  2. I dunno who this Adamo guy is but he speaks the truth, verily. As do you Al, as always. Great post, this one.

    Forgive the shameless self-promotion but I did kinda sorta cover this some time ago in my post Is "Your Email an Invited Guest or a Drunken Frat-boy" over on the Return Path blog. I invite your readers to consider it in this context.


  3. While I wholeheartedly agree with Al & Co, if I were Hotmail or Yahoo I would seriously be considering creating a "Email you didn't ask for from brands you know" folder and charge brands to deliver email to it.

    I am sure google could throw in some predictive algorithms into the mix such that based on like email reads you've performed (or others with your general profile) you are more likely to want an offer from Brand X and only deliver their email to this folder.

    Call it queued advertising, I guess.

    But yes, the notion of unlimited email into an already overflowing inbox will do exactly as has been suggested and kill email.

  4. Al, I believe that marketers have already destroyed the e-mail ecosystem - they destroyed it years ago and continue to ensure that it would never recover.

    I've had two companies approach me asking if I was developing a whitelist service for the AHBL that could be used in a default deny e-mail setup. If that doesn't give an insight into the direction things are going, I don't know what does.

    Marketers have noone to blame but themselves - lack of self control, lack of self regulation...

  5. Hi Al, here's the thing: what I suggest is simply the state of marketing in the US today. Companies can and do use eAppend legally (though not always well) to contact their customers. And you haven't quit using email yet.

    As industry professionals, we can choose to either look down our noses from our ivory towers and lambast the heretics who dare defile permission, or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work helping companies do a better job marketing to customers.

    Given that customer attitudes toward email have changed over time, I've chosen the latter route as both customer and business friendly.

  6. As I mentioned before, you're entitled to your opinion. But as to the facts of the state of marketing today, you're flat out wrong. That's not how things are today. Append is not a broadly or commonly accepted practice. Permission governs deliverability more than any other factor. Period. Full stop.

  7. My response to "one bite at the apple" is "What kind of dirtbag presumes they can go eating other people's apples without their consent?"

    Gretchen, you offer two choices. Either accept current business practices or be snooty about them. Is there not a third option, to enhance and improve current business practices?

    As Al has quite clearly shown, the majority of consumers don't actually accept optout email. Businesses accept it because they want to do it and by filtering out those who object they can turn a profit. But doing what consumers don't want is a short term proposition at best. As the early spammers can attest, it doesn't take that long before you're hiring a botnet herder to get your email delivered.

  8. "As industry professionals, we can choose to either look down our noses from our ivory towers and lambast the heretics who dare defile permission, or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work helping companies do a better job marketing to customers"

    Actually, what WE can do is work to make sure that industry best practices make extinct dinosaurs out of the likes of you Gretchen. And gee, I've done so, having had a role to play in countless such documents. I have ZERO interest in helping you to do a better job of marketing. That is your job, not mine. I have all my interest focused on protecting Internet end-users' privacy from people like you, , and companies like yours. Ergo the 'spamfighter' bit in my name. Cheers, watch out for that tar-pit, Dino.

  9. As industry professionals, we can choose to either look down our noses from our ivory towers and lambast the heretics who dare defile permission, or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work helping companies do a better job marketing to customers.

    This assumes that every customer is a target. Every customer is someone who you deserve to be able to contact. That every human being is solely worth what they can purchase.

    And, sure, there are a lot of consumers that think that. There are a lot of consumers that are just mindless money dispensing machines.

    But there are other humans who find they have inherent value outside of what they buy or what they can spend. These people fight for the right to be left alone. These people fight for the ability to have a space that is free of marketing. These people fight for the inherent rights and dignity all humans deserve.

    Marketers. They're not actually human. They're just parasites.

  10. I think it is clear that Gretchen is taking the notion that "relevancy is more important than permission" to mean that "relevancy trumps permission".

    As has been repeated ad nauseum, permission is where the conversation begins. Relevancy keeps it going. However, the email world is not a singles bar. You do not get to hit on 10 girls and hope at least one says yes.

  11. Brie -- I don't think email is dead. If you think it's dead, why are you still running a blacklist, trying to keep protections in place, keeping email running?

    Email remains an excellent one-to-one communication medium. It also has some pretty good hooks in place (reputation, permission) to allow reasonable use of it by marketers. Marketers that go outside of those boundaries have a hell of a time getting reliable delivery to the inbox.

    The only real beef marketers should have is when they're not outside of those boundaries, but there are still problems. Sometimes figuring out exactly where somebody is with regard to the rules isn't easy, is it? After all, there's no reliable X-Permission header in email messages.


Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.