Defining Permission

There's this phrase out there called "permission-based email marketing." Not everybody understands what it means. And certainly, some folks purposely misuse the terminology, in an attempt to hide the fact that their practices may be at odds with true informed consent. (Bad actors regularly misuse terminology; there's currently a Spamhaus-listed "data compiler" who incorrectly seems to think that "data cleansing" means "mailing to a big list of invalid addresses and spamtraps to see what bounces.")

To that end, I wanted to share how I define "permission-based." I believe that permission-based means:
  • Recipients are told at the point of sign up who is going to mail them and how often.
  • The statement regarding whom will be mailing you is not buried in a privacy policy, legal agreement or set of terms and conditions.
  • Recipients don't end up on a list accidentally; their email address ends up only on any list(s) that they intended to sign up for.
  • The opt-in process is not "forced" on all visitors to your site -- I'm not sure that it's truly permission-based if you require that sign somebody up for a list, just so they can access your site or download your whitepaper.
  • Email addresses are not appended, bought or sold.
  • The "affirmative consent" standard found in the US Federal "CAN-SPAM" law is met.
These are all important, but allow me to call your attention to the last point. From the perspective of the spam-receiving consumer, CAN-SPAM is an imperfect law. After all, it doesn't prohibit spam. It in fact allows a sender to send unsolicited commercial email (aka "spam"), as long as you follow a few simple rules. Regardless of this flaw, there's a very useful bit buried within -- the "affirmative consent" standard. It actually provides a useful definition of what constitutes opt-in. It states:

"The term 'affirmative consent', when used with respect to a commercial electronic mail message, means that- (A) the recipient expressly consented to receive the message, either in response to a clear and conspicuous request for such consent or at the recipient's own initiative; and (B) if the message is from a party other than the party to which the recipient communicated such consent, the recipient was given clear and conspicuous notice at the time the consent was communicated that the recipient's electronic mail address could be transferred to such other party for the purpose of initiating commercial electronic mail messages."

In plain language, this means that the informed consent standard is met if the signup was initiated by the subscriber, consent was requested and given, and that the subscriber is being told who they are going to receive mail from, if it is not the party to which they provided their email address. (I'm not necessarily excited by the allowance for data transfer, but if it's going to happen, "clear and conspicuous notice" is a pretty good way to do it.) That, to me, is how you define a process as permission-based.

(Want to read more thoughts on permission? Laura Atkins has a round-up here.)

Double Opt-in in the Wild

I signed up for electronic billing statements from Verizon Wireless this morning, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they use a confirmed opt-in (double opt-in) process that requires that you validate your email address before you can receive your billing statements via email. As I am sure it is very important to Verizon Wireless that these messages always get delivered, it's good to see that they're taking the care to validate the addresses to ensure that they're truly valid, not invalid or spamtrap addresses.

How Subscriber Complaints Affect Inbox Placement

Over on the Return Path blog, Joanna Roberts explains how spam complaints ("report spam" clicks) at the big ISPs and webmail providers can damage your sending reputation, and offers up ideas on what you can do to prevent these kinds of issues.

Engagement – Buzzword, or a rule to live by?

In the third part of this on-going series, Neil Schwartzman explores the current landscape of the email delivery world.

As regular readers may recall, in my early posting “You Get the Deliverability You Deserve” I made mention of a 2010 international consumer survey conducted by industry group MAAWG. It had some distressing results for senders of commercial email. Basically, end-users don’t place a whole lot of importance on marketing email; at best, they are lukewarm to the efforts.

In July 2010, Google announced a new facility to Gmail, the ‘Priority Inbox’. The service began allow users to separate mail into ‘important’ and ‘everything else’, based upon what their users actually read, and reply to. It allows users to assign graduated levels of importance to emails, and the analytics are cumulative, becoming more accurate over time.

On October 03, 2011 Hotmail launched their own volley in the War (their phrase) on Graymail, noting that half the email in the average inbox is marketing email, and only 14% email people actually want, at least according to MAAWG’s survey, namely, messages from friend and family.

Original at : 

Hotmail deployed a new auto-categorization (‘newsletter’), and a single-click unsubscribe to help users dig themselves out of their email hole.

So what’s a poor marketer to do in this day and age? Send more mail? That’s the tactic Neiman Marcus takes, according to the recent article “Stores Smarten Up Amid Spam Flood” in the Wall Street Journal – they, incredibly, sent 534 emails to each of their subscribers last year, a 30% increase over 2007. They have begun to track of unsubscribe rates. Gee, really?

In light of the Hotmail and Gmail initiatives, it would seem that people are so inundated with email that they don’t bother to unsubscribe, certainly a portion of subscribers use the ‘This is Spam’ button as a way to make email go away. One wonders if Neiman Marcus are also looking at FBL reports, and unsubscribing complainants. They might want to put two and two together; provided one uses proper disclosure of content and frequency at sign-up, and garners proper Opt-in consent, Unsubs + FBL complaints = (a subset of ) un-engaged recipients.

So what is this new engagement thing everyone is talking about? George Bilbrey of Return Path called it “The New Frontier In Deliverability”, but that was back in 2009, and even then George made note that engagement wasn’t a new concept, receivers had long been tracking clicks and opens and making them part of the filtering matrix. They have just been given a bump up in importance, of late.

Smart marketers track how many users open and click through a given piece of email, but why stop there?

A truly savvy sender will record the electronic record of the entire lifecycle of a given subscriber, from start to end. This will help with analysis on how engaged a recipient is, and provide solid to refute accusations of spamming by a blacklist or a law enforcement agency.

Some data-points to consider as fundamental would be:
Retaining a screenshot of the signup page including disclosure language (if you are using co-registration ensure that the sign-up page makes explicit mention of your brand, and confirm those addresses with recipients!). This makes for handy reference should anyone ever question the validity of a sign-up!

Demographic info (age, wealth, location)
Also, date & time-stamps (with GMT offset), and the IP from which traffic is seen should be recorded for these activities:

Message opens (opens are notoriously misleading in that there are still a significant number of email clients that have a preview pane that downloads images when a user selects the message; they may look at it an immediately discard the mail; That isn’t an engaged user. 

The freemail providers have stated outright that engagement, the amount a recipient interacts with the messaging you send, is a determining factor if email is inboxed, deprioritized, or even bulked.

Downgrading of a group of recipients can eventually splay out to impacting the deliverability of others in your mail stream. If only a few of your recipients click through on your email for long periods of time, you can expect to see fewer and fewer ending up in the inbox, as receiver algorithms do their thing. Give them a reason to click – super discounts, contests, more enticing subject lines and content should all be considered a regular part of your mailings. Ask friends and family to review your work (and measure their engagement over time) – is it really that interesting or are you just too involved to realize that your mail stream is BORING?

By the way: Seed lists testing inbox placement might, or might not effectively measure lack of engagement; while they are still useful for more egregious issues with a campaign (badly designed content, a blacklisted domain) a sparse smattering of a dozen or two addresses in a list of tens of thousands may have deprecated accuracy as to the actual delivery of your mail, which may be better for those that do click on the mail, and worse for those that don’t for a long time.

Recipients have said they don’t place a high priority on marketing at the best of times. It is incumbent on senders to ensure that they get at least one open per quarter per recipient, and begin to cull those that aren’t engaged out of the main mailing list, to an ‘infrequent’ segment to which you mail only occasionally, if at all.

What does your email address say about you?

My wife and I enjoy eating out for dinner fairly often, and it can get kind of spendy. On a whim, I started searching for ways to save money while dining out, and stumbled across this service called Savored. Looks like a neat way to save some money-- I've just registered, but I have yet to try it.

I was reading through their blog and found this wonderful post, "What does your email address say about you?" In it, they share demographic and engagement metrics of their email list, broken down by domain. Key takeaway: AOL users are old, but loyal. Young people, they love them some Gmail. AT&T, Comcast, and Roadrunner subscribers most heavily interact with Savored's email messages, but they indicate that this doesn't directly correlate to an increase in bookings.

Read the Comments

Read this one comment in particular, from somebody who is currently blacklisted by Spamhaus.
Some choice excerpts:
  • By the way, over time, Spamhaus has blacklisted many of the Fortune 500 for simply using email as a marketing channel
  • But why do so many in this industry feel that the email channel should be somehow held to a higher standard than other direct marketing channels?
  • The reason for our Spamhaus listing is due to the fact that we clean, update and refresh our database every 45-60 days.
I think these statements stand well on their own that I'll just leave it at that.

Neutraceutical Spammer Sentenced to 2 Years

John Levine shares his tale of the sentencing of Brian McDaid, "Neutraceutical" spammer. Looks like it is indeed possible to get jail time for violating CAN-SPAM.

MAAWG: Internet Police?

I just read in Mediapost's Online Media Daily that the debate over email append got heated at the recent MediaPost Email Insider Summit. Jordan Cohen, vice president of business development at Pontiflex, was direct: "[Email append] is not really okay to do."

He cited industry group MAAWG's condemnation of email append, saying that MAAWG had a de-facto stake in defining "law" when it comes to email practices. Another speaker took issue with that statement, sarcastically asking the room, "Who here thinks that MAAWG is the law?"

Jordan's message is sound, though perhaps a bit too nuanced to cram into 140 characters (he later mentioned this on Twitter), or to fit into a sound byte during that panel discussion.

MAAWG is not a law enforcement body, duh. So what is MAAWG? It's an industry association of a whole bunch of companies involved in (among other things) email. Stakeholders abound. Not just companies maintaining email infrastructure (but lots of those), but also, a lot of companies providing marketing services or marketing support. Check out the roster for yourself.

And this whole group, this large constituency of email stakeholders got together and discussed email append at length, and came up with this widely reported, widely supported public statement saying that they don't think email append is a good practice.

Consider this: when a bunch of smart people, representing a large group of the stakeholders involved in keeping email operating as a successful medium and communication channel, come together to take a stance on a practice like this, it's wise to take heed. It's wise to listen, even if you might not agree. Maybe there's something you can learn from their stance, or how they came to take that point of view. I think there are lots of reasons why this group came to this decision. Various people I've talked to have told me why they've come to identify append as a bad practice. The mailbox providers involved have explained to me that they know that it is mail their users don't want. And, I've read various marketer-conducted surveys showing that subscribers themselves will say that this is a kind of mail they do not want. And, I know how many other unseemly or unethical things potentially make money without being a wise or repeatable best practice. And, if I had a dollar for every append-driven deliverability issue I've been called upon to help undo the damage from, I'd be a very rich man. And, the list goes on. A list comprised of both things I've experienced myself and heard explained to me by very smart folks.

So, to scoff and say "c'mon, this isn't law!" or to complain that competitive interest is to blame ("of COURSE he would say that!") is nothing but a distraction, to be ignored. It doesn't make any sense, anyway. There are multiple valid reasons to consider email append a bad practice, and trying to dismiss it as just one guy's opinion perhaps makes for a good Twitter fight, but out here in the real world, there's a lot more to it.