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Email Marketing? Your Mission is Permission.

email marketing is all about permission

Everyone who uses email knows what spam is, and most of those people hate it with a passion. This is perfectly understandable because of the huge inconvenience it puts on the receiver who now has to sort through his inbox to find which emails are actually legit. So why would you want to associate your self, your email and your product with a group as unsavory and loathed as email spammers? Most of you would not, and that's why permission should be first and foremost in your mind when building your list and starting you email marketing campaign.

What is Permission?

Permission in email marketing is "formal consent" to receive marketing messages via email. Although that's a good start, it's really just scratching the surface. Permission also extends to email frequency and email content.

Just imaging you sign up for a monthly newsletter about real estate investing and then two months down the line, without warning, you start getting weekly emails about making money in the stock market. They may both be about making money and receiving 4 emails per month rather than 1 is not a drastic difference but the emails you are now receiving are no longer being sent with your consent.

Now some people may not think of it as a big deal if they have the above bait and switch pulled on them but there will certainly be a large chunk of the list that do. Now what word do you think will be popping up in the minds of the subscribers who are no longer getting what they want? That's right, SPAM!

Although making a few changes to you marketing message and frequency isn't going to land you in the slammer for email spamming, you have to understand that what the law considers spam and what people believe is spam can often be two very different things. As an email marketer you will want to avoid both because each one caries with it consequences that you don't want to deal with.

Consequences of Not Receiving Permission

It's obvious to most of us that serious legal problems may arise if you send to a list that has not given you the ok to do so. It's considered illegal in the eyes of the law due to the CAN-SPAM Act, something all email marketers should read, and should be completely avoided. What fewer people know is that there are issues that can pop up even if you are not technically spamming. Just having some of your subscribers consider your email as spam, usually because of a permission issue, can play havoc with your email campaign.

The main problem you will run into if you have numerous people on your list reporting your email as spam is deliverability. Excessive spam reports will signal to the email service providers that your marketing message does not deserve to reach the intended recipients. This can result in you having your domain or the IP of the server you are sending from blocked.

So in the times we live in, with the "Report Spam" button increasingly becoming, in peoples minds, an "Unsubscribe" or "I don' like this" button, remember to stick to what you have permission to send.

Even Obama Can't Save You

A few days ago someone here at VKI received an email, with the familiar face of Barack Obama at the top, soliciting support and donations for "The first Moroccan American Candidate for US Congress". This would normally be fine but this email happened to arrive unsolicited (No one gave permission), and didn't have any option to unsubscribe (Permission can not be withdrawn). These two mistakes put the sender at legal risk and may cause issues with the deliverability of emails they send in the future. Not to mention that it doesn't look good for the candidate they are supporting.

So what's the lesson here? Even a good cause and a smiling picture of Obama can't save you from the dreaded spam button. Your only insurance is to follow the rules.


The email does not appear to have been sent directly by the congressman. It was most likely just a supporter who made some mistakes while looking to help out.

The Permission Check List

Let's end this with a quick check list you can use to decrease the likelihood of your subscribers hitting the spam button.

  • Permission to send – This is the most obvious one. Before you send them an email you need you get the ok from the recipient with either and opt-in or double opt-in process.
  • Email frequency permission – If on sign up they give you permission to send once a month you need to stick to that. If you want to send more frequently, say once a week, you will need to get their permission first by sending them an opt-in email for weekly mailings.
  • Topic of content permission – Make sure you are sending your subscribers emails that are on the topic they signed up for. Nothing will get people hitting spam buttons faster than content they have no interest in.
  • Ability to withdraw permission – An unsubscribe option is an absolute must. Not just to prevent people from considering your email spam, having that option is the law.
  • Permission to transfer – Permission for your list doesn't mean permission for your friend's list. If you want to transfer your list to another email marketer you need the ok from the subscribers on the list.
  • Permission to cross promote – If you have multiple mailing lists and want to cross promote the products you are selling on one to the other list then get then subscribers permission by sending an opt-in for the other list.

Comments (Comment Moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until approved.)
Are these your personal check-list items or are you saying that they all apply to the can-spam act. I'm referring specificaly to "Permission to transfer".
# Posted By brian teeman | 3/11/09 9:14 AM
Hey Brian,

This is just a personal checklist, but the specific one you asked about, "Permission to Transfer", does apply to the CAN-SPAM act.

From section 3(1). "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."
# Posted By David F | 3/11/09 9:44 AM
Thanks for that. I've had this argument with my american cousing before who all insist they can spam me once with a borrowed list. Something you definitely cannot do here in the UK
# Posted By Brian Teeman | 3/11/09 9:50 AM
A borrowed list can definitely get you in trouble, unless there was a clear explanation during the opt-in process that it may be transferred/rented/sold in the future. Or you could always send the list an opt-in email asking if they want to sign up for the other list, something that can work good if the mailings are about similar topics and if you've treated your original list well.
# Posted By David F | 3/11/09 10:02 AM
Great blog David. Once permission is gained, I suggest sending a welcome email that shows the exact frequency of the emails that the contact will receive based on the preferences that contact has chosen.
# Posted By Michelle | 3/12/09 10:35 AM
This article touches on such an important aspect of email marketing. There are really no benefits to sending to a list that has not knowingly opted in to your emails. Sending to a bad list will ruin your reputation, be a waste of sent emails, and won't even get you the sell because they aren't interested in your product/service/organization.

It's always best to save everyone time and frustration by investing in creating a solid, fully opted in list.
# Posted By Elena Hekimian | 3/12/09 10:44 AM
Don't try just buying an email list and then just dropping it in an email marketing program and expect people to not be upset.
# Posted By Nick Stamoulis | 3/13/09 10:48 AM
Email Marketing rocks but we need to be careful and follow those informations.
# Posted By Listorbit | 3/16/09 4:50 AM
WOW really good article and such a worth while read I do not think there is much more that I could add to it because you really have hit the nail on the head and missed nothing out. I have added it to my twitter and just hope that my clients can also benefit from reading it. Some business owners really do not realise that by sending out loads and loads of emails in the wrong way could actually be doing their business more harm than good. Thanks again for the article, its made a very good read and I will keep checking back to see what is new :)
# Posted By Michelle | 3/16/09 5:12 AM
once again you have outdone yourself. The information that you provide is immensely helpful!
# Posted By Kinexus Internet Ltd | 5/7/09 10:31 PM
Yes, that is very true. We can't stop that completely as we can stop the unrequired phone calls.
# Posted By Email Addresses | 3/15/11 3:47 AM