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The question of permission and customers rights regarding marketing material is one that has privacy evangelists and marketers head to head. Many forms of direct marketing can be seen by the recipients as intrusive and disturbing and this has led to a bit of a backlash.

In some cases, this has spawned legislation (as in TPS in the UK) and in others, poor publicity via the national media and threats of further control from politicians.

But, out of all of the different direct marketing channels, email seems to be the quietest when it comes to public outrage.

This should really be a bit of a surprise, based on the amount of email that the industry is sending out at the moment. If this was direct mail, we’d have turned the rainforests into dust bowels in our pursuit of paper.

Imagine the scene on your front doormat, if each marketing email you received over Christmas was a direct mail piece instead! When the volume is so high, why aren’t there more complaints?

I believe the apparent inbox serenity is being caused by the control the recipients have over what they see in their inbox. The webmail providers have really come along in leaps and bounds when it comes to inbox management.

This is probably represented best in ALTO (AOL’s new kid on the block) which allows you to manage multiple email accounts, prioritising, categorising and allowing you to choose exactly what you see.

When it comes to email, it’s almost as if everyone has their own personal assistant sieving through the rubbish, and only passing on the relevant information.

For the marketer, this provides quite a disconnect in that the recipient has given permission for email marketing, but whether they receive or see the email you send them, is another thing entirely.

And this of course will depend on what you send them. Send the wrong thing and the chances are the user will do any of the following:

  • Block you (This can be achieved without any feedback at all; you won’t know they’ve done it).
  • Delete your email after x many days.
  • Mark you as Spam.
  • Put you in a pile of similar messages.

With many  functions being set to work automatically, one wrong move could get you stuck somewhere your recipient will never see you.

Return Path found that 87% of Gmail users manage their email with Priority Inbox. They also found that only 17% of the “Inbox” email was finding its way into the Priority Inbox itself.

So, to ensure your marketing emails continue to be received by the recipient, in a place that means they get attention, they’ll need to be ones the recipients want.

In this new tougher environment for the email marketer, permission to send marketing emails takes on an entirely new meaning. This is borne out of the research Hotmail carried out, prior to developing its new inbox management processes. 

The research showed 75% of emails marked as spam were actually permission marketing emails people had signed up for. Which means you would think they did want them at one time; so what went wrong?

Users give companies permission to email them but more often than not, they don’t really know what they are signing up for.

There have been some rumblings in various corners as to the extent we should confirm opt in, with one of the most influential global email blacklists (Spam Haus) suggesting it should be double opt in only.

However, I feel it goes beyond just the technique for gaining permission, into the realms of clearly disclosing what you will be sending and how often; and then sticking to it!

The same goes for emails that are sent without permission, the so called “service emails” to existing clients or account holders. Even if the email content has been passed by the legal department as being ok to send, this is only the first test.

The final and overriding test over whether the email should be sent should be How is the recipient going to receive this email? Are they going to consider it’s a service email, or a promotional, sales or marketing communication?

One thing is certain; your average subscriber is not likely to consider the legal definition. All they will be thinking is “do I want or need this email? It’s obvious to most customers when the email is a service one.

Service emails tell them about their placed orders, balances, service alerts etc. There are very few service emails that could justifiably contain the words “sign up to” “don’t miss” etc.  

And you needn’t be too concerned about the age old question of whether to include an unsubscribe link or not (as it’s not a marketing email), because If the answer is ‘no’ webmail providers in the new world, offer plenty of options for the recipient to dispose of the email (see above). And for the ardent anti spammer, there’s always a quick trip to Spam Cop website to alleviate their frustration.

The recipient is more in charge of their inbox now than ever before and this type of recipient empowerment is not going away. To make the most of the future of email marketing, real customer focus needs to be the key.

The old mantra of Right Person, Right Message, Right Time is as true now as it’s ever been.

Tim Roe

Published 11 February, 2013 by Tim Roe

Tim Roe is Director of Data and Deliverability at Redeye International and a contributor to Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via LinkedIn

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