What do you do if you have a large volume of your customer database which has no email address alongside it, or has an email address that is no longer valid?

You obviously want to find up to date email addresses for these customers and the most popular (cheap) way of doing this, is to use an email append service.

This seemingly innocent process has taken a bit of flack recently, first being soundly thrashed by the Messaging Anti Abuse Working Group (MAAWG for short) and then very publically pilloried by Experian Cheetahmail.

So what has caused this to happen? And what should you consider before embarking on an email append project?

How does it work?

Email appending is the process of using a third party email list and implementing some sort of matching criteria (present on both your own and the third party data list) to link an email address to a person on your database. It is a process that can be fraught with issues, the first of which is the matching criteria.

You really need to make sure you match as much criteria as possible to ensure the person you are matching against is who you think it is.

For example, if all you have is J. Bloggs living at a certain address, but at that is address is a Joe Bloggs and Jane Bloggs, how do you know which one is your subscriber? The more information you have the better (age, gender), so you can be sure you are adding the right users to your list.

The next step is ensuring the emails you end up with have the correct permission to allow you to email them. The ICO (Information Commissionaires Office) recommends permission to use data that has been gathered for third party use, should have active “opt in” consent, not “opt out” implied consent.

In fact, the ICO also states in its advice to marketers:

One of the most frequent comments made in complaints we receive is… Where did they get my email address or mobile number from? I certainly didn’t give it to them.

2011 regulations by the EC Directive suggest:

You may wish to send a ‘low-key’ message explaining where you have got their details from and double checking whether they are, in fact, happy to hear from you in this way. You could not assume consent from their failure to respond.

The data quality issue

It’s this “failure to respond” that puts the biggest strain of the credibility of the process. Regardless of the legalities, using an “opt out” introductory email will inevitably lead to you having people on your database that don’t want to be there.

If you consider the numbers, in any campaign you are only likely to get a 20% open rate at best. Even if you do this three times, you are only likely to have been exposed to 30% of the match file.

This means that under an opt out regime 70% of your match list will not have signed up to be on your list.

This is bad news for two key reasons:

  • It can damage your brand credibility.
  • It can negatively affect your list deliverability and inbox placement due to complaints.

In fact, some email service providers refuse to accept appended email addresses due to the issues they cause. I know this all sounds negative, but let’s face it, there’s really nothing wrong with appending an email address to your client list, as long as the recipient wants to be there and has indicated as much.

And as an email marketer, you wouldn’t choose to damage your brands reputation, nor would you sacrifice inbox placement on purpose. So you need to consider carefully what the objective of the exercise is. 

Is it worth it?

If you are looking to enrich your database with valuable active subscribers that read your emails, the only way to accomplish this would be to encourage them to opt in. It’s going to be more expensive than taking everyone who doesn’t opt out, but the data will also be more valuable.

And this brings us to what the whole point of the exercise is, how much is it really worth spending to get this email address?

If, by appending this email address, you will obtain more business from the customer, how much business are we looking at? Alternatively, if the object is to save money over more expensive media, how much are you looking to save?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you know how much you have to spend on acquiring a responsive and recent email address.

It might justify a web based competition, or direct mail campaigns, or even a customer services phone call for your really valuable customers. Whichever way you choose to go, a live, responsive, email address is the only one worth obtaining.