E-Mail Marketing: When Customers Change Their Minds

By Jonathan Jackson

Here’s a fun task – try to opt out of a mailing list. Sound easy? Well, it ought to be, but apparently, things aren’t working out that way. Perhaps it’s because of the sluggish economy or maybe just because they are slothful, but some companies are holding on to their customers with steel talons.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve tried to extricate myself from a number of email lists. The results have been disappointing, to say the least. A few companies seem to have ignored my request altogether. Others have promised to take me off their lists in 5 to 10 working days. I can count, and it’s already been a lot longer than that. Worse, some have purportedly agreed to drop me from their lists and then keep trying to take another bite at the apple.

This leads to a larger question: What should a marketer do after someone opts out of his company’s mailings? No marketer likes to see a prospect or customer get away. But some marketers seem to feel it’s acceptable to send people another mailing – even after they have opted out – in the hopes of winning them back.

It’s worth reviewing the rules of this game to understand why this behavior is so egregious. The opt-out method of email marketing gives consumers the option of not receiving future messages. Under this system, messages can be sent until recipients ask they not receive any more (i.e., the individual “opts out”).

The practice of requiring a prospect to click or unclick a check box on a Web page to avoid receiving email is known as negative opt-in and passive consent. Under this scenario, if no action is taken marketers assume permission to add individuals to their mailing lists. Though not quite nefarious, this practice is less than forthright and seems to be on the wane.

With the opt-in method, consumers don’t receive a promotional message unless they have checked a box and agreed to receive such messages. Under this system, email cannot be sent unless the individual has expressly given permission. Most stringent is the double opt-in method, requiring users to check a box then reply to an email reiterating and confirming the request. Of course, the understanding is that even after permission has been given, customers are allowed to change their minds.

Like all modes of online advertising, targeting and anticipating customer expectations are key. Opt-in email is the vehicle of choice, since getting consent provides a valuable way to profile the recipient and target the ad. Without opt-in, advertisers may be sending ads to a larger, but less qualified, list, or worse, they may have their ads perceived as spam.

One challenge with permission email is the thin line between opt-out email and spam. (Even opt-in email can be perceived as spam if it’s received more frequently than expected and isn’t relevant.) If marketers or Web sites take too broad a reading of a customer’s permission, the line between opt-in email and spam can be blurred. Often, permission given in one instance can be abused in another. If marketers use an email address to sell unrelated and unsolicited products or if the customer’s email address is sold to other marketers, this can constitute spam, even if the customer originally gave permission.

The moral of the tale is clear. When a recipient opts out, for whatever reason, that decision must be respected. Why should a marketer needlessly antagonize a potential customer? After all, a qualified opt-in list is an incredibly valuable marketing tool. If marketers decide to play fast and loose with their opt-in rules, they could easily end up with no customers at all.

Jonathan Jackson is an online marketing consultant based in New York City. He has written extensively on Internet advertising and e-mail marketing. Formerly a senior analyst at “eMarketer,” Jonathan’s worked at several metropolitan advertising agencies and teaches Internet marketing at colleges in New York.

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