Opt-This, Opt-That: Putting Permission to Rest

By Edward Grossman

Last month, Michael Mayor, president of NetCreations, took me to task on my interchangeable use of the terms “confirmed opt-in” and “double opt-in.” My view of confirmed opt-in was it is just a nicer way of saying double opt-in. To politicize it a little bit, marketers like to use the word “double” to indicate the extra burden, antispammers like the word “confirmed” to indicate the user doesn’t have to sign up twice but must only verify intent.

This is one of those topics everyone wants to ask about, but no one wants to be the only one asking. I thought the time was right to break it down once and for all: permission levels, defined. Taking Michael’s lead, I’m including the differences between double opt-in and confirmed opt-in. I’m a convert.

Here are all the fancy versions of opt-this and opt-that.

Definitely the lowest quality, an opt-out list is one to which email addresses are added without the user’s knowledge or permission. Best case: an entity that has a prior relationship with me gets my email address (with or without my assistance) and starts emailing me. Worst case: pure spam.

Either way, an opt-out list probably has the lowest response rate and the highest complaint rate. Ardent antispammers would call all opt-out lists spam because email is a recipient-paid medium.

Confirmed Opt-Out
A step above pure opt-out, a confirmed opt-out list is one that sends a confirmation to intended recipients when their email addresses are added to the list. Typically, this confirmation alerts the recipient to the fact they are being added to the list and allows them to opt-out by replying to the email or clicking a link within the body of the message.

My alma mater recently sent an opt-out confirmation. Somehow, it got my email address and was letting me know it was going to start sending me its “Alumni Alert.” The confirmation was clear and concise, with a prominent opt-out link above the fold. Obviously, I have an existing relationship with the college I attended, so I wasn’t offended and appreciated the opportunity to opt-out (rather than simply starting to receive the newsletter). For the record, I did not opt-out and am now on the list.

This is, of course, dependent on the pre-existing relationship. If I had received an opt-out confirmation for “Found Money Weekly,” I would likely have viewed even the opt-out confirmation as spam. Worse, if a user thinks the opt-out confirmation is spam itself, she probably won’t bother to opt out, convinced it won’t work and fearing a confirmation of a “live one” on the other end will result in more spam (an urban myth, in my opinion). In other words, confirmed opt-out lists can be very dirty.

Probably the most straightforward of all lists, an opt-in list is one with which individuals must take some action to subscribe. Typically, this involves filling out a Web-based signup form. Obviously, a list consisting of people who actively add themselves to it (as opposed to a list of people who passively allow themselves to be added) is more responsive and produces fewer complaints.

The problem with an opt-in list is ill-intentioned individuals can (and do) add others to lists. Having been on the receiving end of such a “prank” (maybe they didn’t like my column), I can tell you this does happen. I may still be subscribed to some of the over 800 lists some jerk added me to (though they’re probably not registering a lot of opens or clicks).

Confirmed Opt-In
To help protect from mail-bombs, confirmed opt-in lists confirm, by email, your subscription as soon as your name has been added to the list. They allow you to unsubscribe immediately by replying or clicking on a link within the email. This is especially helpful on lists with infrequent or sporadic mailings. If Evil Spam Guy signs you up for a bunch of newsletters you don’t want, you’re alerted immediately and can take the appropriate action. If the lists don’t send this confirmation, you may not know for months exactly how many lists you are signed up for.

When I was bombed, I continued to feel the impact well after the event. New newsletters I had never heard of continued to arrive months after the attack. If all those lists had sent confirmations when my name was added, I could have unsubscribed to all of them at the same time.

Double Opt-In
If the mail bomb only hit double opt-in lists, I wouldn’t have had to do anything. Sure, I would have received 800 confirmations asking me to signify my intent, but that would be it. A double opt-in list means not only must the user take an action to add himself to a list, but he then receives a confirmation of his subscription. He must reply to be added to the list.

Requiring two active and intentioned steps makes for the cleanest list possible. Even if a prankster attempts to add you without your permission, that confirmation, that second step requiring action, means if you do nothing you won’t be added to the list. Raising the bar and requiring two actions means the highest response rates and the lowest complaint rates.

Who Am I to Say?
I can almost see those angry emails now. Yes, I know some of you won’t agree with my definitions. Yes, I know many use the terms confirmed opt-in and double opt-in interchangeably. As mentioned above, up until recently I counted myself among them.

The difference Michael points out is a real one. The distinction is not to make double opt-in appear overly burdensome, hence serve as an excuse not to use it. The point is to emphasize the quality of this type of list, so marketers and emailers who feel a high level of permission is important can easily communicate to clients, management, and subscribers. It should be a point of pride, not an albatross.

As director of newsletter publishing for internet.com, Edward Grossman unflappably oversees the production and distribution of over 200 Enewsletters. He’s been an online editor, producer and developer since 1995 on sites including internet.com, WebDeveloper.com, JavaScript.com and Gif.com. Edward’s articles on newsletter publishing, Web development and the Internet industry have appeared online and off. He teaches online publishing at New York University’s Center for Publishing.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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