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Responsible Email Targeting

Opt-in or Opt-out? Buy, rent or build email lists? Tom Bergman investigates the options in this excerpt from his book on web strategy for entrepeneurs.
This chapter is from the book

As you consider employing the powerful new capabilities of email in your business, you need to become comfortable with the medium yourself. If you have not already done so, get with the program! Get into the habit of using email first wherever possible. You will find it saves you time and improves your communications effectiveness—and, as a bonus, it will help you gain expertise in using the medium as a promotional tool.

It is important that you leap over the novice stage in the use of email, because novice mistakes in email will make you look amateurish and stupid. Essentially, avoiding these mistakes requires that you adopt a conservative writing style and that you always edit your own messages before sending them. Be sure to keep your spell checker turned on as well! See the box for more advice about proper form in the use of email.


Be sure you do not make these mistakes in your business email correspondence:

  • Improper use of capitalization
  • Failure to capitalize the personal pronoun, "i"
  • Failure to capitalize the first words of sentences

In email, using all-caps is the equivalent of SHOUTING! So do not do it—unless you mean to SHOUT!

  • Improper use of, or omission of, punctuation

Periods, commas, and other common punctuation should never be omitted. These elements are just as important in an email message as in any other written communication. They are there to help the reader understand your meaning. Make sure they are there in your messages.

  • Typos

ALWAYS (see, I am SHOUTING) edit your message before sending. Nothing less than perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation is the standard in business communications, and that same standard applies in email as well as in conventional written correspondence.

  • Overuse of "smilies"

The cute little "emoticons" used commonly to convey attitude ought to be used sparingly, if at all, in your business communications.

These symbols are read by turning your head to the left and viewing the smilie as if it were vertical.

The Unofficial Smilie Dictionary (original source unknown; found lots of places on the Internet)

:-) Your basic smilie. This smilie is used to inflect a sarcastic or joking statement, since we can't hear voice inflection over email.

;-) Winky smilie. User just made a flirtatious and/or sarcastic remark. More of a "don't hit me for what I just said" smilie.

:-( Frowning smilie. User did not like that last statement or is upset or depressed about something.

:-I Indifferent smilie. Better than a frowning smilie but not quite as good as a happy smilie.

:-> User just made a really biting sarcastic remark.. Worse than a :-)

  • Use of chat room abbreviations

Youngsters who have taken to email like ducks to water have developed a shorthand for communication in a chat room setting that has spilled over into email. Such abbreviations as ttfn (ta-ta for now) brb (be right back), and lol (laughing out loud), among many others, are convenient communication tools in a fast-paced medium such as online live chat, where all the players understand the abbreviations. In business communication, however, you need to consider that many of your readers will not understand them, so you must retreat to the conservative position and spell out expressions in order not to leave anyone out.

  • Failure to respond quickly

All email users expect a fast reply. After all, they know you received their message almost immediately following their sending it. Many will sit impatiently, waiting for a response. You will reap tremendous advantages by simply responding quickly to email messages. Just set up your email to sound a chime when a message comes in, stop what you are doing, and look at it. If possible, reply immediately. Even a simple reply, such as "I just got your message and will be back with an answer by 10:00," will be greatly appreciated.

Used in a responsible manner, email is emerging as the most valuable new capability offered by the Internet, but what exactly constitutes "responsible" business use of email?

Opt-in or Opt-out?

What some people consider a responsible use of email, others consider an unacceptable abuse of the free Internet. Although the issue is not yet settled, we are rapidly moving toward a workable set of standards for responsible business use of email. Everyone agrees that email with commercial content can ethically be sent to people who were first asked and who then agreed to receive the commercial messages. This system, referred to as "opt-in," or "permission marketing," represents the most conservative position on responsible business use of email. The essence of this position is expressed in the guidelines for the commercial use of email issued by Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (see box).



All communications must be consensual.

No persons should ever have to unsubscribe from a list they did not intentionally subscribe to.


Permission of new subscribers must be fully verified before mailings commence. This is usually accomplished by means of an email message sent to the subscriber to which s/he must reply, or containing a URL [URL stands for uniform resource locator, also commonly called the domain name] which s/he must visit, in order to complete the subscription. However it is implemented, a fundamental requirement of all lists is for verification of all new subscriptions.

There must be a simple method to terminate a subscription. Mailing list administrators must provide a simple method for subscribers to terminate their subscriptions, and administrators should provide clear and effective instructions for unsubscribing from a mailing list. Mailings from a list must cease promptly once a subscription is terminated.

There should be alternative methods for terminating a subscription. Mailing list administrators should make an "out of band" procedure (e.g., an email address to which messages may be sent for further contact via email or telephone) available for those who wish to terminate their mailing list subscriptions but are unable or unwilling to follow standard automated procedures.

Undeliverable addresses must be removed from future mailings.

Mailing list administrators must ensure that the impact of their mailings on the networks and hosts of others is minimized. One of the ways this is accomplished is through pruning invalid or undeliverable addresses.

Mail volume must take recipient systems into account. List administrators must take steps to ensure that mailings do not overwhelm less robust hosts or networks. For example, if the mailing list has a great number of addresses within a particular domain, the list administrator should contact the administrator for that domain to discuss mail volume issues.

Steps must be taken to prevent use of a mailing list for abusive purposes. The sad fact is that mailing lists are used by third parties as tools of revenge and malice. Mailing list administrators must take adequate steps to ensure that their lists cannot be used for these purposes. For example, administrators can maintain a "suppression list" of email addresses from which all subscription requests are rejected. Addresses would be added to the suppression list upon request by the parties entitled to use the addresses at issue. The purpose of the suppression list would be to prevent subscription of forged addresses by unauthorized third parties. Such suppression lists should also give properly authorized domain administrators the option to suppress all mailings to the domains for which they are responsible.

Terms and conditions of address use must be fully disclosed. Mailing list administrators must make adequate disclosures of how subscriber addresses will be used, including whether or not addresses are subject to sale or trade with other parties. Also, conditions of use should be visible and obvious to the potential subscriber. For example, two lines buried deep within a license agreement do not constitute adequate disclosure.

Acquired lists must be used for their original purpose. Those who are acquiring fully verified opt-in lists must examine the terms and conditions under which the addresses were originally compiled and determine that all recipients have in fact opted-in to the type of mailing list the buyer intends to operate.

The nature and frequency of mailings should be fully disclosed.

List administrators should make adequate disclosures about the nature of their mailing lists, including the subject matter of the mailings and the anticipated frequency of messages. A substantive change in the frequency of mailings, or in the size of each message, may constitute a new and separate mailing list requiring a separate subscription.

One subscription, one list. Addresses should not be added to other lists without fully verified consent of the address owner. It should never be assumed that subscribers to a list about foo want to be added to another foo list, let alone a list about goo. A notification about the new mailing list may be appropriate on the existing mailing list, but existing subscribers should never be subscribed automatically to the new list.

Source: Mail Abuse Prevention System, LLC http://maps.vix.com/manage.html# MAPS_Principles, accessed 4-13-2001.

An important advantage of permission marketing is that you can learn a great deal more about your recipients than just their email addresses. While you are asking their permission to send them your commercial messages, you can also learn their names, zip codes, what categories of product they like, and more. With each piece of information you gain about your customers and prospects, you can better target their specific needs and desires, allowing you to make their lives better while improving your profits as well.

Opt-in—permission marketing—offers the very best opportunities for effective use of email, no matter what your business. You should use opt-in systems whenever and wherever you can find the means. Detailed instructions for setting up an opt-in system are provided in Part 2.


A good example of opt-in, or permission marketing, can be found on the Web site of Trend Micro (http://www.antivirus.com). This company, which markets antivirus software, makes itself a welcome presence by offering free "house calls" during which, after you download a small program, they will scan all your hard drives for viruses at no charge. Once you have installed their antivirus program, the company offers regular email updates on any new viruses going around. The email updates, which the recipients can cancel at any time, then become a vehicle for keeping Trend Micro and its products high in the minds of the company's customers.

In "opt-out" systems the business owner assumes he has permission to send commercial messages until told otherwise by the recipient. To use an "opt-out" system responsibly requires that the recipients be carefully targeted. Sending commercial email to people about whom you know nothing but their email address is irresponsible use of email, also known as spam.


Spam is not an abbreviation for anything. This derogatory nickname for junk email is just an adolescent attempt to be humorous. The youngsters who populated the Internet when it was first opened to the public applied the nickname to the junk email that was beginning to proliferate, and it stuck, much to the dismay of the brand owner. Here is the quote from a Monty Python skit that inspired the name spam to describe junk email. A waiter is explaining what they have on their menu:

"Well there's egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and spam; bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg and spam; spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle paté, brandy and a fried egg on top of spam."

Source: The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus : All the Words, Volume 2 by Graham Chapman, Monty Python, Pantheon Press, Publisher.

Let me be clear. I do advocate the use of an opt-out email system provided you meet the following conditions:

  • You know enough about the recipients, before sending any email, to be reasonably sure they are potential customers for what you offer.

  • You do not attempt to hide your identity as the source of the email you are sending.

  • You provide a working "from" or "reply to" address in the messages you send so that recipients can contact you if they wish.

  • You remove permanently from your mailing list the address of anyone who requests that you do so.

  • You do not violate the Acceptable Use Policy of your ISP (Internet Service Provider) or your mail service provider.

If you carefully follow these guidelines, very few will object to receiving your mailings, and you will violate no laws that are currently in force or likely to be passed any time soon.


An accounting software company collected approximately 6,000 email addresses of CPAs located in the five-state area by searching the online professional directories. The company planned to send periodic mailings to these professional accountants promoting the software product as a good solution for the CPAs' clients.

An irrigation pump manufacturer collected over 3,000 email addresses of landscape architects from a variety of on- and offline directories. The manufacturer sends periodic promotions inviting the architects to visit the manufacturer's Web site to learn more about the advantages of the pumps offered.

A local restaurateur who collected 400 email addresses of downtown workers by offering a drawing for a free lunch now sends weekly announcements of the lunch specials to these addresses.

A local Economic Development Authority began mailing all the members of the local area Chamber of Commerce and others in the professional community a monthly "economic update" without obtaining the permission of any recipient.

A university student collects the email addresses of other students wherever he can and sends an email to all, advertising his willingness to buy used textbooks near the end of the term.

Only the most conservative anti-spam advocates would consider the examples just cited to be spam, and neither the bills pending in the U.S. Congress nor any of the 17 state laws currently regulating commercial email would classify these applications as illegal spam.


U.S. Federal Law: As of January 2001, no anti-spam laws have yet been enacted at the federal level, but no fewer than ten are under consideration, with one having already passed the House and now being considered by the Senate. Most likely to be first signed into law sometime in 2001 is a regulation modeled after the California law discussed below.

California: This law permits ISPs to sue those whose send spam if it is a violation of an ISP's policy, and imposes criminal penalties upon those who hide the address from which the message is sent. A related California law requires spam to include opt-out instructions with a toll-free telephone number or a valid return address. This law also requires senders to honor opt-out requests and requires email advertisements to contain "ADV:" or "ADV:ADLT" at the beginning of the subject line so that recipients can filter out the advertisements if they wish. Damages in the amount of $50 per message sent, up to $25,000 per day, are permitted.

Washington: While Nevada enacted an early anti-spam law making spam illegal under certain conditions but providing no penalties for violations, Washington state had the first anti-spam law with teeth. The Washington law prohibits sending spam from any computer in the state of Washington or to any address in Washington. In defining spam, the law prohibits hiding the address from which the message is sent and using a misleading subject line. Damages are specified at $500 per message sent (!) and $1,000 per server affected.

Virginia: Several spam laws in Virginia make it a crime to hide the address from which the message is sent or to sell software that is designed to make that possible. Damages of $10 per message, up to $25,000 per day, are permitted.

Since the establishment of these laws in Washington, Colorado, and Virginia, the states listed below have also enacted anti-spam laws, which contain a wide range of provisions.




North Carolina






Rhode Island




West Virginia

Even though the methods by which you decide to whom you will send your commercial email are well within the law, you should use opt-out sparingly and carefully. Some recipients will strongly object even to responsible opt-out approaches, such as the examples listed earlier, and these people can cause you lots of problems if they happen to object to receiving one of your messages.

The ethics and values of our customers and prospects are quite different on- and offline. It is vital to remember that people are far more sensitive online than they are offline and that they have the means to inflict a great deal of pain on anybody they see as an online offender. Be aggressive in your email usage, but be careful. Whether you use opt-in or opt-out, test every email tactic you plan to use on a small group of typical recipients, then on a moderate-sized group, before launching into the full campaign.

Unpleasant fallout from these early tests can often be contained, whereas the repercussions from just charging ahead may be disastrous. Besides, you can run multiple tests in just a few hours. Why take unnecessary risks?

In the sections of this book that follow, you will learn about several powerful email strategies you can use in your business. Before I go on, let me address the most tempting tactic of all: blatant spam.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020