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Permission Marketing ("A rose by any other name...")

Using email to prospect for new customers or members for your organization is one of the best and most cost-effective arrows in your marketing department's quiver. If done right, it can add dollars to your organization's bottom line. If done wrong, however, mass email campaigns can damage your company's brand credibility, provoke potential consumer hostility, and put your IT department in the doghouse (possibly through no fault of your own).

Email prospecting has a formal name: permission marketing. It's called that for a very important reason. Permission marketing is the means of getting a user's permission to send email before your message shows up in the email inbox. You can get permission in a variety of ways from visitors, but there are some landmines to watch out for.

Gaining Active Consent

Let's consider your site visitors first. As on most e-business web sites, your organization has probably ask site visitors to join a mailing list to get updates about products, services, or even the site itself. You may offer valuable periodic information in the form of an email newsletter. At the end of a sale, you ask customers to subscribe to email promotions: "Would you like to receive information from us periodically about sales? Would you like to receive our newsletter?" In all these formats, the customer responds with "yes" or "no" by filling in a check box. If the answer is "yes," the customer has given permission. If it's "no," permission is denied.

Make it clear that customers are agreeing to a permission email relationship. That means that when you offer yes-or-no check boxes, you must not pre-check the box.

Simple principle. But it's not the whole enchilada.

Let Me Out!

For many businesses, when a customer or member sends email requesting removal from a mailing list, that request goes into a black hole, with no confirmation that the proper action—or any action—was taken. You can avoid this problem by providing a special web page on your site for unsubscribing from your mailing list.

Your unsubscribe page should be short, to the point, and easy to understand. The language needs to be completely unambiguous.

You can make unsubscribing even easier for users by including an "Unsubscribe" link within your email. As soon as the user clicks the link, your server should recognize it as an unsubscribe action and present a web page indicating that the user has successfully unsubscribed from your list. This page also gives your marketing department another chance to interact with the user, perhaps asking if he or she wants to subscribe to another list, or to join your new preferred shoppers club—or to re-subscribe immediately if the user unsubscribed accidentally.

Respecting the User's Privacy

It's important to remember that the user's permission applies to your site—nobody else's. Don't give or sell customers' email addresses—that is, their permission to be emailed—to any other company or person, unless you ask for the customer's permission in advance.

Protecting Your IP Address

Why is this permission thing so important—especially to your IT department? Because, if permission isn't handled correctly, your organization can be accused of spamming. And that has some pretty nasty consequences these days. The IT department—not the marketing department—is responsible for protecting the reputation of your organization's IP address. That means that IT is in charge of keeping the name "spammer" away from your organization.

Anti-spammers rarely complain just to their Internet service providers (ISP). They are just as likely to complain to your ISP, your ISP's backbone provider, and just about everyone else along the electronic path from you to the recipient. If your organization gains a reputation as a spammer, your provider may terminate your Internet connection—just to stop the complaints.

If losing your Internet connection isn't scary enough, consider this: A not-for-profit organization called Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) runs the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL), a compiled list of IP addresses of known spammers—and offers this list to subscribers.

Who are these subscribers? Email administrators.

Using the RBL list, these administrators reject any email that originates from those IP addresses. That's right, any email—not just bulk email. You're probably thinking that the RBL list includes only pornography sites and get-rich-quick spammers. It doesn't. It also includes what the antispam community calls mainsleaze, a combination of mainstream and sleaze. These are legitimate companies that use questionable email practices. That is, they don't use opt-in email lists—or, in other words, permission marketing.

Obviously, getting permission is extremely important for your email marketing strategy and the reputation of your organization.

So, you check in with your marketing department to make sure that they're using an opt-in email list. Is that enough to keep your organization out of the doghouse? Not necessarily.

Individual users can also sabotage your company's reputation by marketing independently on their own (or just communicating with suppliers), bypassing IT completely. Here's an example. Several years ago, an employee at a major corporation sent email to the corporation's list of suppliers, who were unaware of each other. Unfortunately, they became aware of each other's presence as soon as they opened the email, because the sender entered all the email addresses in the CC: line and not the BCC: line. Very embarrassing for the company. (Probably didn't do the employee's career any good, either.)

It pays for your IT staff to educate your entire organization on proper email protocol and the elements of permission marketing.

Purchasing Third-Party Permission

Even if your organization has a house list that you use for email, your marketing department might want to use the services of email list companies on the Internet to prospect for new customers. Just about any day, your organization probably receives plenty of offers from unknown companies wanting to sell you "millions of email addresses of people wanting to hear from you!"

In a word: Don't.

If you want to email responsibly and not be branded a spammer, teach your marketing staff to work only with companies that use a "double opt-in" process to build their mailing lists. In a double opt-in process, consumers who sign up to be list members at a variety of web sites are emailed a confirmation by the creator of the list. Recipients of the confirmation email must confirm that they want to be part of the database—before they're added.

Many list-rental companies don't use double opt-in because it's time-consuming. But it's the only way you can be sure that recipients of your rented email list really want to have emails sent to them.

Here are two popular double opt-in email list companies:

  • The first company to collect, categorize, and offer for sale nonspam opt-in email lists was NetCreations. If you're looking for numbers, this is the place. NetCreations works with more than 250 partner web sites that ask visitors if they'd like to receive mailings on certain topics. You can choose from more than 50 million double opt-in email addresses in both B2C and B2B categories.

  • Omni Point Marketing offers a list of 40 million double opt-in consumer email addresses.

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