Beginner’s Guide to a Clean List, Part 2

It starts with permission.

If you’ve been working in the business of email for more than a few days, you’re bound to have read that permission is the key to good delivery. “Permission is what spammers don’t have, and legitimate mailers do have,” or “Permission is the difference between the junk folder and the inbox.” Of course, it’s not that simple, and having permission doesn’t guarantee good email delivery, but mailing to folks who never gave you permission to send them email is a quick and effective route to poor delivery. However, where money is at stake, it would be foolish to assume a simple word like ‘permission’ would have a straightforward definition that everyone agrees on. Humans are great at rationalization. I’ve heard more variations of “we have permission because…” than I care to remember. One thing most of them had in common was the concept of implied permission:

  • “They put their business card in our bowl.”
  • “They attended our conference.”
  • “They entered their email address in the survey.”
  • “They signed up for this newsletter, so we can send them this other one, too.”
  • “They bought something and didn’t fill in the email field, but we matched their address against a database and found an email address that’s probably theirs.”

And I didn’t just make those up; they’re examples taken from real life. Just because you can get hold of someone’s email address – even if it was in a business context – it doesn’t mean that you have their permission to send them email. Think of it this way: if you were that person, put in the same situation, would you (be honest) believe that you had just given someone permission to start sending you anything they wanted to via email?

When it comes to email, implied permission is no permission. You want to hold yourself to a higher standard, something along the lines of informed permission. I cribbed the terminology from medical research, where they have the laudable concept of informed consent:

Informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications, and consequences of an action. —Wikipedia

For folks to give you permission to send them email, they have to know and understand (a) that they are signing up for something, (b) what they are signing up for, and (c) what to expect from it. The person at the receiving email address decides whether or not you’ve been given permission to send them mail. It’s that simple and obvious (and no amount of rationalization will change it).

Related to this is the fact that permission can’t be transferred or sold. To continue the comparison with the medical research: if you’d consented to take part in a study on color-blindness, you wouldn’t expect also to have your kidneys experimented on. Someone signing up for one email list is giving limited permission; there is no implied permission to send them anything else or email from anyone else.

The result is that we need to make the process of getting on the mailing list as clear, obvious, and transparent as possible. Here are several things to remember if you want to get it right:

  • Don’t send email to someone else’s list from your system. If it’s their list, they should send the email – using their From address and their IP. Anyone who would send you their list to email to doesn’t value the list – which means it has no value.
  • Effective lists are built, not bought. “Someone else’s list” includes any email list you might buy, rent, find online, or acquire in any other way.
  • Do write clear, plain copy for the sign-up box, the page thanking the person for signing up, and the welcome letter. If possible, tell them how often you plan to email them, what the From address will be, and anything else you think they’ll need to know to recognize you.
  • Always send a welcome letter – immediately on sign – up or as soon as possible.
  • Don’t use appending. I might cover this in more detail in a later post, but keep these ideas in mind: the data is stale, the data is inaccurate, and permission is not transferrable.
  • Do keep your From address and From name – also called the “friendly From” – consistent. (This is common sense too.)
  • Don’t use co-registration (co-reg) unless you’ve tested the service from the subscriber’s point of view and are convinced that sign-ups are specific to your email list, and the permission is the informed kind. Even then, it’s risky. The antispam community nowadays perceives Co-reg as something spammers do.
  • Do keep track of where every sign-up originated. If there’s a problem, having all email addresses coded by source can help you find the cause and possibly identify other potentially problematic addresses (from the same source) – or flag a source of sign-ups as one to avoid in the future.
  • Don’t buy email addresses, lists, or data. You can’t buy permission, so you can’t email to any list you bought.

There’s one last thing about permission I haven’t mentioned: permission isn’t permanent. If you’ve got an old list, segment, or any group of email addresses you haven’t mailed to in a while, you can’t email them anymore. Without a consistent stream of mail (and opportunities to unsubscribe), permission lapses. It expires. Many of the email addresses will also have become invalid or been repurposed as spamtraps. Sending to them hurts your delivery. I’ve seen this tried many times, and it never works out well.


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