A long time ago email servers ran with no special security on them.  Then one day email viruses became a big enough problem that we started filtering all incoming email for malware.  Soon after that spam email also became a problem, and so we also started filtering incoming email for unwanted content.

I remember when a good spam filter was a list of just a few dozen keywords and maybe a handful of IP addresses and sending email addresses that you had explicitly blocked.  These days we’ve evolved to highly sophisticated email security systems based on combinations of block lists, signature-based content filter, heuristics-based content filtering, sender reputation, and other techniques to try and outwit the criminals that are behind the worst of the spam on the internet.

But there is also another type of spam email. This is the spam that is relatively harmless but falls into the “unsolicited commercial email” category.

The term “permission marketing” was originally coined to describe a philosophy of only marketing to those who agree to receive your message.  In email this is embodied as opt-in or double opt-in marketing, in which consumers explicitly signup to receive email from companies that they have interacted with.

In other words, when you want to know about the weekend special at your local pizza chain, you go to their website and fill out a form with your name, email address, and location, and they send you emails until you tell them to stop by unsubscribing.

But some marketers hate the idea that they need permission to enter your inbox.  They don’t say it in so many words.  They talk about “implied permission”, and their responsibility as marketers to anticipate consumer wants and deliver relevant emails to them without the recipient having to ask for them.  Relevant being a subjective term, because most marketers consider their message relevant to everyone who has ever done business with them.

In reality most consumers would not say that they expect to receive email from every business that they’ve ever bought from.

But the marketer insists on putting these words in the consumer’s mouth:

Since I already do business with you, I expect to see some emails that actually relate to what I’ve bought or maybe searched for or even read/reviewed on your site. But you can also send me random items… eventually something will be of interest. It’s your dime (or 0.025 cents or whatever you pay to send me an email).


Of course, if you decide to waste my time by waiting for me to raise my hand and ask you to send me emails, I’ll do business with someone who has the guts to send me their best efforts instead of hiding behind silly arguments about the ethics of talking to me in a channel I use daily. For all I know, I already gave you my email address and permission. Or not. I don’t care either way.

As the article’s author goes on to elaborate in the comments:

Another way to look at it is that it’s a new high in the level of respect we should have for customers – not to waste their time after they’ve clearly established an interest in our products and services.

In other words, a business transaction is the same as permission.  Start sending emails!

So why can’t marketers just stick with explicit permission instead of looking for ways to assume permission was implied?  Because they think its too hard for people to work out how to opt-in to receive email.

Why are you assuming that every customer has enough interest in every organization that they do business with to make it a point to hunt down every single permissions page so they can sign up for emails? We don’t ask for the same level of interaction for direct mailings. That’s a huge level of disrespect for people’s time and effort. It takes far less time to unsubscribe than it does to subscribe (or to shred/toss the mail for that matter).

So its easier to just email people and let them (try to) opt-out than it is to put in place the simple, easy to use systems that capture opt-ins at the point of interaction (usually the sale).  Naked Pizza have worked it out.  Amazon had no trouble working it out.  Why can’t the rest of the marketing world work it out as well?

It is arrogant at best, and insulting at worst, for marketers to think that we consumers are too stupid to work out how to opt-in for email that we want.

About the Author

Paul Cunningham

Paul is a former Microsoft MVP for Office Apps and Services. He works as a consultant, writer, and trainer specializing in Office 365 and Exchange Server. Paul no longer writes for Practical365.com.

Leave a Reply