Around the world, laws have been enacted to rail against email spam – many of which impose stringent fines and other penalties on those who send it. Many marketers are careful to make sure that their email marketing strategy is actually safe to use and doesn’t break any of these laws. What constitutes spam varies by nation, but in all known cases, one type of messaging is consistently legal: Opt-in emails.
So what is opt-in email marketing?
In a nutshell, opt-in email marketing involves emailing marketing messages to people who have somehow signed up to receive them.
The objective of emails is often to get people to buy right away. Or sometimes, a series of emails will be used to more subtly increase the chances of a purchase online or in-store.
The main complicating factor in what sounds like a simple endeavor is the method used when adding contacts to the mailing list. Marketers need to beware of legislation, web host terms, and complaints of spam.
What Counts as an Opt-In?
Complications often arise, in part, from the way people define opt-in emails.
The general public usually thinks of them as emails that have been willingly and deliberately subscribed to. If someone goes to a website which is offering some sort of newsletter, email notifications, sales alerts, or reports and then puts their email address into the box so they can receive these communications, they have opted in to get the related emails.
Unfortunately, this definition is not the legal one.
Legally, the definition of what actions count as “opting in” is so broad that many people end up being inundated with emails that they never wanted from companies they’ve never heard of. The general public sees this as spam, regardless of what the law says.
One example of a bad opt-in system is using forms which require user information for a purpose completely unrelated to signing up for a mailing list and then features a pre-checked box at the very bottom of the form next to a single line of text that says something along the lines of: “stay informed about offers and deals.”
Usually, users will miss this as their attention is drawn to the bright and big submit button, which is designed to be much more visible. Once they click submit, bam!, they’re on the list and receiving promotional emails. Do these qualify as opt-in emails? Not from the perspective of the person who didn’t see that checkbox.
Another habit employed by many companies is to automatically add everyone who buys something from their store onto their email lists. From the business’ viewpoint, this is a great way to push similar products to people who’ve already bought something in the past. From a consumer’s perspective, it’s just more spam.
As this shows, opt-in email marketing takes many forms, only some of which could be considered to actually involve a subscriber’s informed consent. The best way to avoid these quandaries, ensure a good success rate, and be sure that your emails are legal – even in countries with strict anti-spam laws, like Canada – is to ensure that the only email addresses on your list belong to people who really and truly intended to sign up.
Use a double opt-in system to confirm that every person on your mailing lists fall into this category and avoid the urge to use sneaky ways to legally claim “opt-in”. A double-opt-in system sends a confirmation email when an address is entered into a form and only adds the address to the main list if the confirmation link within the message is clicked.
Using double opt-in systems will not only ensure that you have a list full of people who are likely to engage with your emails, but this will also save you from worrying about the ever-changing legislative landscape for email marketing.
Originally published: July 23rd, 2014.
Updated: November 28th, 2018.