The Six Cs of Permission Email Marketing
Permission Marketing. Beyond buzz word, it's clearly the status quo for email and has long been debated as the future state of direct mail, too. Already legally mandated by data laws in other countries, opt-in marketing may evolve into the preferred model within the US as well.
With marketing channels of choice proliferating and messaging devices diversifying, it's not hard to imagine an opt-in vs. opt-out future where permissions are granted not only by marketing channel (email, postal mail, phone, RSS), but also by content, device, time, and place.
All the more reason to genuinely understand permission, which in the world of email marketing alone appears relegated to subjective definitions. We'll help set the record straight by exploring the first two of six dimensions of permission in this three-part series, "The Six Cs of Permission Email Marketing."
They may seem obvious, and they may sound simplistic, but you might be surprised how often the fundamentals are dismissed.
1. Conscious Consent
There are numerous ways individuals end up on email lists, and many of those ways are unknown even to them.
Terms like "affirmative consent," "passive consent," and "third-party consent" abound. But when it comes to genuine 100% permission marketing, the only consent that matters is conscious consent.
Are your join and subscribe invitations structured in such a way that list members must voluntarily take action to receive your messages, and do they realize the action they are taking will result in email from your company, partners, or affiliates? If you can't answer "yes" to these questions, your methods are not garnering conscious consent.
Sure, people are bombarded with messages and advertising impressions from a growing array of channels; and, yes, they forget what they've signed-up for. However, conscious consent ensures that an opt-in process is clear and non-deceitful.
Without a self-initiated action on the part of your list members, it is virtually impossible for them to join. Requiring such self-initiated, voluntary measures requires conscious action on the part of your recipients and increases the likelihood that they remember having taken such action.
On the other hand, unconscious or passive consent assumes rather than requests permission. It takes true voluntary choice out of the equation by pre-checking boxes, using data gathered from publicly available sources, or gathering information via some other opt-out collection model.
While those methods are certainly not illegal and are often justifiable, they don't constitute conscious consent. If 100% permission marketing is what you aim for, nothing less than voluntary consent will do.
Choice and conscious consent go hand in hand, since conscious consent assumes individual choice. Yet beyond the choice to join/subscribe in the first place, you should make available options that offer control (one of our upcoming C's).
Which options will you—can you—offer in a permission marketing environment? These are just a few:
- Communication type (news, promotional, legal, transactional)
- Content type (product information, reminders, sales offers)
- Preferred communication channel (email, postal mail, phone, fax)
- Frequency preferences
- Device-specific message formatting (mobile vs. desktop)
- Temporary suspension of messages
For an expert example of how it's done, see United Airlines customer preferences at www.united.com. If you're a United Mileage Plus program member, just log-in and select "My Profile." You'll be able to edit email preferences, flight notification preferences, and other options. Another excellent example can be found at Hallmark. Create an account there if you don't already have one to see what we mean.
When offering permission and communications choices, you offer preferences; so, present only the options that you can successfully fulfill. And don't forget to note when certain types of content or communication are available only through a particular channel and not others.
It's fine to restrict choices solely to what you can realistically manage; aim your sights on under-promising and over-delivering—and your customers will reward your efforts.
As a dimension of permission, clarity alone has many aspects. When requesting permission (an "opt-in") for example, first and foremost that very fact should be clear. There are numerous shades of gray here—and, sadly, many online marketers seem to thrive in muddy waters.
Your first step to staying clear is to ensure that your request is exactly that—an obvious yes-or-no choice rather than an assumption of permission.
Too often, marketers asking for tolerance—or forgiveness—claim they are permission marketers. In today's world, forgiveness does not equal permission. Opt-out is not opt-in, and no attempt at reframing it after the fact will make it so.
Take the high road. And if you're planning for 100% permission email, understand that a percentage of your prospects and even your customers will decline your communications. Learn to accept rejection, and instead focus your efforts on those who have voluntarily said "yes."
The remaining dimensions of clarity in permission marketing have more to do with the data gathering process than with the request itself.
- Can you state, in WIIFM* terms, why someone should provide the data you're asking for? Do you articulate the clear benefit to your audience members when, for example, they provide their company size? ZIP code? Annual income?
- Is there a special perk or gift you offer when a member provides his/her birthday? Renewal date? Completes a survey?
- Scrutinize every data element that you request within the permission process; if you can't justify it, leave it for later. Once you've gathered basic contact information, you can always go back for more.
- Finally, is it clear what will be sent? In which channels and formats will communications arrive? Postal mail, phone, email? Catalog, direct mail, phone call, e-newsletter? Can you provide examples (either via a link to an e-communication or photo of offline advertising; or through the mail) to create confidence, comfort and credibility?
- Remember not only to tell but also to show.
- The fourth dimension of permission email marketing is critical to ensuring that it works, and hinges largely on your credibility. Whether someone will opt in to your communications has a lot to do with how much they trust you and a little to do with how strongly they desire what you have.
- Break or abuse that trust, or fail to live up to your promises, and no matter how badly they want or need your product... customers will seek it elsewhere.
- What else can you do to inspire confidence?
- If you're gathering and storing highly sensitive or protected data such as credit card numbers, social security numbers, or health/ medical attributes, explain in plain English how you protect such information from being shared, stolen, or abused. Furthermore, explain why it is in your customers' best interests to provide it and/or allow you to store it (convenience?). They'll need to understand how they will personally benefit before they'll surrender security.
- Finally, building confidence is a way of doing business, not a one-time job. Creating explanations, examples, and policies is a start; living up to them is what's ultimately important.
- Control as an aspect of permission has everything to do with offering your audience members control and nothing to do with trying to control them.
- Control as a dimension of your email program means that you put your list members in the driver's seat, allowing them control over their communication choices, access to and use of their data, and even the ultimate control to broaden, narrow, or end their relationship with you.
Your target audience will truly be in control if you not only present them options for selecting but also allow them to change their preferences regarding the following:
- The types of communications they receive from you (alerts, reminders, announcements, offers, news, legal, etc.)
- The channels by which they receive different communications
- The data they've provided about themselves
- The extent to which marketing permission as well as data (especially the email address) is shared with parent companies, sister brands, partners, and third-party advertisers
- How their data is used
- When and how they can leave a communication stream
- When and how they can opt out of previous choices
The final step in any permission marketing process is confirmation.
Critically important to the opt-in process is confirming that a voluntary join action has taken place, as soon as possible after it occurs. In opt-in email when a member joins a list via a Web site, confirmation typically occurs via a return email message immediately deployed to the email address owner; that email does double or quadruple duty by...
- Verifying that the email address provided is correct and deliverable
- Restating log-in IDs and/or passwords, if applicable
- Providing a link to a central preference or account management center, and an option for redress (unsubscribe) if the opt-in is invalid
- Including contact information for customer service or tech support
- And last but certainly not least, beginning the onboarding process with an initial offer
Confirmation beyond initial signup should also be provided whenever a member modifies preferences, adds or deletes data, or unsubscribes.
Match the confirmation to the channel. Since significant preference and data control is now offered by many marketers through their Web sites, the use of return Web pages—sometimes in conjunction with email confirmation messages—are a best practice when changes are being made online.
The growing trend toward opt-in rather than traditional opt-out marketing is being driven by consumer overload and environmental concerns; if you keep the Six Cs of Permission in mind at each stage of your customer-relationship-building process, you'll be at least a few—if not six—steps ahead of the game.