Ask before you send: permission-based email marketing

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Written by Bryony Thomas.

Man passing a plain white business card to another man

You meet someone at a networking event, and you exchange business cards. As they're interested in your business and freely handed over their contact details, can you start sending them marketing communications? Or do you need to ask permission? Bryony Thomas of Watertight Marketing debates the issue

Before we start, let's declare a bias here, I'm a big believer in asking for marketing permission, regards of the legal ins and outs. I see gaining permission as a bit of milestone in relationship building.

But it's not always straightforward. If you go to a networking event and exchange business cards with someone, can you take that as a green light to add them to your mailing list for your email newsletter?

Pros and cons of assuming email marketing permission

Here are some arguments for assuming marketing permission on the basis of exchanging a business card:

  • The person has given you their card with their email address, so that means they don't mind you emailing them.
  • If you give them the option to unsubscribe, that constitutes choice and respect for their preferences.
  • Hitting delete or unsubscribe is easy, so you're not really putting the recipient to any trouble.
  • They may never have subscribed otherwise, and they may well find your newsletter interesting.
  • Getting people to actively sign up for email communications is hard work.
  • Email marketing is a numbers game, so you want to get it out to as many people as possible.

On the other hand, here are the arguments against assuming permission:

  • It's commonly seen as best practice across the marketing industry to always ask for permission before adding someone to your marketing list.
  • The practice makes some people very angry, and will often lower their opinion of you and your business.
  • Many people receive a large volume of email, and it can be disruptive and unwelcome to receive unwanted marketing communications.
  • If you assume permission, you can't easily get recipients to state preferences, such as frequency and areas of interest.
  • You can't easily measure how interested people are in what you're sending.
  • Free email marketing systems, like Mailchimp, make it very easy to ask for permission.
  • Email marketing is an engagement game - it's quality, not quantity, that counts.
  • It may not be illegal in the letter of the law (see this explanation of GDPR and the specific rules that apply to email marketing), but it's certainly not in the spirit of the law.

So how should you go about gaining permission from someone you've met at a networking event?

Set up a system for obtaining email permission

Having a system in place that allows you to politely ask for email permission as part of your networking follow-up takes a little effort. But not a lot.

After a networking event, we pop the details of the business cards we've received in our database, and tag them with a code indicating they are to be asked for email permission.

At the end of the month we email the tagged contacts giving details of our newsletter, a list of benefits and a link to previous newsletters and the sign-up form. They can then actively choose whether to opt in.

This doesn't prevent you emailing the person as one individual to another, to ask them for a coffee or for their advice on something - that is, after all, why they gave you their card. It just means that you don't send them marketing newsletters or offers by email, until you know they're happy to get them.

Wait until the time is right

Many people believe that if they don't sign people up to marketing communication quickly after meeting them, they will have missed their chance. Again, I don't agree. There are other ways to stay in touch and gain permission when the time is right.

We connect with interesting people we've met in many ways. We hook up on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter (we include links to the sign-up form in our online profiles), or meet them in person for a coffee. Each of these settings offer an opportunity to ask for permission, and allows them to opt in if and when they want to.

Don't be afraid of a small mailing list. A small email list filled with interested and engaged people is much better than a vast list of people who really don't care about what you have to say.

And don't be offended if people don't sign up. It doesn't mean that they don't like your business - it just means they don't want more emails that might not be of value to them.

Don't assume permission

Some people really do think that it's OK to send you email that you didn't ask for. I mean - unsubscribing is pretty easy, isn't it?

Well, no, not always. For example, many people receive emails when they're busy and in no position to give it any attention . This means they may simply ignore or delete the email, feeling irritated - only to receive it again next month.

It's true that you can't please all of the people all of the time - but you can be sure to infuriate some of the people every time you assume email permission. As such, is it really worth it?

Moving to an active opt-in process now might lose you a few people you may previously have captured, but it will gain you a more loyal and engaged audience in the long term - and ensure you're always complying with the full letter of the law.

Written by Bryony Thomas of Watertight Marketing.

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