Ask before you send: permission-based email marketing

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You meet someone at a networking event. They are interested in your business and give you their card. Can you start sending them your email newsletters right away? Or should you 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. 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, should you take that as a green light to add them to your mailing list for your email newsletter?

Let's look at the pros and cons.

Reasons for assuming marketing permission on the basis of exchanging a business card:

  • They've 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 riveting.
  • Getting people to actively sign up for email is hard work.
  • Email marketing is a numbers game, so you want to get it out to as many people as possible.

Arguments against assumed email permission:

  • It's commonly seen as best practice across the marketing industry.
  • It's polite to ask people before sending them blanket emails.
  • The practice makes some people very angry, and will often lower their opinion of you and your organisation.
  • With the advent of smartphones, most people receive email wherever they are and it can be highly disruptive to receive such email on the move.
  • If you assume permission you can't easily get recipients to state preferences, like frequency and areas of interest.
  • Email inbox management is often cited as a cause of workplace stress.
  • You can't as easily measure how interested people are.
  • 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 (debatable - particularly when the new, tighter GDPR measures come in in 2018), 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. We 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 stop you emailing them as one individual to another, to ask them for a coffee or for their advice on something - that is indeed why they gave you their card, it just means that you don't send them newsletters or offers by email.

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Wait till the time is right

Many people believe that if they don't sign people up 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 company, it just means they don't want your email.

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 via their phone where unsubscribing is often tricky. This means they simply delete the email, only to get 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 help you stay one step ahead of legal changes.

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Bryony Thomas

Bryony Thomas is the author of Watertight Marketing, billed by Start Your Business Magazine as "a must for small businesses".

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