Did I Give You Permission To SPAM Me?

by , , Dec 12, 2005, 2:00 AM
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Now that’s a paradoxical question. Permission means I give you authorization to send me an e-mail, right?  And last time I checked, SPAM is the act of sending unsolicited e-mail. This was an interesting week for me, as I had to challenge my own opinion of what constitutes SPAM.

Loren McDonald from EmailLabs writes that at a recent conference where he was teaching best practices for e-mail, the session was derailed by a hotly contested debate over whether or not a marketer has to get permission before sending e-mail offers or newsletters.  

To this question I would add a layer of complexity: do salespeople need permission to send e-mail to prospects on a one-to-one or one-to-few basis, when they haven’t first acquired specific permission to do so?

I thought I had a proper view of this and that other experts in this space would share my opinion, but it seems I may be in the minority. I was still of the opinion that any unsolicited communication was considered SPAM, regardless of whether it was sent one-to-one or to a mass audience.

What is SPAM anyway? Is it defined by permission, size of mailing, whether someone’s really interested in the product or service, or whether I’m the sender or the receiver?

For example, if you harvest the name and e-mail address of an executive from a company Web site--or even if you just guess it right--do you have the right to use e-mail as the introductory channel to reach out and sell your services? There are several views on this.

Conventional wisdom says this is good sales practice. E-mail is a softer, less intrusive method than calling prospects on the phone or showing up in their lobby. It’s certainly a whole lot cheaper than dropping a brochure in the mail.

However, the customer’s view is: “you know nothing about what I’m interested in or what my needs are. This unqualified communication is a distraction and cost to me, and violates the principles of permission marketing.”

This makes for a good debate, as Bill McCloskey, my fellow E-mail Insider, says. According to Bill: “You will always have people get angry for what is perceived as an unsolicited e-mail…  But for as many people who get mad, just as many are thankful that you told them about the service … And I never consider a one-to-one solicitation SPAM when it comes into my inbox. How else does business get done?”

I’ll hold back my personal opinion and give you a view from a client who received an unsolicited communication after placing a job posting on a public domain. As he tells it: “I received a response from a vendor who wanted to sell me their services! I got back to them and chastised them for using this as an opportunity to SPAM.”

My initial response was: I don’t blame the vendor. The job description described the business challenges the company faces, and it seemed like it needed consulting services. If it were my consulting business, I’d tell my salesperson to get in touch with this company and use every channel possible. Unfortunately, the recipient in this case felt aggrieved. He viewed this sales approach as no better than a SPAM message selling Viagra.

I remember in 2004 when our interpretation of CAN SPAM was organizational and we honored opt-outs across all channels. Do we not manage permissions in a similar capacity? 

So are one-to-one and one-to-few communications held to the same standards as mass mailings or are they a free-for-all? Does the size of the mailing make the distinction? Right, wrong or indifferent, there is a lot at risk if you let your sales team go at it without some set of rules or guidelines.

Your brand image could be at stake. Where do you draw the line?

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