After several conversations recently about "best practices," I'm convinced that the term is now meaningless. It's been bastardized in the same way that the definition of "spam" has shifted to the point that it has very different meanings to different groups of people. Here are some definitions of "best practices" that have been used recently:
1. The best practice is the practice that is best for your business.
2. If there's one example of a marketer successfully breaking a best practice, then it's no longer a best practice.
3. Best practices are old-school. New-school marketing doesn't have best practices.
4. The best practice is whatever the majority of marketers do.
I would argue vehemently that all of these definitions are false, that best practices are the practices that generally work best, regardless of the current adoption rate. But attempting to clarify the definition is moot at this point. It's too far gone.
Frankly, the term has always been too "big tent" to be truly useful. When "don't buy email lists" and "use buttons for primary calls-to-action" are both best practices, it's no wonder there's confusion. What we need is new language that differentiates those practices that are a litmus test for legitimate email marketers vs. spammers, from practices that are simply wise.
Let's call those practices critical to being a legitimate member of the email marketing community "ethical imperatives." The items that I would include all involve permission, which is the vital element that separates us from spammers:
1. Don't buy email addresses. Permission can't be bought and sold.
2. When renting an email list, the renter's message should be sent by the list owner. The list owner should never share the list with the renter.
3. Don't do email address appends (e-appends). Knowing a customer's name, mailing address or other information does not constitute having permission to email them. And knowing one of your customer's email addresses -- whether it's active or inactive -- doesn't give you permission to reach her at any of her other email addresses. Permission is granted on a per-email address basis.
4. Email opt-ins that are hidden or obscured during a checkout, registration process, etc. are not credible opt-ins. If customers or users are not aware that they've opted in to receive email from you, then they haven't given you permission.
5. Permission is non-transferrable among brands within the same company. Each of your brands must obtain permission to email someone.
6. Unsubscribe requests should be honored immediately. While CAN-SPAM allows up to 10 business days to process opt-outs, that window exists solely to provide large companies with lots of independent agents time to remove every instance of an address from their email lists.
All the other best practices that we talk about -- from welcome and win-back emails to design best practices -- are really just "recommended practices." They are practices that have a high chance of producing the best results, but are not necessary and not necessarily the best path in every instance. As strongly as I feel about the power of using preheader messages and SWYN links, neither is critical to having a successful email marketing program.
Put another way, recommended practices are ripe for testing, whereas ethical imperatives should never be tested.