'Best Practices' Are Dead

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. 



Ethical Imperatives

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. 

Recommended Practices 

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.

10 comments about "'Best Practices' Are Dead".
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  1. Rita from FreshAddress, Inc., November 9, 2010 at 11:17 a.m.

    An interesting recap of 'best practices' Chad but I would argue that eAppends are ethical IF you have had a previous relationship off-line with the customer, donor, advocate, constituent and are asking their permission to connect more immediately and cost effectively via an additional channel, that being online email. Who wouldn't want to be pointed to their off-line Direct Mail, an upcoming telemarketing effort etc in advance and anticipate it? That is, IF you have had that previous relationship-which is what the best practices for eAppend should require. It is also critical that recipients have ample opportunity to always unsubscribe. Amen!

  2. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks, November 9, 2010 at 11:17 a.m.

    The old saw where I come from is: Today's 'best practice' is tomorrow's 'worst practice.' As soon as it's dubbed 'best practice' it becomes a substitute for thinking before acting. Sloppy practitioners take refuge 'best practices' and 'bosses' too often use it club innovation to death. The motto ought to be: "Know your 'best practices,' then do better."

  3. Chad White from Litmus, November 9, 2010 at 12:46 p.m.

    David, while recommended practices can be a crutch, it's worth acknowledging that even in the best of circumstances it's impossible to test everything--and that many email marketers rarely have the time and resources to test much of anything. So recommended practices are a great starting point--so long as you're up on the current recommended practices.

  4. Bill Kaplan from FreshAddress, Inc., November 9, 2010 at 12:52 p.m.

    Sorry, Chad, but I'm missing the logic here with regard to your "ethical imperative" #s 2 and 3.

    In your ethical imperative #2, you advocate that performing email list rentals (i.e. sending email offers to non-customers and people with whom you have absolutely no relationship) is OK.

    But in your ethical imperative #3, you state that it's not OK to email a customer requesting that you reconnect and/or engage them through email, even if they've already opted in to receive your communications. WOW!!!

    Moreover, with regard to your statement in #3 above, I guess the benefits of email including saving trees and the environment, faster communication and feedback, cost-effectively reaching people on a regular basis rather than sending expensive snail mail pieces that they then need to throw out and/or try to recycle, and generating a significantly higher ROI than any other communications channel are irrelevant to you.

    Personally, I'd rather get an email from a company I do business with than have to open a direct mail piece. If I want to unsubscribe, I can simply click a button and I know the reputable companies out there will add me to their opt-out file. Ever try getting off a company's direct mail list? How long might that take you and is there any guarantee your wishes will be honored?

    And what about the benefits of reconnecting with customers for transactional emails to confirm deliveries or handle customer service or notify customers of warranty and safety issues?

    I’m absolutely not advocating that we in the email industry should condone spamming but IF A CUSTOMER/DONOR RELATIONSHIP EXISTS, why don’t we let each customer/donor decide for themselves if they want to renew or develop an online relationship with the companies and organizations they buy from and/or favor? I don’t think you or I should be in a position to be making that decision for them.

  5. Christopher Donald from Inbox Group, LLC, November 9, 2010 at 1:10 p.m.

    Chad, Great post and spot-on! Some people just don't get real permission.

    Cheers, Chris

  6. John Caldwell from, November 9, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    If you're appending email addresses you don't have to data that you do, you're doing it backward....

  7. Brian Mcfadden from Xtenit, November 9, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.

    Great separation of best practices from ethical imperatives. Now if we could get some of those ethical imperatives into law.

  8. Chad White from Litmus, November 9, 2010 at 3:37 p.m.


    Yes, permission is more important than email’s eco-friendliness, speed, and cost-effectiveness and any values projected onto consumers to justify not having permission to email them.

    Permission is the difference between list rentals and e-appends. The list owner has permission to email those that have opted into their list—and bears the brand damage, unsubscribes and spam complaints when they make poor list rental decisions.

    E-appends don’t provide customers an opportunity to decide. They simply ignore the fact that customers have already made a decision.

    Clearly there is a business case for e-appends, just like there’s a business case for spamming. There’s just not an ethical case for it.

  9. Brad Nash, November 10, 2010 at 3:01 p.m.

    Rita, in principle you almost have one leg to stand on. The issue is that 99.9% of list appends don't actually gain "consent". Every append provider, FreshAddress included, I've ever talked to actually only provides the addresses of those that don't opt-out. That's a BIG difference from opt-in or explicit consent. Given today’s open and click rates this means that between 70 - 90% of consumers never even viewed the request to opt-in. Less than 5% (probably more like 1%) actually clicked on a link that says yes, you can email me.

  10. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., November 11, 2010 at 7:39 p.m.

    In an old Saul Bass film, titled "Why Man Creates," a character asks, "Have you ever thought that radical ideas that threaten institutions eventually become institutions and are then threatened by radical ideas?" The other character says, "No." And the first responds, "Gee, for a minute there, I thought I had something."

    By definition, "best practices" eventually become a recipe for mediocrity. Have to. Ethical practices, on the other hand, endure, because they are "ethical."

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