Do We Always Need Explicit Permission?

Do we always need explicit permission?

If you had asked me that question a few weeks ago, my answer would have been, "Yes, always." As with most of my colleagues in the email marketing industry, I feel strongly that permission is at the core of email.

That being said, some recent events -- conversations as well as personal experiences -- have caused me to pause and reevaluate permission. 

(For those who know me, you may be saying, "Is this really DJ Waldow writing this?" I assure you, it's me!) 

Allow me to explain.

In July, I wrote an article titled "Assumptions And Opt-Out: A Deadly Combination," in which I talked about an email I received from KSL, Salt Lake City's mega-media company. I dissected the opt-out email I received from KSL, discussing the "many reasons why this was a poor decision by". Looking back, I was pretty harsh. Five months, several insightful conversations, and a few purchases from KSL emails later, I'm changing my tune -- slightly.



Earlier this month, while at the Email Insider Summit in Park City, Utah, I joined a roundtable discussion led by Brian Westnedge of ReturnPath. When I sat down, the group was deep into a conversation about permission and deliverability with (ready for this?), Daniel Coburn, the director of operation and support at Deseret Digital Media (aka KSL). Daniel was talking about the very campaign I'd back in the July article! To Daniel's credit, he took the criticism head on and even clarified a few points. I sent him a link to the article and he commented publicly. 

Take a minute to read Daniel's comments. I'll wait. [Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.] Okay, now that you're back, let's review what Daniel wrote. He said "everyone on the list...were marked as 'allow us to send you emails' and it was not a hidden option ... [users] had signed up for an account with allow us checked, and had verified their account." 

I stand corrected. Armed with this clarification, I would agree that this email was not really an opt-out. It was, in the sense that the company wrote, "If you do not wish to receive our new deals just click this link to Unsubscribe." However, I did have a KSL account. I had checked the "allow us to send email" box. I had verified my account. I had opted in. The challenge for KSL was the time lag between when I opted in and when the company that first email. As Daniel mentions in his comments, "instead of assuming everyone on a sizeable list would want to receive the emails we decided it was best to say, 'Hey you are already on our list, and we are going to start using it, are you sure this is what you signed up for?'"

If KSL had to do it all over again, I would suggest that the company should have been sending emails from the moment permission to email (opt-in) was granted. Establish a relationship, build trust, and provide value to subscribers. I think KSL might have bumped into fewer deliverability issues had it been sending from day one. 

Here's another thing to consider. Even though I was bothered enough by this email from KSL to dedicate an entire article to it, I never unsubscribed. Why? Part of me was actually interested in what the company would be sending me. I was sold on the value. So I waited. I started getting daily emails from KSL. Following the Groupon model, KSL sends daily emails with really good (local) offers. I've even purchased a few.

That brings me back to the original question: Do we always need explicit permission? 

My new reply is: "Not always." 

Where do you stand?           

17 comments about "Do We Always Need Explicit Permission?".
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  1. Rita from FreshAddress, Inc., December 20, 2010 at 11:10 a.m.

    We would agree to sending emails immediately after a recipient had offered contact as an email address' 'life' is like fish...starts to spoil what with a 30+ annual attrition rate . Strike while the iron is hot, as they say and your deliverability will thank you for it!

  2. Chad White from Litmus, December 20, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    I'm confused, DJ: You're questioning the value of permission because you got value from emails that you forgot you signed up for? Do you not think that giving them permission in the first place led to you finding value in the emails when they eventually sent them?

  3. Mark Vogel from Vogel Marketing Solutions LLC, December 20, 2010 at 11:29 a.m.

    I'm sure I'll incur the wrath of CAUCE and others, but for business-to-business email marketing (NOT B2C!) I believe that permission is not necessary provided the following conditions are met:
    1) that your message is highly-relevant to the recipient's world. Example: I did an email campaign for a large commercial construction firm that specialized in healthcare construction (clean-rooms, etc.) I developed a list of Directors of Construction and similar titles at hospitals throughout their market states. Well-received, nearly-zero unsub rate, and brought them new business from hospitals that otherwise didn't know them.
    2) that your unsub link is overt -- not buried in 2 point gray type
    3) that your benefit and relevance to their world is overt and well-defined. Again, for that construction firm, I included a link to a video interview with the CFO at a current client -- to demonstrate specific relevance to their narrow niche. I included the logo of relevant associations that would be meaningful to the recipient.
    4) that the email is completely personalized, as you would with any email you would send from your own Outlook account. Example: for the construction firm, not only did I include a salutation in the email, but used the more formal and respectful Dear Mr. Last-Name, rather than Dear John. I referenced their hospital and city location in the body of the email.

    I fully understand that my position is not shared with many of my peers in the email marketing community. I adhere strictly to the points above. New clients who can not or will not support the costs and effort to follow those rules are turned away.

    But in those cases where a B2B message can be delivered in that highly-professional, relevant, targeted way, then I don't have a problem with "cold-call" email marketing.

    Again, I am referring to niche-oriented business-to-business, NEVER business to consumer. In that case, explicit permission is required.

    OK, start throwing rotten tomatoes at me!

  4. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 20, 2010 at 11:59 a.m.

    Rita: Agreed!

    Chad: Sorry for the confusion. What I am saying is that while permission is important in many instances, in this case, it was not critical. Yes, I signed up to "receive emails from" but it was months before I actually got an email from KSL. Then they sent me the "opt-out" email. I was upset at first, but after Daniel clarified how they did it, I can understand. Also, permission or not, I chose *not* to unsubscribe and am not not only getting emails from every day, but I'm opening, clicking and even converting. Does that clear things up?

    Mark: Thanks for sharing that information. I still go back and forth on the issue of permission. The key word in this article is "explicit."

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  5. Bruce May from Bizperity, December 20, 2010 at 12:46 p.m.

    This is an excellent discussion of some of the finer issues involved here. One thing that you miss however, is the creation of a class of emails. For example, I receive dozens of different classes, or groups of emails form MediaPost. Taking a quick at my in-box, I see that currently I have “MediaPost Publications”, “Online Media Daily”, “MediaPost Live!”, just to name a few. When I opt in to receive one of these classes of emails I don’t automatically agree to accept all the classes available. To Media Post’s credit, they prompt me each year to review my selections. The point here is that KSL may have simply been activating a dormant class but from the recipient’s point of view, this would have looked more like a new class or group of emails. Whenever I see a new email my first thought now is, “What am I getting here, a single email from this organization or a whole new class?” Based on how it was introduced, it would look like a whole new class. That would in turn trigger a whole series of questions in my mind: Was I already getting another class of emails from this company? Were they going to begin flooding me with multiple classes of emails (i.e. product of the month, latest news, deal of the week, etc.). In other words, how I think about the email I receive has become a much more complex and sophisticated process… driven by the more complex processes created by marketers.

    I think the right approach in this case would have been for Daniel to state his after-the-fact explanation in the actual email… i.e. “'Hey you are already on our list, and we are going to start using it, are you sure this is what you signed up for?” The KSL email may have said this implicitly but I can’t really see that, even reading between the lines. Say it explicitly and I would have been fine with it. Moreover, I would have been completely informed about exactly what was going on. Great discussion. Kudos to Daniel for engaging in the conversation!

  6. Elizabeth Kulin from ZEDO, December 20, 2010 at 1:35 p.m.

    Hi DJ, for a company with limited resources who only sends 1 email newsletter to their opt-in list per month, would you recommend that sending an initial welcome email right after the opt-in is enough contact before sending out the newsletter? Or would you recommend a higher level of drip marketing?

  7. Matt Ruzz from Hiring? Let's talk!, December 20, 2010 at 2:52 p.m.

    Great to see this topic continue to be discussed. I'm reminded of the spirited debate that you had with Sal Tripi last year in Miami, when you acknowledged that "best practices" should take a backseat to actual business results. The time gap you reference above between opting in and when the marketing stream begins is not ideal, and certainly does run the risk of confusing subscribers and threatening deliverability.

    However, I suspect that in KSL's case, and in many other marketing organizations, they had to balance these risks with the opportunity to go to market with what they could, when they could. Huge organizations move slowly, and in many cases, a holistic email campaign like the one you describe above might require input, approval, and budget from many disparate teams within an organization. I have a client that is in a regulated industry where any and all creative and copy elements require sign-off from 3 different departments (in addition to the every day marketing team). Furthermore, setting up and deploying triggered emails is supported by a different technical team than the team that supports their other CRM efforts.

    This generally results in staggered launches of various CRM program elements. Is it ideal from a best practices or consumer experience perspective? Certainly not. But it's the reality of how many large enterprises operate.

    And as you said, you made some purchases that you otherwise may not have made. Assuming there were a few others like you, that probably exceeded the loss of any potential business from consumers who unsubscribed/marked as spam for feeling wronged by a vague permission/opt-in experience.

  8. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, December 20, 2010 at 11:38 p.m.

    I suppose here DJ, I am dissecting your words, 'Explicit Permission'. And it seems you are talking about B2C emails. In Australia the laws are slightly different. For instance, we are allowed to have 'Inferred Consent' which works well for B2B marketing. For instance if a plumber publishes his email address then it is OK for another business to contact him regarding plumbing supplies. You can't contact them about cheap pharmaceuticals though. This allows open and free conversation between like services which is a very smart way of handling electronic messaging. I agree with your thoughts though - if you give people approval to send messages - then the least they could do is to say thank you within 48 hours. Cheers Kurt Johansen Australia's Leading Email Marketing Strategist -

  9. Dela Quist from Alchemy Worx Ltd, December 21, 2010 at 8:07 p.m.

    Great post – thanks. I think it is time the email marketing community moves the permission debate on. We need to change our narrative i.e. adapt to the current reality or become irrelevant.

    Let’s start with a harsh reality spammers don’t give a damn about either the law or permission, so lecturing readers of Email Insider about permission is completely pointless – As Ken Magill so brilliantly put it is “akin to ladies who lunch debating over how they can change their own behavior to lower gang activity in South Central L.A."

    The bottom line is that most followers of sites like this NEVER spam deliberately and are not stupid – they learn from their mistakes. So I really struggle with the fact that so many email marketing experts are happy to accept - promote even - the view that spam is anything that a person says is spam, even if the recipient double opted in to receive email from a Fortune 500 company selling legal products or services. Serves you right for sending irrelevant emails they say.

    Let’s think about that for a second; if that’s the case we are all spammers because we can’t be relevant to everyone on our list all the time. No wonder people spend more money in every other channel and spend so much time looking for the next best thing. RSS, SMS, Social, whatever.

    So how do we change the narrative? We need to flip the telescope round.

    The honest truth is that the only difference between us and a true spammer or phisher is not that the recipient gave us permission to mail them; it is the fact that we will stop mailing you as soon as you ask us to and will NOT sell your name without your explicit permission.

    We should be proud of that fact and shout that fact to the whole world!

    I am not suggesting that we stop trying to promote permission based email marketing. I am saying that we should educate consumers about the difference between us (legitimate companies with a reputation to uphold) sending you an email that you can’t remember subscribing to and spam

  10. Chad White from Litmus, December 22, 2010 at 11 a.m.


    Saying that we need to educate consumers about how email marketing works is to completely misunderstand how the world works. Consumers educate us!

    In general, consumers don't have much faith in the unsubscribe button and they don't believe that brands won't sell their email address--they've had enough negative experiences with legitimate marketers to know they can't always rely on these things.

    At this point, it's not spammers that give email marketing a bad name. It's opt-out, CAN-SPAM compliant marketers following the letter of the law and little more--some of which I hope are Email Insider readers.

    We can be mad at consumers for changing their expectations of control, their definition of spam, etc. and we can tout anecodotes of brands that successfully get away with gray permission practices or we can evolve. ISPs are doing a great job of adjusting to consumer expectations. Email marketers must do the same.

  11. Dela Quist from Alchemy Worx Ltd, December 22, 2010 at 1:06 p.m.

    Hi Chad

    Fine if you disagree with me, but to say I completely misunderstand how the world works is overstating things a bit don't you think? For a start it implies omnisience on your part something I wouldn't dream of claiming; I just have an opinion that is as likely to be right as yours.

    Basically I also don't think that tried to understand my point.

    I did not and would not say we shouldn't learn from consumers all I was saying is that as an industry and as individuals we can also through education play a role in improving their lives.

    Let me take your point about consumers not having much faith in the unsubscribe button and that they don't believe that brands won't sell their email address.

    All of our clients and I would like to think all of Responsys' clients always honour the unsubscribe button and never sell their customers email addresses.

    Surely a campaign educating consumers of that fact would be beneficial to our clients AND their customers!
    All I was suggesting is we work together to find a way to teach consumers the difference between an opt-in email from Gap or CNN and some random CAN-SPAM compliant email from someone you never heard of who bought your name off someone equally disreputable.

    How could that be a bad thing?

    Sometimes I think that we as an industry prefer consumers to distrust all email. We can't stop spam nor can we stop snake oil salesmen using the channel, but we can teach consumers the difference between the sort of clients you and I have and the rest of the crap out there.

  12. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 22, 2010 at 5:49 p.m.

    Bruce: Interesting point around the "class of emails." I had never thought about that. I wonder if the "average" consumer of email thinks about email classes. My hunch says no.

    You wrote:

    "KSL may have simply been activating a dormant class but from the recipient’s point of view, this would have looked more like a new class or group of emails."

    The key here is that it doesn't really matter what KSL thinks, right? It's all about the consumer and how they view that email.

  13. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 22, 2010 at 5:52 p.m.

    Elizabeth: Thanks for your question. I would 100% send a welcome email right out of the gates - as soon as they sign up. Next, if it will be another 3+ weeks until they will be a part of your monthly email, I'd send a copy last month's "issue" with a note indicating so. This keeps your content in front of them as well as sets the expectation for the next email. Make sense?

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  14. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 22, 2010 at 5:55 p.m.


    Ha. Funny you should mention Sal Trip. He's asked me to be on his panel this year at the Email Evolution Conference. We are doing a follow up to the session from last year that caused all of the controversy. In fact, Dela Quist (a friend, colleague, and commenter on this post) is joining our panel as well.

    Back to KSL: I agree that they had to "balance these risks." I also agree that this process may "require input, approval, and budget from many disparate teams within an organization." That being said, if email was a critical part of their business, it would be worth the time/effort, right?

  15. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 22, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    Kurt: Thanks for your comments! Regarding "explicit permission" I guess I just believe that there are many levels of permission. Maybe it's not black and white as we preach in the email marketing echo chamber. Agreed?

  16. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 23, 2010 at 11:29 a.m.

    Dela and Chad. Chad and Dela. I actually don't think you are both that far away from agreement...

  17. Dela Quist from Alchemy Worx Ltd, December 23, 2010 at 1:53 p.m.

    I know its called agreeing violently :-)

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