Is Opt-Out an Acceptable Permission Standard for Customers?

Here at the DMA on Saturday, a number of us email wonks (marketers and vendors) were talking shop and I got some push back on what I believe is the duplicity found in so many permission practices — particularly among ecommerce sites.

Yes, I know that duplicity is strong word. But consider the most retailer email programs are opt-in — until you buy. Then, the permission practice is either a pre-checked box on the check out form — easy to miss and decidedly opt-out — or worse, a buried notice in the fine print. Since these are buyers, they are by nature pretty active with the brand and products, so there isn’t a huge penalty for this practice in ISP complaints or unsubscribes. In many cases, these buyers are sometimes the most active folks on the file.

So what is wrong with that? Nothing, if the marketer is clear about it. But quite a bit from a subscriber perspective!

Before I dive into the problems I see here (and an easy solution), let me be clear about how I define permission levels:

Opt-out: Assumption is that you are on the file, until you unsubscribe – usually a pre-checked box or use of a customer file
Single opt-in: The subscriber actively requests to be on the file – usually an un-checked box
Confirmed (or validated) opt-in: After requesting to be on the file, a confirmation email is sent
Double opt-in: After the initial request, a confirmation email is sent requiring a second action to be placed on the file

When you use a pre-checked box during the buying process, you no longer have an opt-in permission file. Don’t claim it in your promotions or when dealing with ISPs on deliverability. But the bigger problem is that subscribers have no input into the frequency, content or value of the program. I feel that the lack of transparency and control offered to buyers weakens the program, is likely to depress results and could potentially offend or upset your best customers.

I’d feel a lot better about this pre-checked assumption of permission if marketers also sent a very clear welcome message and gave these new subscribers some control over their inbox. There was some heated debate on Saturday that if a pre-checked box is used, then these buyers should have to take an action to more actively give permission. This would turn the process double opt-in after the purchase. Personally, I feel that is not necessary if the marketer follows best practices for confirming the subscription with a welcome message that arrives instantly and provides both clarity around the program pace and content and a chance for subscribers to quickly unsubscribe or change preferences. This practice still gives the buyer a lot of control over their inbox, without driving down the list size unnecessarily. The welcome message is also a great opportunity to encourage another purchase.

Double opt-in is the highest level of permission. Double opt-in will ensure that your subscribers are more actively aware of your program (though not that they will be active — you still need to create relevant, compelling subscriber experiences), but it also pretty much guarantees that you’ll have a smaller file. Small but active is a pretty good deal, but it’s hard to sell internally. And I think many marketers still resist anything that reduces the size of the file. If you offer any marketer a million records that are untargeted vs. 100,000 highly targeted records, most of us will go for the million every time.

We are ever hopeful, we marketers. Someday, we think, that person just might want my product! I can’t let go of the opportunity to remind them I’m here, even if they repeatedly ignore my email messages.

So what do you think? Is it important or a mandate that marketers double opt in these buyers? Let me know your thoughts.

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