There Never Was a Time Before Permission

Think about what you were doing on the Internet fifteen years ago, as 1994 rolled over to 1995. The Mosaic browser was brand new; Netscape 1.0 shipped that December. Windows 95 hadn’t been released. Bill Clinton was still considered a hip, young president. And me? I was already dealing with spam.

Some people may try to tell you that spam started in the seventies, but that’s just shoddy research. Up until the mid-nineties, there were maybe a handful of misguided marketers sending out spam‚ email or otherwise, each year. It wasn’t anything like we’ve got today, and it wasn’t a big deal because they were always slapped down quick. The early Internet had an Acceptable Use Policy which basically forbade all commercial activity, and violating it meant you lost access.

But within just a few years, it all changed. The last vestiges of the non-commercial Internet were replaced by paid access, which led to the expectation that if you paid your bills on time you could do whatever you damn well pleased. Mom & Pop dial-up ISPs were borged into a few corporate conglomerates, yet neither had ever imagined they’d have to deal with any email activity worse than the occasional chain letter.

Look back to the early days of the anti-spam community, and you’d quickly notice that nearly all commercial email was considered spam. This wasn’t because we were all a bunch of anti-corporate, cyber-libertarian anarchists (though some were, and some became that way.) It’s because nearly all commercial email at the time was spam. It was sent in bulk to people who did not want to receive it, invariably in violation of the policies of both the sending and receiving systems. For most of us, the fact that it was commercial wasn’t the problem, it was just an easy generalization. The core problem, for both usenet and email spam, was that it was an unwelcome interruption.

There were already lots of commercial entities operating on the Internet, sending transactional and even marketing email to their customers. These were doing well, and many still are, perhaps you’ve heard of Amazon?

But the unfortunate truth is that the offline marketing industry was dead-set against any regulation of advertising. They didn’t want anyone telling them they couldn’t blast email the same way they’d been dumping paper mail for decades. And, unlike the long-haired techie types who actually built the Internet, they knew how to lobby. With such a powerful enemy steering the conversation, we got a bit sidetracked and started thinking it was about commercialism.

(Also, a few of us started trying to get a law passed and assumed we wouldn’t run into the free speech argument if we concentrated on commercial advertising, which is already heavily regulated. Take a look at CAN-SPAM and you’ll see we were right. While the fight against intrusive political advertising is always many years behind.)

But there was also a change happening in the marketing industry. Seth Godin’s book Permission Marketing was published in 1999, predicting that, as Ken Magill later described it, “…marketing based on interrupting as many prospects as possible was bound for failure.” This wasn’t a new concept to those of us who were trying to explain that we were sick of being interrupted, and wasn’t a new concept to the few early email marketers who had already figured out that email was different, but at the time, Seth was denounced as a heretic. He was Galileo, facing down the Inquisition. Who, now, would disagree?

People who don’t get their mail into the inbox very often, that’s who. And somehow, ten years later, those people still exist.

It’s easy to make broad generalizations, and after reading Permission Marketing and The Cluetrain Manifesto I started to wonder if perhaps all email marketers were really, really bad at their jobs. But there have always been exceptions, and working for Return Path I’m reminded nearly every day that many email marketers do know what they’re doing. Many email marketers care whether they’re interrupting. Many email marketers demonstrate respect for their recipients, with every campaign they send.

As we enter the 16th year of ever-increasing email spam, I hope we can all work together to educate the rest.

(Seth Godin offers the first four chapters of Permission Marketing for free on his web site ‚all you have to do is give him your email address.)

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