The Problem with Implicit Opt-In For Email Marketing


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There are legal definitions of spam — in the U.S., for example, spam can be classified as any email that violates the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act or any other countries’ bulk email laws. Canadian law prohibits senders from emailing anyone who has not explicitly requested that mailing, and Australian and European law require prior-consent.

In the eyes of consumers, however, the definition of spam can be even broader and less forgiving. To consumers, spam might represent:

  • Any email they don’t expect.
  • Any email they don’t want.
  • Any email that prompts them to hit the “This is spam” button.
  • Any email they might have signed up for, but later decide they don’t want.
  • An easy way to opt-out.

That’s why it’s crucial to build your email marketing list in a way that promotes trust in your brand. However, some common ways of building the list don’t always translate into this level of trust.

The Definition of Implicit Opt-In

Implicit single opt-in occurs when a consumer fills out a form, e.g. in order to download content or register for an event. Sometimes this happens when a consumer registers for something on a third-party site, and the site shares the email addresses with sponsors. In either case, the website’s privacy policy must state that performing this action automatically opts the user into email marketing.

This is a commonly used method in the B2B marketing sector – in fact, we use it ourselves at Marketo. It has many advantages, including:

  • Requires the least amount of effort on the part of both the company and the customer.
  • There’s no place for a subscriber to drop the ball, which can happen when she’s required to “confirm” her opt-in.
  • Quickly leads to a big list.

The Risks with Implicit Opt-In

But there are risks with this approach. Any time you assume or use implicit opt-in (especially if you use a list of email addresses you secured elsewhere), you’re taking a risk that your valuable messages will be considered junk mail — even if you technically have legal permission to send them.

For example:

  • The subscriber doesn’t connect registering for something to your subsequent email. If a subscriber forgets that he opted in, or doesn’t realize he has opted in, the risk is high that he’ll mark your email as spam. This is particularly true when too much time has elapsed between subscriber sign up and your first communication.
  • You got a name from a tradeshow list or other activity you sponsored. When a consumer registers for something you sponsored, lets you scan his nametag at an event, or drops a business card in a fishbowl, it does not necessarily mean he’s asking for future email marketing. If the recipient is not expecting your email, you may not be building trusted engagement.
  • Someone handed you her business card. An executive handed you her business card after being introduced by a colleague at an event. Does this mean she wants to receive your marketing emails? Probably not.
  • You already have a list of contacts. You give your admin your entire contact list to enter into your email database or CRM system. A month later, everyone on that list receives an unsolicited email from your company. This is a way to break trust — fast.

In some countries, implicit opt-in is actually illegal. (Check the laws of the countries in which you market.) But even if you have legal permission, in general less consumer effort in the sign-up process generally means less connection to your brand overall. Less committed subscribers are more likely to mark you as spam, or actively or passively opt out of your emails later.

What to Do About It

There are a few techniques you can use to help mitigate these risks.

  • Welcome Emails. When a new subscriber enters his information, an immediate auto-response email thanks and welcomes the subscriber. This email includes a customized message that tells him what to expect in future emails, and when to expect them. It’s courteous, and it also serves as a good way to begin earning the trust of your subscribers while setting proactive expectations.
  • Explicit Opt-In. Requires the user to voluntarily (and explicitly) sign up for email marketing. Often, this takes the form an explicit sign-up for updates, or a checkbox on a registration page that reads something like, “I want to receive news and updates.”
  • Confirmed or Double Opt-In. After the subscriber enters their email, the post-subscribe thank-you page may alert him to look for an email. Once he receives that email, he needs to click on a link or button to confirm the subscription. This separates the committed from the simply impulsive; those who click on the link really want to receive your emails – though there is always a risk that an interested subscriber will get distracted before she can click “confirm” in the follow-up email, or, worse, that your email will get lost or filtered. As a result, you may lose interested subscribers.

We use each of these techniques at Marketo: auto-responders on our registration forms, explicit opt-in to our Resource Center Updates, and Double Opt-In for our blog subscriptions.

To learn more about ways to grow your list of trusted subscribers, and many more email marketing best practices, download our free 150+ page book, The Definitive Guide to Engaging Email Marketing.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jon Miller
Jon leads strategy and execution for all aspects of marketing at Marketo and is a key architect of Marketo's hyper-efficient revenue engine (powered by Marketo's solutions, of course). In 21, he was named a Top 1 CMO for companies under $25 million revenue by The CMO Institute.


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