Opt-In vs. Opt-Out

You'd Think the Debate Over Whether or Not to Spam Would Be Over By Now

September 19, 2007

For some absurd reason, the debate on whether a company should adopt an opt-in policy or an opt-out policy for their marketing emails still rears its ugly head. This clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of email marketing basics on the part of those bringing up the debate - usually because they are arguing for (or requesting) use of an opt-out policy.

Opt-in vs. Opt-out

First, lets start by looking at the definition of spam - because this is the first pillar of the solution to this debate.

a disruptive, esp. commercial message posted on a computer network or sent as e-mail. Dictionary.com Unabridged Copyright 2006
Unsolicited Bulk Email ("UBE") The Spamhaus Project
Electronic junk mail or junk newsgroup postings ... generally e-mail advertising for some product sent to a mailing list or newsgroup. Webopedia.com (internet.com)
unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses Merriam-Webster Copyright 2007
to send unwanted e-mails to a large number of them, usually as advertising Collins Dictionary
... unsolicited commercial email (UCE) CAUCE
Unsolicited advertisements distributed via e-mail, whether or not they are mailed in mass volume, Unsolicited mass e-mailing, whether commercial or not Cliff Kurtzman, CEO of the Tenegra Corporation (as quoted in "New Century Communications")

Looking through a list of definitions of spam from a variety of sources over several years, you can see some common threads:

  1. Spam is unsolicited. This means that sending a message to a user who has not asked for that message is spam. Before you can send your message, the person you are sending it to must ask you to send them information. Also, just because someone asks you for email on one topic, that does not mean they want to get just anything from you. In her 2002 article Solving the Opt-in/Opt-out Debate, Martha Rogers recommends a tiered opt-in system so that users can specify what they want, rather than being stuck with an all-or-nothing choice.
  2. Spam is commercial. Spam messages promote some service, product, site, event, or offer. If there was no promotion, people are unlikely to feel the message was spam.
  3. Spam is bulk. Spam messages are sent to large numbers of people - or at least feel, to the recipient, that they were sent to large numbers of people. Even if you sent the message one-to-one, if it does not feel, to the recipient, that it was sent directly to them by a specific individual, it's spam. This includes most corporate form-letter emails - they tend to feel like a form letter that was just merged together, not like an email to an individual, so even if it was sent by one person to one and only one recipient, and was customized, it feels like an automated message, and therefore will get flagged as spam. As per Bobette Kyle in her article Direct Email - Thou Shalt Not Spam, "...perception is far closer to reality than loophole rationalizations..." - In other words, no matter how much rationalization you present, and no matter how many excuses you come up with, and no matter how many explanations you have, if the recipient thought it was spam, it was spam.

Now, the first item on this list really - and unequivocally - answers the opt-in vs. opt-out debate. Spam is unsolicited - if the contact has not already come to you and asked you for email, BEFORE you start sending them messages - you are spamming. If they did not opt-in - ask you for the email in a way that clearly indicates that they want it, or to make it more clear, they have gone out of their way to say that they want email from you, they don't want your email. At the very least, make them choose to mark a box on a form to indicate that they want your email - better yet, make them go to a separate form and specify what they want or don't want - Dr. Roger's tiered opt-in choices.

Why Does This Even Matter

A lot of people in marketing circles look at opens and clicks, but email marketing goes beyond that. You need to look at delivery, click rates, open rates, conversion rates, reputation, and block rates.

Conversion Rates, Click Rates, and Open Rates - Oh My!

When you send a message, you obviously have a goal in mind. Usually this is to get people to buy something, read something, ask for something - or just do something. To accomplish this, people need to:

  1. Open your message
  2. Click a link, type a URL into a browser, make a call, reply to the email, or visit a store - in other words, respond
  3. Complete your desired task

(There's a reason the list starts with 2, I'll get to that in a bit.)

I'm going to assume you at least have a passing idea of what these are, and the difference between the rate and the raw number, so we can get on with this.

Delivery and Deliverability

A more important factor, and one that is frequently overlooked is deliverability. Deliverability is important enough that Marketing Sherpa published a Deliverability Cheat Sheet earlier this year. To keep deliverability up, you need to start clean and then maintain a good reputation. Message delivery is the number 1 item on the list above.

Primarily your reputation as a mailer is based on complaints from a variety of sources, and how each ISP handles or determines reputation varies, and is usually pretty closely guarded as a trade secret. You would think that this makes maintaining your reputation difficult, and makes deliverability unreliable. However, the fact of the matter is it all ties back to Bobette Kyle's suggestion that the perception of spam is the reality, regardless of what any laws or privacy policies say. If recipients think your message was spam, it was and you're going to get reprimanded.

Recipients reprimand senders in a variety of ways. They may merely click the "report as spam" or "junk" button in their email client. In a stand alone client, this increases the risk that your next message to this one contact will automatically go to the junk folder - but in online clients like Yahoo! mail, Hotmail, gmail and others, this increases the risk that your next message to any user using that system will go to the junk folder.

In addition, users report spam to a variety of monitoring, testing, warning, or blacklisting systems or services. Some ISPs (or IT departments of various businesses) use one or more of these systems directly, others use filtering software that weighs the ratings and recommendations from these systems against each other to determine what to filter into the junk folder or just delete outright, and still others present information to end-users related to your reputation along with the email or as part of search engine search results, or outright block access to sites based on this reputation information.

One of the best ways to insure deliverability is to keep your reputation good. Basically, don't send things that people will complain about, don't send to people who will complain, and don't send in such a way as to encourage complaints. Granted, someone will always complain, but if the complaint numbers stay low, you're at little risk. So, there are two of these three items that you can control to keep the third in check: don't send things that people will complain about, and don't send in such a way as to encourage complaints.

Both of these eventually come down to opt-in (you knew I was going to get back to this). If you're maintaining an opt-in mailing list, then you have people who have requested your content. They are much less likely to mark it as junk or complain about it, provided they can recognize it. When you send to people who have not opted-in for your content, they are more likely to complain, and this not only reduces your ability to send to them later, but also to other contacts - who may have opted-in - on networks that share or use that complaint data.

Starting with an opt-in policy and sticking to it will improve deliverability over time, which, in turn, will improve open rates, click rates and conversion rates, improving the performance of your email marketing campaigns. Using an opt-out policy at any time can only hurt your reputation, thereby reducing deliverability and consequently reducing open rates, click rates, and conversion rates.

Another issue that affects delivery and deliverability of your message, as well as your sender reputation, is how many 'spam traps' or 'honeypots' your message is sent to. Spam traps and honeypots are email addresses that either were never valid or that have been unused for quite some time that are used by ISPs and various spam monitoring systems to detect spam. The argument is that if you send email to one of these addresses, you are not familiar with the recipient and are therefore spamming. Well, once again, a good start at avoiding this is using opt-in - people are unlikely to provide you with an address that they don't use when they are requesting that you send them email, and, if you are providing quality information that the user desires, and provide a good way to update their information, they are likely to update their information when they do change email addresses. With opt-out, on the other hand, you are likely to get addresses on your list that never wanted your information in the first place, or that are deliberate spam traps, which will hurt your reputation, reduce deliverability, etc. This is true even if you have an opt-out policy but only collect email addresses when people fill out forms on your web site. According to Kim M. MacPherson in her book Permission-Based E-Mail Marketing That Works, "...even the most useful and targeted opt-out e-mail promotion by a legitimate marketer can be perceived as spam..."

But Wait, There's More!

In December of 2006, Matt Blumberg, Founder, CEO, and Chairman of Return Path was quoted, "we are finding that opt-in is more critical than ever..." in Email Marketing 2006: The Year in Review from SubscriberMail. Mr. Blumberg also talked about the importance of reputation and only sending information that people have asked for as primary factors in the success of any email campaign.

In Email Best Practices Pay Off from April of 2006, business consultant Bruce Clay sets opt-in - or permission ("prior affirmative consent") - as a key best practice for successful email marketing, going on to quote a Mercle/Quris poll which found "almost half of the consumers surveyed said they would not conduct future business with companies exhibiting poor email practices." This is pretty staggering. Yeah, a bunch of people will complain, but half of them will not conduct business with you in the future. Again, from Bobbette Kyle, "Honest businesses look for ways to build a respectable reputation, not grab sales on the run."

Furthermore, though many marketers in the U.S. (ands some in Europe) like to quote the you-CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 as the new definition of spam and what is or is not acceptable. Remember, first, this law does not dictate what ISPs or network administrators can do, so people can sill file complaints, support or use blacklists, or block your email to their network based on whatever parameters they want. The you-CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 is more of a litmus test: "if you're not complying with this, you're really, really, REALLY bad," not: "if you're complying with this, you are good (or even good enough)." This goes straight back to Ms. Kyle's "perception is far closer to reality than loophole rationalizations" comment referenced above. In addition, outside the US, opt-in is often the law. Again from Ms. Kyle, "Six countries ... have opt-in laws," and from Martin Whitehead of Industry Canada, "The European Union (EU) has recently approved a law, ... which in most situations requires companies to get the prior consent of individuals before sending them marketing communications by email," in EU Moves to Ban Spam from 2004.

Opt-Out Is Bad - In a Nutshell

So, as most marketers who have and any exposure to the internet already know, spam is bad, and as most of them know, opt-out it tantamount to spam.

  1. Sending commercial email without prior concent is the definition of email spam, so you should expect to be treated as a spammer by the network and by ISPs if you maintain an opt-out policy.
  2. Sending opt-out mailings will alienate your prospects and customers, often even when they see the value of the message. In some case, this is so significant that the customer will severe relationships with your company.
  3. 79% of email users prefer opt-in (Anti-Spam Movement Broadens its Mission by Cathleen E. Santosus, November, 2000). Why not make your customers happy, rather than alienate them? Ms MacPherson asks you the same question: "opt-in or opt-out, which would you prefer?"
  4. Opt-out will contribute to a bad reputation in many ways, resulting in diminishing returns on your email efforts, while opt-in will improve returns on email campaigns, provided you send content that your subscribers actually want.

If your goal with your email marketing is increased conversions, increased sales, and growing your business in the long term, then opt-in is the only intelligent choice. However, if your goal is a quick turn around and one big bank, and to hell with long term, then opt-out may work better - once or twice, just remember it's a lot of work to clean up after even a short bout with an opt-out policy. To go back to Bobette Kyle (because I love this quote), "Honest businesses look for ways to build a respectable reputation, not grab sales on the run." Your customers will see your honesty or dishonesty, and they will act accordingly.