Many email marketers have the best of intentions when obtaining clear permission from people they want to email to, but their inexperience or reluctance with getting a program started can cause both permission and data to age.

But there's a more serious aspect of this problem in which permission is not simply lax or questionable but ignored altogether. Hence our conundrum for this month.

How can this be? Many consider email to be a permission-obligatory marketing channel, yet US law does not mandate that marketers obtain the affirmative consent of email address owners before sending them commercial email.

Although CAN-SPAM (the acronym for the law governing commercial email in the United States) does legislate certain identity and consumer choice rules pertaining to marketing email, it does not require opt-in.

The result is both confusion and abuse. Confusion arises because other parts of the world (notably the UK, much of Europe, and Canada) do require affirmative consent permission to send marketing and advertising email. Confusion is compounded when we consider that the entire commercial email message acceptance and delivery ecosystem (ruled by the biggest ISPs—Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and AOL—that host the vast majority of consumer email accounts) thrives on and virtually demands permission.

Confusion and abuse mix when hungry salespeople, independent agents (think real estate, insurance, financial planning), and business owners get their hands on highly targeted email lists built without explicit permission.

Trade or membership association lists, networking sites, event attendee lists, contest/sweepstakes entries, and more create populations of names, email addresses and targeting data not necessarily intended for use outside the organization that fostered them. Such lists are often visible or accessible for free to affiliate or association members, or they are rented or sold to third-party advertisers without disclosure to subscribers.

Think, for a moment, about how many email addresses you can obtain just from your connections on LinkedIn, many of whom could easily be potential clients or employers. On the one hand, it's not illegal to send commercial email in this fashion. On the other hand, how successful would you be if you tried?

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Karen Talavera is the founder of Synchronicity Marketing, a company specializing in digital marketing training, coaching, and education.