Permission Marketing. Beyond buzz word, it's clearly the status quo for email and has long been debated as the future state of direct mail, too. Already legally mandated by data laws in other countries, opt-in marketing may evolve into the preferred model within the US as well.

With marketing channels of choice proliferating and messaging devices diversifying, it's not hard to imagine an opt-in vs. opt-out future where permissions are granted not only by marketing channel (email, postal mail, phone, RSS), but also by content, device, time, and place.

All the more reason to genuinely understand permission, which in the world of email marketing alone appears relegated to subjective definitions. We'll help set the record straight by exploring the first two of six dimensions of permission in this three-part series, "The Six Cs of Permission Email Marketing."

They may seem obvious, and they may sound simplistic, but you might be surprised how often the fundamentals are dismissed.

1. Conscious Consent

There are numerous ways individuals end up on email lists, and many of those ways are unknown even to them.

Terms like "affirmative consent," "passive consent," and "third-party consent" abound. But when it comes to genuine 100% permission marketing, the only consent that matters is conscious consent.

Are your join and subscribe invitations structured in such a way that list members must voluntarily take action to receive your messages, and do they realize the action they are taking will result in email from your company, partners, or affiliates? If you can't answer "yes" to these questions, your methods are not garnering conscious consent.

Sure, people are bombarded with messages and advertising impressions from a growing array of channels; and, yes, they forget what they've signed-up for. However, conscious consent ensures that an opt-in process is clear and non-deceitful.

Without a self-initiated action on the part of your list members, it is virtually impossible for them to join. Requiring such self-initiated, voluntary measures requires conscious action on the part of your recipients and increases the likelihood that they remember having taken such action.

On the other hand, unconscious or passive consent assumes rather than requests permission. It takes true voluntary choice out of the equation by pre-checking boxes, using data gathered from publicly available sources, or gathering information via some other opt-out collection model.

While those methods are certainly not illegal and are often justifiable, they don't constitute conscious consent. If 100% permission marketing is what you aim for, nothing less than voluntary consent will do.

2. Choice

Choice and conscious consent go hand in hand, since conscious consent assumes individual choice. Yet beyond the choice to join/subscribe in the first place, you should make available options that offer control (one of our upcoming C's).

Which options will you—can you—offer in a permission marketing environment? These are just a few:

  • Communication type (news, promotional, legal, transactional)
  • Content type (product information, reminders, sales offers)
  • Preferred communication channel (email, postal mail, phone, fax)
  • Frequency preferences
  • Device-specific message formatting (mobile vs. desktop)
  • Temporary suspension of messages
  • Unsubscribe

For an expert example of how it's done, see United Airlines customer preferences at If you're a United Mileage Plus program member, just log-in and select "My Profile." You'll be able to edit email preferences, flight notification preferences, and other options. Another excellent example can be found at Hallmark. Create an account there if you don't already have one to see what we mean.

When offering permission and communications choices, you offer preferences; so, present only the options that you can successfully fulfill. And don't forget to note when certain types of content or communication are available only through a particular channel and not others.

It's fine to restrict choices solely to what you can realistically manage; aim your sights on under-promising and over-delivering—and your customers will reward your efforts.

Next: The next two Cs of Permission Email: Clarity and Confidence.

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image of Karen Talavera

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