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Nuances of Permission – Which One Should You Use?

Permission to send email to your subscribers comes in many forms, ranging from weak to strong. This article helps you keep track of the key terms and concepts of email marketing. This knowledge is vital to comply with best practices and laws impacting email communication.


In October 2017, Laura Atkins wrote in the Word to the Wise blog that a popular email marketing service provider, Mailchimp, was about to change the default setting of its signup forms from double opt-in to single opt-in. "This announcement ... has been spreading like wildfire around the email community," Atkins wrote. All the while, the foundational code of email marketing is also in the spotlight because of the increasing trends of digitalization, big data, automatization and just about everything being tracked online. As a result, everyone needs to be aware of the emerging laws related to privacy and data protection.

Legislation Reminder

The General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, of the European Union goes into effect May 25, 2018, and requires verifiable consent from anyone who has subscribers within the EU. The Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, CASL, in effect since 2017, requires explicit opt-in. Currently, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the CAN-SPAM Act, and many in the email industry, L-Soft included, are hoping for stronger protection against unsolicited commercial email than the law currently provides.

In other words, if you have subscribers outside the United States, and especially if you have subscribers in Canada or Europe, your most secure and effective choice is to obtain prior consent from all subscribers from the beginning. You also need to be able to prove that you have the consent of each subscriber, that the subscriber is aware of it, and the extent to which the consent to receive email list messages from you is given.

Nuances of Permission: From None to Explicit – What's Yours?

Obtaining consent is a strong and necessary foundation for communication that people want and expect to receive on a continuous basis. This image illustrates the nuances of permission from none, to weak, to strong. It's easy to see why giving people power over the email messages that they receive has a positive impact on the relationship between senders and subscribers.

Nuances of Permission

Strong Permission: Confirmed Opt-In, Also Known as Double Opt-In

The strongest form of subscriber consent is indisputable, informed, specific, explicit and actively given. Double opt-in permission, or DOI, which is also referred to as confirmed opt-in, or COI, is the most commonly used practice that email senders use to achieve this. As its name implies, it requires two action steps for a subscriber to join an email list: signing up an email address and then confirming that same email address by clicking a link in a confirmation message to activate the email list subscription. The EU GDPR requires verified consent, and double opt-in is an efficient way to obtain that verification.

Short History of Opt-In Permission

LISTSERV inventor, L-Soft CEO and founder Eric Thomas, invented the COI/DOI subscription confirmation in LISTSERV in 1993. This feature made it possible to confirm that the subscriber is who she or he claims to be. LISTSERV, as the first automated email list management solution, was built on the opt-in method from the time it was first invented in 1986.

Naturally, L-Soft is a proponent of explicit prior permission and strongly recommends double opt-in, even when legislation does not require it. For the best results, always follow email marketing best practices and check the national legislation in each country where you have subscribers before engaging in email marketing activities.

As with everything, even double opt-in has its pros and cons. The primary disadvantage is when people sign up initially but do not take the second step to activate the subscription. There are various reasons that this happens. For example, confirmation messages can go unnoticed or be filtered into a junk folder.

Good design and clear communication can help avoid this pitfall. Well implemented signup and email message templates include all the essential elements of opt-in, confirmation and opt-out functions. Email list management or email marketing platform, such as the ones that L-Soft and many others provide, make the signup, confirmation, permission tracking and other processes easy to manage.

The work required to use double opt-in is well worth it, even beyond the obvious and critical need to comply with legislation. Double opt-in is powerful because the sender and recipient have a confirmed connection – they "know each other," so to speak, and the subscriber expects to receive messages. Double opt-in empowers the sender-subscriber relationship and builds trust.

Weak Permission: Single Opt-In

Single opt-in, or SOI, is not as strong or recommended type of permission as double opt-in, yet it's still a form of obtaining subscriber consent. With SOI, an active signup is required, but the address is not confirmed to belong to the person who submitted it. Sending a welcome email message confirming the signup and providing an unsubscribe link is helpful to strengthen this opt-in method.

No Permission: Opt-Out

The opt-out approach means that the sender assumes the right to send email until the recipient opts out by unsubscribing from future mailings. This is legal in some countries. However, recipients do not expect and in many cases do not want commercial bulk messages. Such messages contribute to in-box clutter, waste resources and are illegal in most of countries in the Western world.

Many email service providers (ESPs) prohibit the use of external sources of email addresses, for example purchased or rented email lists from a third party. The consensus is that it's a bad email practice. It results in low deliverability, high bounce rates, low response rates and also damages the sender's and the ESP's reputation. A specific, explicit, opt-in email address is not a transferable trading commodity. Behind every email address is a person who deserves to only receive the email that they have expressly asked to receive from a trusted source.

Companies can send opt-out email marketing messages to addresses that they collected themselves but without specific prior consent in countries where this practice is legal, including the United States. The stronger the assumed permission, for example, by way of a customer relationship, the better. All things considered, with the ever-changing legal framework, companies need to pay more attention to shifting from opt-out mailings to opt-in ones, even in the United States.

Illegal: Spam

Spam, junk mail or unsolicited email, is the clearest case of zero prior permission from a recipient. This type of mass email communication generally violates applicable laws. There is no relationship between sender and subscriber or trust to build on. In short, never do this.

Permission is Just a Start

Permission can be seen as perishable goods, with an ingredient list and a date stamp. If the permission is weak to begin with or the messages not valuable, your email marketing can turn into so called "Bacn" messages that remain unopened or are deleted without being read. Even the strongest permission can fade if you don't deliver what you build expectations for and nurture it well. The power of permission is that it constitutes a relationship – you reach people who want to hear from you. It is your recipients who have the power to join, stay and leave, and perhaps rejoin your mailing lists again later.

Glossary of Permission-Related Email Terms

  • Bacn: Bacn (pronounced "bacon") refers to any email that is not spam or unsolicited but that the recipient doesn't have time or is currently unavailable to read right away. Bacn is often opt-in email that interests the user but remains unread in the inbox.
  • Best Practice: Considered as commonly adopted best practice and code of email marketing among email communication practitioners and professionals. Permission-based email marketing is the current praxis to follow.
  • Bounces: Email messages that fail to reach their intended destination. "Hard" bounces are caused by invalid email addresses, while "soft" bounces are due to temporary conditions, such as overloaded inboxes.
  • Confirmed Opt-In (COI): Same as Double Opt-In. See Double Opt-In (DOI).
  • Confirmation Email: A message that is sent to the person who signed up for an email list in order to receive future email messages.
  • Confirmation Link: A link in the confirmation message (double opt-in) that the person who signed up for an email list needs to click to confirm the subscription and to receive future email messages.
  • Consent: Approval from a recipient to receive future email marketing messages from a particular sender. Consent provides the permission base to conduct email marketing.
  • Double Opt-In (DOI): The recommended procedure for subscribing email recipients to an email list or newsletter. Once a person requests to subscribe to a list, a confirmation email message is automatically sent to the supplied email address asking the person to verify that they have in fact requested to receive future mailings.
  • Opt-In: An approach to email lists in which subscribers must explicitly request to receive email campaigns or newsletters, for example, via a signup form on a web page. Opt-in is the functions when someone is given the option to receive email.
  • Opt-Out: An approach to email lists in which recipients are included in email campaigns or newsletters until they specifically request not to be subscribed any longer. This method is not recommended and may in some cases be illegal. Opt-out is the function when someone unsubscribes from future messages and leaves the email list.
  • Permission: A recipient's prior consent for an email marketer or email list owner to send messages.
  • Single Opt-In (SOI): Recipient-initiated opt-in but unconfirmed subscription. Someone submit an email address to a signup form, but no steps are taken to make sure that this address belongs to the person submitting it. Compare with Confirmed Opt-In (COI) or Double Opt-In (DOI).
  • Spam: Unsolicited commercial email. Unwanted, unsolicited junk email sent to a large number of recipients. It is not asked for or requested by the recipient.
  • Welcome Message: A message that is sent out to new subscribers of an email list, confirming that they are subscribed and, in some cases, giving additional information about the email list.

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