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The Truth About Emailing Without Permission

by Karen Talavera

07 15, 2013 | Posted in Email Lists, Email Marketing, Lead Generation | 9 comments

Last month we explored how to begin mailing a list of email addresses gathered both with and without explicit permission. You can read about how to handle the “never-been-emailed” list here.

While many email marketers have the best of intentions when it comes to obtaining the clear permission of people they want to email, their inexperience with or reluctance to getting a program started can cause both permission and data to age. But there’s a more serious degree of this problem in which permission is not simply lax or questionable, it is 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 requirethat this channel work on a strictly opt-in basis.

I think this results in a fare share of 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 eco-system (ruled by the biggest ISPs -Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and AOL – who host the vast majority of consumer email accounts) thrives on and virtually demands permission.

Confusion and abuse mix when hungry sales people, 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 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?

The Scenario: You want to email a list of people who have not opted-in to get email from you (an “opt-out” list)

What You Can Expect:

First, when consumers and business people alike receive commercial email they didn’t specifically sign-up for, they do one of three things:

a) ignore and delete it

b) complain

or c) tolerate it for a while to see if it will be of value

Unfortunately, they do A and B far more frequently than C; the chances of them engaging with and buying from you are miniscule but it can happen. When email address owners delete unwanted email or register a complaint by marking it as “spam”, the ISPs hosting those email accounts track their actions and tie complaints back to the  sender – you! This, in turn, negatively affects your future ability to email those people because ISPs will block you from inboxes entirely.

And there’s another wrinkle. Since most marketers use some sort of Email Services Provider (ESP) or hosted solution to manage and deploy messages to their email lists, given the non-permission nature of your list you’re going to be hard-pressed to find an ESP that will take you on as a client as cost-effectively as if you had built firmly on the foundation of permission. If, however, you are determined to mail an opt-out list, prepare to “pay to play”. So instead of the fraction of a penny to send an email that you might pay at most ESPs, plan on spending at least $0.01 to $0.04 per name or more.

Why? ESPs achieve economies of scale and efficiency by aggregating multiple senders on shared IP addresses and sending servers. This also makes email marketing more affordable (or free) to large volumes of small businesses and low-volume senders. In order to keep the email sender reputation (yes, did you know every sender of commercial email has what is known as an “email marketing reputation ?) of these shared servers and their IP addresses clean, ESPs need to be very careful about the quantity of rejections and complaints they receive from ISPs. Their tolerance for complaints and rejections is typically miniscule.

ESPs that give customers their own dedicated IP addresses will have higher complaint/rejection thresholds since the only reputation affected will be that of the single IP address owner. With a dedicated IP address, even if your list is less than stellar in the permission department your ESP’s other customers will still be able to successfully deliver their email since their sending IP address will have nothing to do with the reputation of yours. But of course, getting a dedicated IP address is going to cost you more than using a shared resource.

Essentially, if you want to send your opt-out list from an ESP, you’re going to have to compensate that vendor for the risk involved in one way or another – either by paying a higher per-name fee or investing in a dedicated sending IP address.

The Approach

Nonetheless, if you are determined to persist here are your options:

1.   See if You Can Rent the List

If the opt-out list you want to email clearly has an owner, ask the list owner if they rent the list and if so, send an email campaign through them. Many membership associations, trade associations, and publishers DO rent their email lists to advertisers and have solid permission from subscribers to send such third-party messages. You’d do well to leverage that permission (even though email list rental can cost $0.08 to $0.25 per name) by sending a compelling offer or permission pass to the rented list. Afterwards, anyone who responds to your campaign by affirmatively signing up for your email or voluntarily providing their email address is fair game to message in the future.

2.   Conduct a Series of Rolling Permission Pass Campaigns

Choose quantity over quality. Send a series of permission and join invitations to metered sections of the list over time. Ask list members to proactively opt-in to your email program and illustrate the value of doing so. Keep the people who opt-in, jettison and do not re-mail the ones who don’t. You’ll cut your list quantity by 75-80% but you’ll have a quality list you can then mail from any ESP. More importantly, you won’t have to worry about your email reputation in the future.

3. Secure a Dedicated IP Address for Sending to Non Permission Lists

Shop for an ESP that will allow you to send from a dedicated IP address or dedicated block of addresses. The dedicated vs. shared IP is your ticket to successfully working with an ESP.

4.   Don’t Outsource to an ESP – Deploy Your Own Email

As an alternative to outsourcing to an ESP, consider an internal email deployment solution. Green Arrow is an MTA / sending solution that is less expensive than some of the other MTAs (mail transfer agents) on the market. Port 25 / PowerMTA, Strongmail and MessageSystems are other players in the space.  Moving your email marketing deployment in-house will mean you can send at whatever level of complaints you’re comfortable with and don’t have to meet an external vendor’s standards.


  • Going straight for the sale. Remember, the people on the list you’re mailing have no prior relationship with you or your brand. Rather than trying to direct-sell a cold list, warm it up. Consider offering access to useful content, free trial of a service or subscription, or some other low-commitment, high-value combination. Lead nurturing and drip campaigns are the ticket to success more so than “one and done” promotional blasts.
  • Sending your “permission pass” email campaign from the same IP address, block of IP addresses or server that sends your opt-in email. The fact that you’re emailing a non-permission list could taint the reputation of the email servers sending to your opt-in list. Even if you choose the Permission Pass alternative (#2) above, send your campaigns from an entirely separate Internet location and From Address than your regular email.


Even though your content, products and services may be uber-relevant and highly desired by your audience, ignoring permission in email marketing is a short-term game at best. Make no mistake: mailing a non-permission list over a period of time will yield complaint and unsubscribe rates that have an excellent chance of eventually tarnishing your reputation and making it difficult if not impossible to successfully deliver to even those people who DO want your email. So, unless you’re ready to play with domain names and consistently switch to new sending IP addresses (a hallmark of spammers) opt-out email marketing will lead you down a path of diminishing returns and run the risk of getting you permanently blacklisted or blocked from receiving environments. And that, whether you like it or not, is the ugly truth about emailing without permission.




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