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The Permission vs. Relevancy Debate: Navigating the Murky Waters of Email Append

by Karen Talavera

07 31, 2012 | Posted in Customer Loyalty, Email Lists, Email Marketing | 2 comments

Navigating the Murky Waters of Email Append

There’s an ongoing debate over the role of permission in sending marketing email to customers you have a pre-existing business relationship with. Although in recent years opt-in list building practices have clearly been on the rise, there is still no clear legal mandate for opt-in as a standard email marketing practice in the US and many countries.

Should everyone on your email marketing list have voluntarily opted-in to join? (In my personal opinion and in an ideal world, YES). Or, is it okay to acquire the email addresses of customers (through email append or a similar process) who are valuable clients but simply haven’t signed up for your email program, and then email them anyway?

In other words: Do you want to be predominantly in the position of asking for permission to email people – or forgiveness for having done so without their permission? What’s more important: Permission or Relevance?

Say, for example, you can identify a customer segment of people who are perfect candidates for your new XYZ widget. You know based on what they’ve purchased before that they have a need for XYZ widget. You also know they can afford it. If only you can message them about it, you’re sure they’d buy it. So, it’s 100% – maybe even 110% relevant to them. But, not all members of this segment have opted-in to your email list. Sure you could mail or call them – but it’s not as efficient. What do you do?

Some companies in this situation explore what is known as Email Address Append by which they match their customer lists against known opt-in email files (often large list rental files owned by big consumer marketing data companies) append an email address to any matches based on name and postal address, and send a campaign. The practice, however, is controversial because it bypasses long-held values of email marketing: inbox-owner choice and control.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Present-day reality reflects situations like the “XYZ widget” scenario above. So for those who are intent on exploring or testing email append, I offer the thoughts and approaches that follow.

While I’m not a staunch advocate of email append in general, I’m also not totally opposed to it. Sadly though, I’ve seen myriad cases of it done poorly. Bottom line: if you’re not prepared to apply it strategically and conscientiously, putting the needs of your customers before your own, don’t do it.

As a quick aside to the totally uninitiated, let me state for the record that in no way do I or any industry trade association (DMA, ANA, AMA, etc.) advocate email-appending rented direct mail lists of prospects you have no existing business relationship with. Email address append, if it is considered acceptable at all, is for locating the email addresses of your customers you don’t yet have email addresses for.

Approaching email append with the objective of being able to delight and satisfy customers will result in a more conscientious approach than coming at it from the standpoint of “I just need a bigger email list”.  It’s the difference between putting your customers or your marketing agenda first.

Segment Customers First

The members of any customer base can be winnowed down into three or four distinct segments that will have like behaviors in terms of loyalty and engagement.  For example, if we define customers as those who have actually made a purchase there are Raving Fans, Emerging Fans, Followers (the bulk) and Inactives.

Consider that each of these groups could be either delighted or infuriated by email append, behavioral targeting, and increased messaging frequency. The stakes are probably the highest with Raving Fans. On the one hand a Raving Fan might be thrilled you saved them the time of figuring out where to join the email list and are now delivering them relevant (and hopefully exclusive) offers that surprise, help and delight them.

On the other hand, if they’re hyper-loyal and paying more attention to what you do than the average customer, you may have seriously violated their privacy and alienated them for good (if only you had just asked them to provide their email address they’d likely have done it, but if you used append you assumed vs. asked).

But how can you possibly tell ahead of time WHO will react which way?  Answer: you can’t.  You can guess how a segment might react, but even within a segment you can see divergent attitudes.

Take on the other hand your Followers – the majority of existing customers with a utilitarian connection to you who, quite frankly, probably just don’t care how you get their email address as long as our email is making their lives easier.  Of all segments, they may be the most likely to forgive an email address append.

If you’re intent on append, segment the least risky group by loyalty category on which to conduct a test.  And for the love of email marketing, go into an append with the intention to give rather than get (yes, you can help your customers plus help yourself as a result if your intentions are “customer first”).

Questions to Consider Before Proceeding

Then before proceeding, ask yourself these questions and carefully consider the answers:

  • What percentage of my customer base do I not have email addresses for? How large is that percentage and what might it represent in revenue if I could email them?
  • How loyal/engaged are those customers? How often do they by? What’s their average annual spend?
  • Is there a fast, cost-effective way I can entice these customers to provide their email addresses on an opt-in permission basis as an alternative to email append?
  • If there isn’t, is it worth risking relationships with them (and future revenue from them) by foregoing permission with an append?
  • How many complaints might be generated from an email append campaign and what is my maximum complaint threshold?

If your email marketing isn’t evolved enough yet to truly help, anticipate, surprise and delight your customers, email append isn’t for you. Stick with 100% opt-in email and work on increasingly segmenting your list to improve the relevancy of email campaigns to unique segments.

This entire debate reminds me of the maxim “Bring your seed, not your need”.  I think the problem with so many email appends is they reek of need, and as we all know customers can smell desperation a mile away. When they do, they usually bail. Worse yet, they can throw you under the bus on their way out by complaining or reporting your email as spam, which negatively affects your reputation and can impede future deliverability.

So when it comes down to Permission or Relevancy which do you value more? If you’re tried email append, what was your experience? If you haven’t, why not? Your sharing in comments below helps us all.


photo by: bcbuckner
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