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Rebuttal: Email's Job 1 is Revenue, Not Conventional Wisdom


By Christopher Marriott

Editor’s note: Last week, I published a negative opinion piece on a suggestion digital marketing consultant Christopher Marriott made in a column on iMediaConnection that marketers should consider emailing people who have visited their sites but failed to do anything other than click around.

I headlined the piece: “Worst. Idea. Ever.”

I also invited Marriott to write a rebuttal. He was kind enough to do so. Here is what he had to say:

I’ve had a lot of bad ideas in my time. Many of my friends were only too happy to point that out to me in the wake of Ken’s newsletter last week. Like the time I used my first pick in a fantasy football draft to take a kicker. Or the time I ordered a “bowl of death” at a Korean restaurant (I didn’t know which would kill me first, the temperature or the spice).

But I must beg to differ with Ken regarding what he labeled the “Worst. Idea. Ever.” He was referring to my suggestion that sending an unsolicited email to someone who visited your website was potentially a great new tactic for email marketers (or at least something worth a look). Now to be honest, I as I wrote that column for iMediaConnection I knew I was touching the third rail of email marketing—sending an email to anyone other than someone who has subscribed to receive emails from you.

I find it interesting just how radioactive that topic is among the best and the brightest in the email marketing world. I suspect part of the reason this is so is that we email marketers are tremendously sensitive to how we and the industry are perceived by the rest of the marketing community.

There may even be a bit of an inferiority complex at play here. The uneasy feeling many of us have that the industry is looked down on as disreputable (spammers) and nothing more than digital stamp lickers has resulted in our community being more intolerant than anyone else in the universe (well except maybe Spamhaus) of anything that has the faintest whiff of spam. The sentiment for double opt-in is greater in the email marketing community than it is anywhere else. The condemnation of any email than is sent without prior permission is louder. And the denial that email is good for anything other than remarketing to existing customers is stronger.

This attitude is the primary reason why there isn’t a lot of boundary pushing in the email marketing world. Innovation focuses on the appearance and content of emails, not how email can further integrate with other channels and tactics. Including acquisition channels and tactics.

Now let’s get something straight: CAN-SPAM does not make it illegal to send someone an email without his or her permission. It makes it illegal for that email not to provide an easy way to opt-out from ever receiving another email from you. And it makes it illegal to not honor that opt-out.

Email marketers know this in their heads, but they don’t believe it in their hearts. Hence the ringing condemnation by Ken of my perfectly legal suggestion that sending a follow-up email to an anonymous visitor to your web site is a good way to keep the conversation going.

Folks, we are bombarded every day by thousands of marketing messages that we didn’t ask to receive. Ad agencies don’t feel badly that we are forced to watch TV commercials that interrupt our favorite shows. No one feels uneasy about the display ads that clutter up our favorite web sites. I’m of the opinion that it’s great that millions of people see emails that we create because they raised their hands and asked to see them, but that doesn’t mean we should have any hesitation in sending marketing messages to people who haven’t raised their hands. This makes me no different than every other non-email marketer in the world.

Does anyone really think that the major ISPs frown on marketers sending unsolicited emails because they really care what their users think about them? Trust me, if they were paid per email delivered they would be as happy as a cop in a donut factory to send all the unsolicited email marketers wanted to send.

You never hear the USPS grumbling about having to deliver unsolicited (junk) mail. They’d be out of business without it! ISPs frown on unsolicited email because it adds to their cost of providing email services to their users. Well guess what? That shouldn’t be our problem!

So here’s the bottom line. Our No. 1 responsibility is to maximize the revenue generated by the email channel for our clients or our companies. To ignore or not explore the acquisition value of email in conjunction with other channels means we are failing to fulfill our mission.

I’m not suggesting that we return to the days where marketers rented and emailed to dubiously sourced lists. But ideas like I discussed in my infamous column should be explored as part of our due diligence for our companies and our clients. We shouldn’t let conventional wisdom or anything else get in the way of that.


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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-23 17:55:12
Subject: Anonymous poster

Thank you for your kind words! Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!
Posted by:
Date: 2012-11-22 21:05:31
Subject: Always gracious and ever so humble

As always, I continue to learn from you. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving!
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-22 07:56:22
Subject: Re: So it's a matter of degree?

Hi Derek: That's not what I'm saying, it's what you'd like me to be saying. In my initial recommendation, and in everything I've written since the person being sent to has given someone, somewhere permission to receive email for the partners of that owner of the opt-in. That is wildly different than sending emails from a list with addresses scraped from other web sites.
Posted by: Derek Harding
Date: 2012-11-21 17:54:58
Subject: So it's a matter of degree?

If you could be confident you weren't getting spamtraps then renting a big list and blasting to it would be a fine idea? There's no email permission anywhere in your recommendation either and how big a predictor do you actually need in order to make a $1CPM a net positive ROI? Clearly what I'm driving at is, other than how much you trust the source of the addresses you're recommending to send to, what actual difference is there between purchasing the address of someone who supposedly visited your site as opposed to just purchasing someone's address beyond likely conversion rate?
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-21 15:18:27
Subject: Why not?

Hi Derek-- Because when you rent and send to a dubiously sourced list you are likely renting spam traps as well. It's not worth the risk, and there is no email permission anywhere in the mix. And visiting a web site is a much bigger predictor of prospect value than merely being the right age.
Posted by: Derek Harding
Date: 2012-11-21 11:42:18
Subject: Why not?

You said " I’m not suggesting that we return to the days where marketers rented and emailed to dubiously sourced lists." My question is why not? If the recipients' permission is not required, and you clearly do not think it that it is, why aren't you suggesting this? The only reason I can think of is that you're treating visiting a website as an indication of being a potential prospect. How is this any different to buying a demographically or behaviorally targeted list?
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-21 09:40:01
Subject: Weighing in

Hi Kelly-- Thanks for your comments. I don't mean to be nasty, but I think they are pretty representative of the mindset I wrote about. The good news is that your point of view is way more popular than mine!
Posted by: Kelly Lorenz
Date: 2012-11-21 02:29:16
Subject: Weighing in

So here are my thoughts: I like the thought behind presenting this idea - pushing the boundaries in email and trying and testing new things - and I also know this type of follow up is effective or else those banner ads wouldn't follow you everywhere after you visit a website. But - and this is where I separate from you, Chris - we are fortunate enough in this industry to be mostly/completely regulated by consumers. Yes, I said fortunately. Because that allows us to prevent ourselves from completely destroying our brand's reputation by doing things like this. If someone is on your website and they are interested in more, and you make it easy to find and subscribe, they will. The problem is tactics like this make consumers untrusting and that's how we get this reputation as "spammers". Email is a channel people should love for marketing because they can control it. Instead, when they gave us an inch we took the whole damn football field. Ps. Happy Thanksgiving from Sweden all!
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-20 20:33:41
Subject: Permission Marketing

Justin, I find much to agree with in your last comment. However, I do believe using reputable list providers in the B2B space to send emails to their own opt-in lists holds little danger for marketer or list provider. Happy Thanksgiving!
Posted by: Justin Khoo / Advenix
Date: 2012-11-20 18:56:13
Subject: Permission Marketing

Chris, I agree with your basic premise, that such an approach is innovative and the email industry has been unfairly held to a much higher standard than other forms of marketing. However email is the only medium that is beholden to a recipient's whims. Sure users employ ad-blockers to suppress annoying banner ads, but the rest of online marketing industry are not subjected to community mechanisms like the spam filter that punishes annoying marketers. Using a separate list provider to send unsolicited emails only passes the can of worms to someone else. If recipients of emails from these list providers complain, the list providers would also be blacklisted. As you alluded and others have chimed - this could work well in cases where the type of visitor to the website well understood so relevant, albeit unsolicited emails can be crafted and sent. However all too often, as Ken writes so often about in his articles, some bigwig might read your article and proclaim that they too should implement the program without proper considerations and getting into trouble as a result.
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-20 18:30:40
Subject: Permission Marketing

And for the record, I do believe all of this is much more appropriate in B2B marketing. Much greater care needs to be taken in B2C.
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-20 18:26:51
Subject: Permission Marketing

Hi Justin-- My point is not to use your existing ESP to mail to send unsolicited emails, as that would no doubt create problems for you in reaching your current customers. There are plenty of providers who have permission-based lists who you can use to send acquisition campaigns. Sending an email after a web site visit is a perfectly legitimate tactic. By your thinking, a marketer risks its reputation anytime a prospect sees any annoying marketing message from them. But yet we still get bombarded every day by messages we didn't ask for.
Posted by: Justin Khoo / Advenix
Date: 2012-11-20 18:12:07
Subject: Permission Marketing

Chris, The receiving ISPs are not charging anything for delivery and although many schemes have been tried and proposed the concept of charging for email delivery are still very far in the horizon. So these ISPs (and Webmail companies) are 100% beholden to their users either by nature of them paying for the service or from ads. Sending unsolicited email is not only considered bad practice by the email marketing industry, consumers have also learned that unsolicited email = spam. And the fate of your reputation (which determines whether you end up in the spam folder) is only a short "This is Spam" mouseclick away. There is probably more of a grey area in B2B emails - especially unsolicited emails of a personal nature. So the question is: whether a few opportunistic campaigns to gain new customers is worth destroying your ability to reach your existing customers?
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-20 17:51:33
Subject: Permission Marketing

Jeff-- Why do I need to choose between cultivating current customers and acquiring new ones? My point is that email can be used for both. Why are email marketers the only marketers who believe they must have permission to put a marketing message in front of a consumer? It's not like we're vampires who need to be invited into the house before we can bite you!
Posted by: Jeff Hassemer
Date: 2012-11-20 17:06:47
Subject: Permission Marketing

Chris - While you are correct in your definitions of what CAN-SPAM does and does not allow, I believe that there is a great point here. I suggest you re-read (because I'm hoping that you at least read it once) Seth Godin's "Permission Marketing" and then make an assertion that what you are proposing is ultimately a short term or a long term play. Me, I prefer to tell my clients to play for the long term. Cultivate the customers and build longer lasting, more profitable relationships. Don't be consumed by the short term dollar to give up three ove the next year. Just sayin'
Posted by: Chris Marriott
Date: 2012-11-20 15:40:47
Subject: response to George

George, that's because the ISPs charged too little for delivery!
Posted by: George Bilbrey / Return Path
Date: 2012-11-20 15:29:18
Subject: ISPs do care - to an extent

Chris wrote: Does anyone really think that the major ISPs frown on marketers sending unsolicited emails because they really care what their users think about them? Trust me, if they were paid per email delivered they would be as happy as a cop in a donut factory to send all the unsolicited email marketers wanted to send. ISP payment was actually tried at several points by a few companies in the industry. Guess what: didn't work. The folks who run the anti-spam systems at those ISPs pulled the cord on the experiment - the quality of the user experience just got to low. What they don't care about is if mail with marginal reputation doesn't get put in the inbox from time to time.