Oct 27, 2008

What makes a good permission reminder?

A "permission reminder" is a little blurb in your email campaigns (usually in the footer) that helps your recipients remember how you got their email address. In some cases, it can help prevent you from getting reported or blacklisted as a spammer.

Here’s a good permission reminder:

And here’s a bad one from a campaign that received 300+ abuse complaints:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this "bad" permission reminder is what caused hundreds of abuse complaints. It’s more of a symptom of a much larger problem. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

Back to the original question: What makes a good permission reminder?

For the most part, if you send true permission-based email marketing, your recipients don’t need permission reminders. They already know how they got on your list. They signed up for it (See Mark Brownlow’s: You’re receiving this email because…yeah I know).

But the permission reminder isn’t just for your recipients’ sake. You see, sometimes email gets reported as spam, even if it’s not. ReturnPath did a survey where 14% of people said they always hit the "report spam" button, even if they signed up for the email. People forget. People are lazy. People are mean.

Inevitably, if you send enough email campaigns, you’ll get reported for spamming. It just happens.

When you get reported for spamming, your email campaign is no longer just a newsletter or promotion. It’s a piece of EVIDENCE.

This evidence will be reviewed by a judge. That "judge" can be an email admin at a major ISP, or an abuse desk manager at a spam firewall company, an IT person at a large corporation, or an angry recipient who just likes to publicly accuse companies of spamming by posting their emails on NANAE.

When your email campaign gets turned into evidence, the permission reminder can become a critical factor in determining whether or not you are a "good guy" a "bad guy" or "an idiot" (idiots are the same as bad guys, for all intents and purposes).

3 Elements of a Good Email Permission Reminder:

1. It’s specific

Your permission reminder should be very thorough in explaining exactly how your recipient got on your email list. This is not the time to be terse. At the same time, you don’t want to list all possible ways someone might’ve been added. For example, if your permission reminder says, "You received this email because you purchased something from our stores, signed up online, dropped a business card in a fish bowl at a tradeshow, or signed up with  a distributor/partner/affiliate sometime in the past" then it’s obvious that you’re a lazy jerk who just exported all your different databases, combined them into one list, and "blasted" an email out. Don’t be a lazy jerk. Setup differnet lists, and send very different welcome emails to them, each with different permission reminders.

Instead of writing, "You’re receiving this email because you’re a customer" try something more like, "You’re receiving this email because you’re a customer who opted-in for emails when you purchased something from our online store." Or, "You’re receiving this email because you signed up for email specials while making a purchase at one of our stores."

2. It’s polite

Your permission reminder should be written in a way that shows you genuinely care about your recipients’ privacy, and you know that emailing them is a privilege, not a right. Don’t get me wrong. Your permission reminders don’t need to be full of apologies. Groveling is pathetic, and a waste of time. Just show some genuine concern. Sometimes, "concern" just means "details."

I’ve seen permission reminders written like, "This is not spam, as defined by U.S. Legislation ID Code 23298.2342.L32 Docket #ABC123." You know who quotes spam laws? Spammers.

I’ve seen permission reminders like, "This is just a one-time promotion, so there’s no need to report us for spamming." Just because it’s one time doesn’t mean it’s not spam. It just means I only have to report you for spamming one time. Jerk.

I’ve seen permission reminders like:  "You’re receiving this email from Acme Widgets. If you don’t want them anymore, unsubscribe." Okay, but I already know I got this email from Acme Widgets, because you said it in the from: line, and your hideous logo is ginormous. The question is, "how the *&%$ did Acme Widgets get my email address?"

Show people that you took the time to write the permission reminder. Because they’re taking the time to read your permission reminder.

3. It’s provable

This is where the "evidence" part comes into play the most. A good permission reminder will include some sort of indisputable proof that the recipient actually gave you permission to email them.

For example, "You are receiving our newsletter because you opted-in for it when you downloaded one of our whitepapers on software engineering."

With this kind of permission reminder, someone (such as an abuse desk admin at an ISP) can ask the complainer, "The permission reminder says you opted in when you downloaded their whitepaper. Well, did you opt-in, or not?"

Sure, people can lie and say they never heard of you. But any time I’ve ever investigated an abuse report, and had a permission reminder like this, the complainer is usually very honest. I get responses like, "Yes, I signed up for their newsletter, but good grief, they keep sending me the same friggin’ email offers over and over. I just want them to stop."

In that case, I don’t have to shut down the sender’s account. I can just tell them to stop being sloppy, and try to send more relevant, updated content.

I’ve also received responses from complainers, like, "Yes, the last guy who had this job downloaded that whitepaper, and signed up for those emails, but that idiot used the sales@ email address here, so now I’m getting these emails. Every time I try to call the sender, nobody answers. I just want the emails to stop." In that case, I can advise the complainer to click the unsubscribe link (or I do it for them).

If possible, you can merge customer information into your permission reminders.

For example, for some of our own MailChimp system alerts, we tell people, "You are receiving this email because you are a registered customer of MailChimp. Your username is ____ and your last login was on ___. "

I still get complaints from people, but at least they know why they got the email. They’ll write and say things like, "I don’t use MailChimp anymore. Please delete my account."

Here’s an example of a permission reminder that lacks trackability (I’ve seen this one a lot): "You have received this email because you expressed interest in our product in the past." Okay, when? How? With whom did I express interest? All this means to me is that you purchased my email address from some affiliate who did the dirty list-aggregation work for you.

Better would be, "You have received this email because you requested more product information from Acme Widgets when you registered your ABC Widget." Ok, I don’t remember signing up for emails, but I do remember buying an ABC Widget, and I do remember filling out lots of forms for rebates and warranty registration. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and just unsubscribe, instead of reporting Acme Widgets for spamming me.

Note: In the above example, it would require Acme Widgets to actually segment their customer lists. Sure, it’s a little extra work, and it would be so much easier to blast out a big campaign to "everyone" instead. But remember #2 above? Showing genuine concern for the recipient? Who’s more important here? What’s a few more clicks in your email marketing system?

The point is, you want to write your permission reminder so that if/when it is turned into evidence, it can boil a dispute down to a simple yes-or-no scenario. Either you have opt-in proof, or not. Done. You don’t necessarily have to merge in the proof, but you should at least imply that you have the proof, if needed. If you can’t do that, the only implication for any judge is that you’re probably sending spam.

Re-cap

So let’s go back to that bad permission reminder, and review why it’s so bad.

To set the stage, the email was sent to members of a non-profit organization. It was a special offer coupon from one of the organization’s largest sponsors (who happens to be a pharmaceutical company). So the only thing recipients saw in the email was a big giant graphic for a pharmaceutical product (assuming the image wasn’t automatically blocked by their email program). No organization logo in the header. No branding of any sort (colors, fonts, graphics, etc). Just a big coupon. Kinda sounds like spam, huh?

Worst of all, the permission reminder did nothing to help. Here’s what I mean:

1. It explains nothing.  It says I received it because of my relationship with a certain organization. Okay, what’s the relationship? Can you be more specific? Why not? Probably because you don’t actually know my relationship, do you? In fact, how do I know you’re not just some 3rd party who purchased my email address from the non-profit? Now I’m angry at two organizations.

2. It shows no concern for my time and privacy. They put together an email that doesn’t even include a company logo. Just a giant coupon for a pharmaceutical product (assuming I can even see that graphic in the first place). How much effort do they devote to respecting my privacy? Ten words. And directly below that, they offer a link to view the email online. That’s like knocking on someone’s door and telling them, "Hi there, I just ran over your dog while pulling into your driveway. Anyways, I’ve got these cool encyclopedias to sell you…"

3. It lacks proof. How does one define a "relationship" with a non-profit? Am I a member? Someone who’s donated something? A volunteer? Employee? The word "relationship" seems deliberately vague, as if to cover all possible bases in case they’re questioned.

A better way of doing this would be:

  1. First and foremost, spend some time on the design of this template, for God’s sake. Put the organization’s logo at the top somewhere. Use the organization’s colors. Customize it to show you care.
  2. If the email is just going to consist of a big coupon image from a 3rd party, then put some intro text above it. Something like, "Hello ____ members, we’ve got a very special offer from one of our biggest sponsors, ____. We thought you might be able to use this for ________. Or, make up a bogus (but fun) story, like Simple Shoes did here.
  3. In the footer, include a permission reminder like, "From time to time, we send special offers from our sponsors to all members of ____. We hope you find them useful. If not, you can unsubscribe from our special offers list here."

Most people who send true permission-based email marketing have no trouble writing good permission reminders. It’s not rocket science. It should just come naturally. If you find yourself struggling with your permission reminder, it’s probably a sign that you don’t actually have permission. Perhaps you need to re-introduce yourself. Perhaps you need to segment your list to only include those who did give permission.