May 14, 2007

Forward-to-friend Forms: Can I save the friends’ emails?

Got this question the other day:

"Dear MailChimp,
My site has a forward-to-friend link. If I save the friends’ email addresses and contact them later, would that be spam?"

Short answer: Yes, that would be spam. More importantly, it would be rude.

Long answer:

Refer-a-friend (aka tell-a-friend, and forward-to-friend) tools are touchy. I’d be concerned about a few things.

1. Storing all those friends’ emails is a pretty huge privacy faux pas
(unless you actually post a statement that explains "we’ll be saving your
friends’ email addresses, and we’ll also be contacting them later"). Of course, nobody would ever submit their friends’
email if they saw that. Which, I guess, is the point. They’re probably
trusting you to keep that stuff private.
Actually, they’re probably expecting you to never even save their friends’ emails in the first place.

2. If you emailed that list of friends en masse, it’s spam. If you
emailed them personal notes, one at a time, from your own computer, it’s probably not spam.



3. Even if you emailed those people one at a time to get around the
technical definition of spam, good luck gaining trust from those people
after they realized you got their emails from a refer-a-friend form.
And even if it’s not technically spam, when people receive emails from people they don’t know, they report it as spam to their ISPs anyway. You could get blacklisted fast by doing this. I doubt any blacklist administrator would be very forgiving of anyone collecting emails from a forward to friend form.

4. If one of those friends you contact rats on you, you’ll lose the
trust of the original friend too.

What you should do instead:

When someone tells their friend about your web page, do you include
something in the email you send, asking that friend to opt-in "for more
great content like this"? That’s really about as far as you can go with
refer-a-friend tools. Make the email that gets forwarded to the friend as trustworthy as possible/

On your forward-to-friend form, always require the referrer’s name and email address, so you have proof that this message was a "casual" forward, and that you weren’t paying people to forward emails to their friends (you can get into legal trouble if it looks like you’re paying people to submit these forms to their friends). You should also do your best to make sure the forwarding tool can’t be grossly abused, or you could be accused of "looking the other way" and allowing spam to be sent from your system.

Other resources:

Here’s what the ASA in London says about refer-a-friend forms, and privacy

Here’s the pledge that all ESPC members must make (Read the very last paragraph in the PDF concerning FTF forms).

Perhaps the best place to look are the companies that actually specialize in refer-a-friend tools.

For instance, almost every page on has a link that lets you forward it to a friend. They use a vendor called Clickability for that service. Clickability makes it clear on their form they’re not going to contact your friend:


If you read their privacy policy you learn that they do collect your activities and preferences (such as which pages you found interesting enough to send or save), and then provide that to their clients (such as CNN), and perhaps use the information to target banner ads. No mention of contacting the friends you forward to. Their features list indicates that they only report aggregate information about forwards, no personal friends’ email addresses. My guess is they’ve been doing this since 1999, and have some pretty huge clients, so they’ve probably done the legal due diligence on this issue. If they don’t think they can get away with it, why would you?


Our recommendation is: don’t do it. If you’ve got content that’s actually
interesting enough for a friend to refer another friend, you’re already
ahead of the curve. Keep posting great content, and add a newsletter
opt-in link (in a non-annoying way) inside all the emails sent to those friends, so that they’ll
give you permission to contact them. If those friends go through the
trouble of opting-in, you’ll know they truly want to hear from you, and
your response rate will be much better. Go through great lengths to protect your users’ privacy, and post information about it. That’ll actually help your reputation, as opposed to destroying it by contacting people who don’t know you.

By the way, MailChimp comes with a built-in forward-to-friend link in all the emails you send. Just add the *|FORWARD|* tag to your campaigns, and we’ll insert the link for you:


We never store any of the email addresses used to forward emails. We do provide our users with aggregate information in their campaign reports: