Self-promoting? Opt for opt-in.

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We’ve all met “business card collectors” at networking events. They were a mild annoyance before the Internet came along, but now that content marketing is all the rage some of them—the ones that aggressively add the people they meet to their email lists—are becoming a serious nuisance.

Self-promotion is critical to any creative business, and you do need to find ways to build and grow a good mailing list. But you don’t want to be “that guy” (or gal) who signs up everyone they meet before you can even get home from your latest encounter with corporate luminaries over rubber chicken. So how do you attract new readers without coming across as a desperate huckster? The secret is that “opt-in” equals “win-win.”

A good place to start for the answers to what an email marketer can and can’t do is the compliance website for the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act. You’ll note that the act explicitly requires all email marketers to clearly state how to opt out, and to honor opt-out responses promptly (items 5 and 6), with penalties of up to $16,000 for each separate email in violation. This applies to all commercial messages—not just bulk email. These are regulations you need to pay attention to, but don’t let them discourage you from starting that email newsletter. Luckily, most good email services will assist you with compliance by automatically generating all the fine print the government requires.

Now I’m not a lawyer, but I can tell you that most reputable bulk email services—if not all of them—have it somewhere in the fine print that everyone who is added to a mailing list must either “opt in” or give explicit permission to be added to the list. Many require a “double” opt-in, which sends the subscriber to a confirmation link in an email that must be clicked before they’re officially added.

This process can often be bypassed by the list owner, but that doesn’t mean you get to bypass responsibility as well. MailChimp, the service I use most, also requires users to check a box for every subscriber they add manually, stating that the list owner has the subscriber’s permission. Any list service that’s still in business probably has similar safeguards to protect themselves from lawsuits.

More to the point, whether or not it’s technically legal to sign someone up with no more pretext than a business card exchange, it’s a bad practice that ultimately hurts the list owner more than the accidental “subscribers.”

First, it feels like an invasion of privacy (which it is), causing instant damage to the sender’s reputation. More insidiously, it weakens the mailing list. The false assumption that borderline spammers work under is that building a successful list is nothing more than a numbers game. They think the more subscribers they sign up, the more opportunities they’ll have to generate business (from people they’ve annoyed by invading their privacy…how’s that again?).

The truth is that successful content marketing is highly targeted to quality prospects with a sincere interest in what the list owner provides. I’ll take a list of 100 well-qualified prospects over one with thousands of random people who’ve been “bumped” at a local chamber meeting every time.

Smart email prospectors go for the opt-in two ways: by being so awesome that people want to read their every word (which can work, though it’s rare if you’re not already a rock star in your niche), or by dangling some kind of carrot in exchange for the opt-in. These are known in the trade as “bait pieces.” Done right, they open the door to future business. Even though your readers know perfectly well that you’re giving something away in order to earn the right to send them email marketing, they’ll sign up if the bait piece is compelling enough. The difference between this and the card collector scheme is that subscribers go in with their eyes open, trusting that they can opt out whenever they like.

Cheers,

Tom

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