Ethical marketing advocate Lynn Serafinn looks at the legal and ethical side of commercial email communications, and shares her top 7 mailing list gripes.
This week I finally broke down and hired a PA. Why? Because my email inbox has finally got the best of me, taking over my life like a plague of brambles in my back garden. Right now, I have an overwhelming number of unread emails in my inbox – over 1500 of them. Of course, while some of these emails are from things I’ve subscribed to, most of them I didn’t ask for in the first place. You would think it would be easy to put an end to all this, but even the act of going through my inbox to click ‘block sender’, ‘delete’ or ‘unsubscribe’ takes time. And then, before I know it, yet more unwanted emails pour in. This means the (comparatively few) legitimate contacts who send me an email, expecting to get a timely reply from me, can get frustrated as I simply don’t see their email: it’s buried in a pile of muck. I’ve even missed out on speaking gigs, simply because I never saw the invitations. I’m trusting my new PA will help restore order to this chaos, so my clients and business associates can receive the timely responses they deserve.
The overwhelming experience of my email melt-down has made me think about our relationship with e-mailing lists. How do we get on them in the first place? What are our expectations when we sign up to them? How do we end up on lists without our knowing? What are our legal rights as consumers with regards to email lists, and how can we encourage businesses to respect those rights?
Of course, as business owners it is vital for us to know our legal obligations when it comes to using mailing lists. But even beyond the law, anyone committed to ethical business and marketing practice also would benefit from asking themselves: ‘What can I learn from my own experiences as a consumer? How can I ensure I am not guilty of the same things that make me angry, or stress me out, as a consumer?
Overview of Anti-SPAM Laws Around the World
In the world of communications, the word ‘SPAM’ refers to any kind of unsolicited commercial email (sometimes abbreviated as ‘UCE’). Apparently the letters ‘S-P-A-M’ do not stand for anything to do with email, but were adopted from the name of the Hormel luncheon meat ‘Spam’, presumably to indicate something that is undesirable.
These days, you’d have to live in a box to remain 100% free of SPAM. All of us have received unsolicited commercial email at one time or another. Over the past decade many anti-SPAM laws have come into effect, making clear what is acceptable and what is not, and defining the legal penalties that could be imposed upon those who break ‘the law’.
But trying to define and enforce ‘the law’ at an international level is easier said than done. First, we have the issue of the sovereignty, i.e. every nation has the right to create and enforce their own laws. On top of this, in the United States, individual states have legal autonomy on such matters. While such sovereignty is vital to retaining our fundamental freedoms, to keeping the world from turning into one giant dictatorial state, it also makes it next to impossible to create or enforce any kind of international ‘law’ regarding SPAM.
Then we have the challenges of cyberspace itself. Serious ‘professional’ spammers can be physically located in one country, while operating via a server located in another, making them even more difficult to track down.
That said, over the past decade, many nations have created some sort legislation regarding unsolicited commercial email (see ‘Email Spam Legislation by Country’ on Wikipedia by clicking here). Two of the clearest and most comprehensive legislations regarding what constitutes SPAM are the US ‘CAN-SPAM Act of 2003’ and the European Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications.
How successfully nations are enforcing these laws is, of course, another matter.
The Golden Rule of Mailing Lists
I have no objection to SPAM legislation. Laws are great because they put things in black and white. Laws are also (unfortunately) sometimes necessary to protect us from those who seem determined to break ‘the law’.
But in my universe, laws are only necessary in a disconnected world; the best ‘legislation’ to ensure ethical practice in business and marketing is to reconnect. Marketing is not a ‘thing’ that we ‘do’, but a form of communication. The ‘comm’ in the word ‘communication’ means ‘with’. In other words, it implies a connection between two parties. This is why the Grace of Connection is the first of the 7 Graces of Marketing – the more connected to our audience we marketers feel , the more sensitised we become towards them as people, and the more naturally-ethical we become.
An easy way to re-sensitise ourselves to that naturally-ethical state is to practice ‘the Golden Rule’: treat others as we would like to be treated. Adopting ‘the Golden Rule’ as your operational policy as an ethical marketer can make strategic decision-making very easy.
However, because we have become so inundated with email marketing over the past decade, many of us have allowed our own professional and personal boundaries to become blurred. The knock-on effect of losing sight of our own boundaries is that we are likely to fail in respecting the boundaries of others. Thus, as changemakers in the new paradigm, the very first obligation we have is to come back into ourselves, to re-establish and reinforce our own boundaries of what we are willing and unwilling to accept when it comes to receiving commercial email.
Here are my top 7 personal ‘turn-offs’, which I try my best not to violate in my own business practice.
TURN OFF #1: Receiving unsolicited group emails from someone you barely know
Many new, overly-enthusiastic business owners make the mistake of sending an unsolicited ‘mass email’ about their business to everyone in their email address book. While friends and family might tolerate this, they are unlikely ‘customers’. The other recipients are often people the sender barely knows, and who have never requested information about the sender’s business. What even worse is when the sender puts everyone’s email address in the ‘CC’ (carbon copy) line instead of the ‘BCC’ (blind carbon copy) line; so now, everyone else on their list now has your email address.
Sometimes new business owners will do this because they a) don’t know any better or b) they don’t have a proper ‘opt in’ mailing list service (like GetResponse, AWeber, MailChimp, etc.) in place. But no matter how valuable a service your business may be offering, this kind of email communication is SPAM, pure and simple. You may not think you can ‘afford’ a mailing list service, but really you cannot afford NOT to have one if you wish to operate your business ethically.
TURN OFF #2: Being added to someone’s mailing list just because they have your business card
This is one of my personal ‘hates’. I can’t count the number of times I’ve casually handed out my business card at a local networking event, and then I start receiving newsletters from every plumber, accountant and solicitor in town. Let’s be clear about this: when I give you my business card, I’m not signing up to your list. Conversely, if you give me your business card, I won’t add you to my mailing list (unless you asked me to).
TURN OFF #3: Being added to a mailing list because you’re all part of the same network
This ‘turn off’ is a combination of turn-offs 1 and 2. Back when I was a member of various local business networks, I would get mass emails from the network secretary. While this was fine, what was not so fine was when other members of the network ‘assumed’ that I would be ok with receiving their newsletters simply because we were all a part of the same ‘club’, so to speak. If I belong to the same network as you do, it does NOT mean I have agreed to opt-in to your mailing list.
TURN OFF #4: Opting into a list but then being bombarded with emails
With this turn-off, we’re entering the realm of ‘permission’ marketing. ‘Permission marketing’ means that we HAVE opted in to someone’s mailing list, usually via a web form. Perhaps we opted in so we could get a ‘free’ offer – typically some sort of a downloadable information product. But many marketers push the boundaries of ‘permission’ to the extreme, taking this as an open door to send you email after email, usually trying to sell you something.
Legally, this is not ‘SPAM’ because it is not ‘unsolicited’; but ethically (at least as I see it) it is guilty of what I call ‘the Deadly Sin of Invasion’, as it is violating the boundaries and expectations of the person who ‘opted in’. This is where what is ‘legal’ and what is ‘ethical’ get blurred. As far I am concerned (and following the ‘Golden Rule’ of email marketing), if something feels invasive, I would consider it to be unethical even if it’s not against the law.
TURN OFF #5: Automatically being added to a mailing list after making an enquiry or purchase
Over the past few months, I’ve been preparing to remodel my flat and have been doing a lot of online shopping for household items. One thing that’s bugged me about the process is that some of the bigger companies (Argos, B&Q, Debenhams and Dunelm are four examples) have automatically added me to their mailing lists, simply because I bought something from them or made an enquiry. Suddenly I was being bombarded with emails about their ‘special deals’ which I really didn’t care about. I don’t ever remember giving these companies permission in the first place to email me about anything except my order. I unsubscribed and advised them that this might be considered a violation of UK anti-spam laws.
I looked further into the matter, and again discovered that the lines between what is ‘legal’ and what is ‘ethical’ are also fuzzy in this scenario. Article 13 of the European Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications allows companies to a) send email to people who have an existing customer relationship with them and/or b) to market of similar products and services to the same. Legal or not, it’s an ethical issue that I believe marketers need to give some attention to.
TURN OFF #6: Being told you can’t unsubscribe without deleting your account
I’m an ‘Amazon Associate’, which means I earn a nominal commission on products I promote using special ‘Associates’ links. I use these links to promote my own books, books written by my clients, or books that I recommend to my readers.
One of the unfortunate downsides to being an Associate is that Amazon sends you frequent emails about their latest special promotions. For the most part, I don’t care about these promotions, as they are usually products I wouldn’t ‘sell’ to my audience. However, when I tried to unsubscribe from their Associates mailing list, I was told I COULDN’T unless I also deleted my Associates account. In all honesty I cannot understand how Amazon can get away with this, but they seem to be an entity unto themselves.
TURN OFF #7: Sending me promotions just because we’re connected on social media
This ‘turn off’ is particularly applicable to LinkedIn. Sometimes I join a LinkedIn group only to get bombarded with sales emails; but at least it’s easy enough to opt out, in that case. But the thing that really gets me worked up is when an individual connects with me on LinkedIn and immediately starts sending me promotional messages, often without even knowing me. A few have even added me to their mailing lists! In my experience, companies offering SEO and web design services are often the biggest offenders, but many authors, coaches and business gurus do this as well. Saying yes to a social network invitation is NOT an ‘opt in’ to all forms of communication (and especially not an opt in to someone’s mailing list).
Stop the Email Madness!
As ethical marketers, it is our responsibility to be mindful before we hit ‘send’. Every single email we write and send out is like a pebble dropped into a pond, each creating a ripple – an impact – somewhere else in the Universe. When your email message arrives in someone’s Inbox, it forces them to act – whether this action is to read it, delete it, or unsubscribe. Each action requires time to complete. When hundreds (or, in my case, thousands) of emails start to pile up, that’s a lot of pebbles requiring a lot of time. And thus, we end up in ‘information overwhelm’ and we end up hiring personal assistants just to sort it all out. It’s madness really.
So how do we stop it?
As consumers, we can unsubscribe to everything we don’t really need. But I also believe it is our responsibility to educate and inform businesses when we think they’ve crossed the line. If people ruffle our feathers with unsolicited emails, don’t just delete the email – TELL them. Don’t just quote legalities to them; let them know your personal boundaries.
And as business owners and marketers, let’s play by ‘the Golden Rule’. Before we hit ‘send’ let’s think how WE would feel if we were on the receiving end of this email. Try to anticipate the recipient’s response. Remember they are people and not simply names on a ‘mailing list’.
Many Internet marketers have been brainwashed into thinking that the ‘Deadly Sin of Invasion’ is the only way to make sales online. But imagine how we could change the world if consumers and businesses worked together to redefine the boundaries of what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour in commercial email communications.
What are YOUR Biggest Turn-Offs?
Ok, I’ve had my rant. Now it’s YOUR turn. I’d love to hear some of your biggest mailing list ‘turn-offs. Please use the comments section below to share your thoughts and experiences – as a consumer OR a business owner.
12th February 2014
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Find out more about how changing the paradigm can help make the world a better place:
The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell, by Lynn Serafinn, where you can learn how the 7 Deadly Sins and the 7 Graces impact the world through media and marketing. Brit Writers Awards Finalist eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian & Ecological Social Issues
Tweep-e-licious: 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market Their Business Ethically by Lynn Serafinn, which can help you learn how to create meaningful collaborations through Twitter and other social media. eLit Book Awards Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.
Get instant access to a free 90-minute Twitter marketing class at http://tweepelicious.com
The Social Entrepreneur’s Guide to Successful Blogging: An Effective, Creative & Ethical Way of Marketing for Visionaries & New Paradigm Business Leaders. To receive an update when that book is available, just click here. As a thank-you gift for showing your interest, you’ll get instant access to an exclusive, free 5-page PDF revealing the exact same blogging template we use with our clients and we teach to participants on the ethical marketing training courses at the 7 Graces Project.
LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales. Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors.
Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.
(not just for Londoners, as we meet also on Skype)