Opt-in is dead! Long live opt-in.


This week there has been an ongoing discussion on one of my mailing lists about spam, definitions, use of the this-is-spam button and permission. One small part of the discussion centers around the definition of spam. Is spam unwanted email or is it unasked for email? If a sender doesn’t have permission from recipients to send mail, but the sender manages to keep their reputation at major ISPs clean enough to get good delivery, is the sender doing anything wrong?
My own answers really sidestep the question. I believe spam as a term is so ill-defined as to be meaningless. I try not to use “spam” when describing any mail. Even mail that comes to my own personal spamtraps and spammer-created email addresses, if I’m describing it to people I try to be more descriptive than just “spam.”
Coincidentally, Ken had an article in his newsletter today pointing out that the term opt-in has been rendered meaningless. First, he points out that all lists should be opt-in. Marketers shouldn’t have to describe a list as opt-in, it should just be opt-in. He then goes on to tell a story about an email marketer, who bought or purchased a list with Ken’s email address on it. The marketer claims the mail is opt-in, but it’s not. Ken ends the article with some advice to marketers.

It’s these [bad practices] over the last 10 or 12 years have turned the term opt-in from something meaningful to an eye roller.
And no, I’m not expecting marketers to stop using the term opt in. I would simply like more of them to know it has been so diluted by abusive e-mailers that when people hear it, a significant percentage reflexively think they’re being fed a load of crap.

Both of these anecdotes are examples of how the language surrounding delivery, bulk mail and email filtering is still evolving. I spend a lot of time defining my terms and making sure that I am correctly conveying concepts, not just random words. “This mail is opt-in,” is a lot less precise and open to a lot more eye rolling than, “The only source of email addresses on their list is through signups on this website.” For all of us, particularly those trying to mediate between senders and receivers, it’s important to remember that what we’re saying may not be what the other person is hearing.

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  • Laura –
    Loved Ken’s article (and your comments above). So much so that I was inspired to reply with a blog post of my own:
    Is Opt-In Really Dead? http://blog.bronto.com/2009/01/15/is-opt-in-really-dead/
    Just realized I promoted the Bronto Blog in a comment. Not an advisable practice – I know – but thought it confirmed what you and Ken are both saying.
    Will you be at EEC or MAAWG? I hope to meet you in person.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Best Practices & Deliverability
    Bronto Software, Inc
    djwaldow: twitter, AIM, MSN, Gtalk…

  • Hi, DJ
    No bother with the link. I like seeing people participate with real content and linking to a blog post of yours that one of mine inspired is clearly real content.
    I am going to be at MAAWG. Possibly I’ll stop by on Monday for sender training, but I’ll definitely be staying in SF Tuesday and Wednesday night.

  • Laura –
    Glad we are on the same page. Looking forward to meeting in SF during MAAWG. I’m a first time attender, so am not sure what to expect (but here it is a good time!).
    @djwaldow – just about everywhere…

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