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Relevance or Permission

One of the discussions that surrounds email marketing is whether relevance trumps permission or permission trumps relevance. I believe this entire discussion is built on a false dichotomy.
Sending relevant email is important. Not only do recipients expect mail to be relevant, but the ISPs often make delivery decisions on how relevant their users find your mail. Marketers that send too much irrelevant mail find themselves struggling to get inbox placement.
Permission makes sending relevant mail all that much easier. Sure, really good marketers can probably collect, purchase, beg, borrow and steal enough information to know that their unsolicited email is relevant. But how many marketers are actually that good?
My experience suggest that most marketers aren’t that good. They don’t segment their permission based lists to send relevant mail. They’re certainly not going to segment their non-permission based lists to send relevant mail.
Macy’s, for instance, decided that I would find their Bloomingdales mail relevant. I didn’t, and unsubscribed from both publications, after registering a complaint with their ESP. Had Macy’s asked about sending me Bloomies mail I wouldn’t have opted-in, but I probably wouldn’t have unsubbed from Macy’s mail, too.
So what’s your stand? Does relevance trump permission? Or does permission trump relevance? How much relevant, unsolicited mail do you get? How much irrelevant permission based mail do you get? And what drives you to unsubscribe from a permission based list?

4 comments

  1. Neil Schwartzman says

    what drives me to unsubscribe? Calling a list ‘permission based’, for one. Either it the list owner has explicit permission from the recipient to mail to the addresses, in which case the list should be referred to in terms of the level of permission (confirmed opt-in, single opt-in), or they don’t, in which case the list should be refereed to as ‘those we spam’.
    Other things: 3rd party offers to which I never signed up. Associated brands (such as your case) to which I never signed up. Any email that I did not affirmatively indicate I wanted to receive. Irrelevant email. There must be others but that is a good start.

  2. J.D. Falk says

    I try to avoid inappropriate comparisons, but this is one case where it actually fits.
    You have to get permission before you start having sex with somebody. I sure hope that doesn’t require any additional explanation.
    But if you want them to want to continue having sex with you, you’ve got to do things that they enjoy. And there’s a wide range of things that might turn someone on, or keep them turned on — so you can’t just assume you know better than they do. You have to interact with them to find out, and be willing to stop what you’re doing if it’s not working for them. That’s relevance.
    Anyone who claims otherwise (including the TSA) is simply trying to justify extremely inappropriate behavior.

  3. Ken Magill says

    I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while. Weber added me to their list without permission (at least that I know of) after I ordered a grill refurbishing kit from them.
    As a result, I get a recipe from them every Friday afternoon. I open every one and grill the recipes in about half of them. We’ve had some seriously unique and good meals as a result of those emails.
    I look forward to Weber’s Friday email every week.
    So in this case, relevance easily trumped permission, but I still can’t think of how my experience with Weber could be translated to other marketers’ email programs … which would be the reason I haven’t written about it until now.

  4. laura says

    You gave them an email address, and so I can see how that can be inferred permission (which is even allowable under the Canadian law). And it is mail that you want. I get that. And, in fact, good on Weber for setting up a really effective marketing program.
    OTOH, I can’t tell you one useful thing Macy’s sent me. I’m pretty sure I didn’t give permission and they couldn’t manage relevance to save their lives… or their customer.

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