With all the business cards and email addresses exchanged at RWA and at other summer conferences, I thought an examination of the rules and best practices governing newsletter distribution might be a good idea.
Really, this is inspired by my own annoyance. I've noticed an increase in the number of email newsletters I'm receiving that I absolutely did not sign up for. This is making me insane and very angry, and I want to explain why this is a BAD IDEA and what to do if it happens to you.
First Rule of Newsletter: unless someone has specifically given permission or has opted-in to receive a newsletter, do not subscribe them. Ever.
This is high-level douchery. I call it Being an Unwitting Newsletter Douche.
Why unwitting? Because likely the person doing the spamming isn't trying to be offensive, and doesn't know what they're doing is wrong.
Yet on the receiving end, it can be infuriating to receive a pile of newsletters you didn't ask for. I don't know about you, but I receive a LOT of email, and am trying to cut back on what I receive. So when I get more newsletters that I don't want, not only is it intrusive, but it negatively impacts my goal of a more manageable inbox.
Oddly enough, I remember the names of people who are annoying me with excess email better than I remember a lot of things, and I'm not the only one who has that kind of selective memory. An unwelcome newsletter is bad PR every way you look at it.
It's not just authors who are Unwitting Newsletter Douches. It happens in every industry, I think. At a 2011 romance conference, there was a guest speaker who collected business cards at events and added all of those people to her mailing list. It was awful – and when folks complained to the conference staff about it, the conference organizers were Not Happy. Unfortunately, this is a conference problem I've heard before: exchanging business card with someone then ending up on their mailing list.
Unless someone has specifically been asked, it's unacceptable business practice to add them to a list.
Why is it bad to add someone to a mailing list?
Because that person didn't give explicit permission.
Now, there is some misinformation as to whether adding someone without permission is legal.
The CAN SPAM act does NOT outlaw adding people to a mailing list without permission, per the Wikipedia explanation:
There are no restrictions against a company emailing its existing customers or anyone who has inquired about its products or services, even if these individuals have not given permission, as these messages are classified as “relationship” messages under CAN-SPAM.
According to this Europe/US comparison chart, the “the CAN-SPAM Act allows direct marketing email messages to be sent to anyone, without permission, until the recipient explicitly requests that they cease (“opt-out”).”
So technically, it is legal to add people without their permission to your mailing list.
But it is far far away from best practice.
But if I didn't give permission, isn't that still considered spam?
Yup. You can opt-out. Every email newsletter must include opt-out instructions, usually at the bottom or in a sidebar.
But there's more information you can use to your advantage if you've received a newsletter you didn't ask for.
The increased focus on spam in email marketing also means an
increased focus on permission. Sure, we’re all waiting and hoping
for a solution to the spam problem but a foolproof solution has not yet
So, in the meantime, as permission-based email marketers,
we need to stay diligent in our efforts to earn and keep the permission of
our subscribers to the best of our ability. (emphasis mine)
In other words, Constant Contact and other permission-based email marketers take the quality of their newsletter services very seriously. And that's good news if you've received an email newsletter you didn't ask for, because your course of action can be more powerful than clicking 'Unsubscribe.'
Constant Contact also has a considerable amount of information on what they consider spam in their anti-spam policy:
Constant Contact has a no tolerance spam policy.
Constant Contact's customer support actively monitors large import lists and emails going to a large number of contacts. Any customer found to be using Constant Contact for spam will be immediately cut-off from use of the product. If you know of or suspect any violators, please notify us immediately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This means that, to many newsletter service providers, the legal definition of spam doesn't hold as much weight as the consumer reporting an email as spam. Constant Contact isn't the only one who pays close attention to spam from their clients. There's a lot to be learned from various newsletter services about what is and is not spam in their estimation.
Campaign Monitor also has an Anti-Spam Policy that's very specific, much more specific than the CANSPAM law:
The law isn’t enough. It’s permission that counts.
While the CAN-SPAM laws are a step in the right direction for reducing the spam problem, we don’t feel they go far enough. Our definition of spam goes beyond the laws in most countries and encompasses what we believe to be true permission email marketing.
Spam is any email you send to someone who hasn’t given you their direct permission to contact them on the topic of the email….
Basically, you can only ever email anyone who has clearly given you permission to email them specifically about the subject you’re contacting them about.
MailChimp's anti-spam terms are in section 11 of their Terms page and reference the Spamhaus definitions — if you'd care to read more specific information about what they define as spam or “unsolicited bulk email.”
MailChimp's terms say:
The first line of the Spamhaus definition reads:
The word “Spam” as applied to Email means Unsolicited Bulk Email (“UBE”).
It is a concern to us if you use MailChimp to send any unsolicited email to anyone with whom you have no relationship. It is much more of a concern, and more likely to cause our system to be blocked by various ISP's, for you to send an unsolicited email to an entire list of people you don't know.
Bottom line: email newsletter companies take spam very seriously.
That's good for you, the recipient, because there are a few different responses you can employ for unwelcome newsletters sent by Unwitting Newsletter Douches.
So what do I do if I start receiving email from an author and I'm pretty damn sure that I didn't sign up?
There are three steps you can take.
Step one: Cut a hole in a box.
Step one: Unsubscribe. Obviously.
Step two: Report the newsletter to the mailing service's abuse department. That second part is VERY important!
If you report an unwelcome newsletter to the abuse department and say you didn't subscribe, that alerts the service that their client is creating a potential problem for them.
Why do email newsletter companies take the abuse reports seriously?
Because it could compromise their ability to send out all those email messages. Companies like Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, ReturnPath, and CampaignMonitor have email superpowers that enable them to send out umpty-zillion newsletters per day.
If their clients are using their services for sending mountains of spam, it hurts the company and their email superpowers. If ISPs block those newsletter services because of the poor conduct of one customer, those companies can't do their thing and use their superpowers. So they have to monitor the people using their services.
So if I report an unwelcome newsletter to the abuse department, they take it VERY seriously?
Oh, HELL yeah.
Email newsletter distribution companies have a spam threshold for each account. If enough newsletters are reported as spam or abuse of the terms of service, they will respond, often by suspending the account until they speak with the account owner about appropriate collection of email addresses.
Dude. What are the abuse email addresses for these companies?
They are very easy to find: you can look at the bottom of the newsletter for the name of the service provider who sent the message, and Google that company name plus “abuse.”
But since last month, when I received 6 (SIX. SERIOUSLY. SIX. Two from writers who don't write romance, and three from people I've never met or corresponded with!) unwelcome newsletters in one week's time, I've gathered up a few of them for you:
Constant Contact: ABUSE@constantcontact.com
MailChimp has a form online that collects specific information so they can isolate which campaign you are reporting.
Aside: here's a blog entry featuring good and nasty email messages sent to the MailChimp abuse team.
Hey! You said there were three steps! What's the third step?
Step three: Write back! Respond to the person who sent the newsletter and tell them calmly and clearly why you are unsubscribing. I like this response by Chris Brogan very much:
You evidently mistook access for acceptance. I seem to be subscribed to your email newsletter, and I’m not interested. Now, I realize there’s a click-to-unsubscribe option, but I wanted a moment of your time, seeing as you ate up some of mine by making me go through the process of unsubscribing myself from your mailing list.
I can tell you’re eager to grow your business. It’s clear that you want incredibly smart and engaging people like me to participate in your world. Here’s a hint: blindly adding me to your email list won’t really win you many fans in that regard….
You can certainly write your own standard response and cut and paste it as needed. Being told, “You are being a Unwitting Newsletter Douche and need to stop now” may help decrease the number of additions without permission.
One hopes, anyway. There are consequences for the email marketing services, but there are also consequences for the person who sent the newsletter. It creates a negative impression, it's intrusive, clumsy, and bothersome, and it certainly doesn't help with sales or word of mouth.
Imagine someone saying, “Oh! That author spammed me, so I'm totally going to buy her book.”
Not likely to happen.
Writing back lets the person who sent the newsletter know what the consequences are for having spammed you. You don't have to make dire predictions (I'm never buying your books agaiiiiin! *gasp*) or go off the rails with anger and vitriol, but, as Chris Brogan wrote above, explaining why you're unsubscribing and how ineffective that marketing technique has been for you as a reader may cause that person to think again about their subscription management.
Now, sometimes any interaction, such as entering a contest or filling out a form, automatically subscribes that person to one's list. This is not a good idea, for a number of reasons.
Julie Murphy, Communications Manager at Constant Contact, told me (over email – heh heh) that,
“Many companies pre-check the subscription box… even though it is a best practice for the subscription box to an optional, unchecked box. (emphasis mine)
“As the amount of junk email has exploded, customers expect that reputable companies will ask for permission, not presume it. Customers should be aware of these pre-checked boxes, and uncheck if they do not wish to receive email from a company.”
Sometimes people add themselves and forget that they did. They might get upset. If authors and anyone using email marketing have everyone opting-in, then there's a specific source to point to should they complain, e.g. “Susan Von Hissyfit signed up for my newsletter on 2 June 2012 at 10:03am via my opt-in form.”
Having that information is important should someone complain about your adding them without permission – when they really added themselves.
One last very important point, originally said by a really smart person from Dover Samplers at Digital Book World (whose name I cannot find and I am so sorry):
BEING IN SOMEONE'S INBOX IS A PRIVILEGE. DO NOT ABUSE IT.
I understand that a healthy mailing list is a great thing for an author to have. These are people who have specifically asked for information from an author, whether it's good news, new releases, or discounts and sales on backlist. It's a very big deal to have someone say, “YES. YOU'RE AWESOME! PLEASE EMAIL ME ALL YOUR AWESOMENESS!”
It's a privilege. Don't abuse it.
Have you been added to an author's or a company's email list without permission? Did it have an effect on how you viewed that author or company, or were you not really bothered?