Opt-in or opt-out – what’s the best approach for your email newsletter?

Avoid email spam

So you have decided to start an email newsletter. Smart move. Email marketing is still one of the very best ways to keep in touch with contacts and stay front of mind. You have some helpful, relevant content to share and a database of people you’d love to reconnect with. You’re ready to go. Should you invite them to opt-in to receive your emails or send the first newsletter to everyone and hope that not too many opt out?

If you don’t have permission don’t send

I have a strong view on this. If you don’t have permission don’t send it – even if you’ve met the person and the content in your email is valuable. Why?

  • Because not asking is disrespectful. According to Mashable, over 144 billion emails are sent everyday. Your contacts are no different from you – their inboxes are overloaded and a lot of what they get they didn’t want. Don’t make them unsubscribe. Have some respect and give them a choice.
  • Because not asking pisses people off. I met a guy at a networking event recently. We swapped cards and the next day I was surprised to find he’d signed me up to his list and started sending me emails. I’d quite liked him but I was annoyed at his presumptuousness. I didn’t read the emails and immediately unsubscribed. I haven’t bothered to get back in touch. Not a great way to start a relationship. Do you want your contacts to feel like this?
  • Because not asking is spam. If they didn’t ask for it it’s spam and you could get reported. Too many clicks on the ‘report abuse’ button and your ISP can block you. I’m not scaremongering. This happens to legitimate, over-eager marketers. You don’t have to be a spammer to be reported for spam.
  • Because not asking devalues your content. When you’re walking through the centre of town and someone stuffs a leaflet in your hand, how often do you read it? You might, if they’re lucky, give it a cursory glance before dropping it into the nearest bin.  Don’t make your newsletter feel throwaway.

At the end of the day, if you don’t ask it won’t work. You simply will not get the results you want from email marketing this way.

Don’t assume. Invite.

There is a better way to build your list. Craft a carefully worded email to your contacts. Invite them to opt to receive your email newsletter. Make this invitation personal, warm and relevant. Give a flavour of the value they’ll gain from your communication every month.

Yes, if you ask permission you’ll start with a smaller list than if you blasted your newsletter to everyone you know, but it will be a far warmer and more engaged list. You’ll be sending your valuable new newsletter to people who have chosen to listen, and that’s what you want.

Make your subscribers feel special. Let them know that if they’re on the list you’ll be sending them your best stuff.  It feels good to be part of an exclusive club and they’ll reward you with loyalty.

Don’t be over-zealous at the start. I really understand the temptation to get your content out to as many people as possible but the best results come with patience. Know that if you promote your newsletter widely and keep providing value your email list will grow. Always ask for permission, have respect, make it as useful and interesting as you can and the chances are they’ll remember you when the time comes to buy.

As ever, I’d really welcome your thoughts. I know it’s a tricky dilemma.

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  1. Bryony Thomas

    Ah, the perennial permission debate. Here’s the rundown I put together for a post on Marketing Donut:

    Reasons for assuming marketing permission (on the basis of exchanging a business card):

    * They’ve given you their card with their email address, so that means they don’t mind you emailing them.
    * If you give them the option to unsubscribe, that constitutes choice and respect for their preferences.
    * Hitting delete or unsubscribe is easy, so you’re not really putting the recipient to any trouble.
    * They may never have subscribed otherwise, and they may well find your newsletter riveting.
    * Getting people to actively sign up for email is hard work.
    * Email marketing is a numbers game, so you want to get it out to as many people as possible.
    * It’s not illegal.

    Arguments against assumed email permission:

    * It’s commonly seen as best practice across the marketing industry.
    * It’s polite to ask people before sending them blanket emails.
    * The practice makes some people very angry, and will often lower their opinion of you and your organisation.
    * With the advent of smart phones, most people receive email wherever they are and it can be highly disruptive to receive such email on the move.
    * If you assume permission you can’t easily get recipients to state preferences, like frequency and areas of interest.
    * Inbox management is often cited as a cause of workplace stress.
    * You can’t as easily measure how interested people are.
    * Free email marketing systems, like Mailchimp, make it very easy to ask for permission.
    * Email marketing is an engagement game, it’s quality not quantity that counts.
    * It may not be illegal in the letter of the law (debatable) but it’s certainly not in the spirit of the law.

    Full article here: http://www.marketingdonut.co.uk/marketing/internet-marketing/email-marketing/ask-before-you-send-best-practice-in-email-marketing

  2. Jane Northcote

    Hi Sonja
    I receive a huge number of email newsletters, from business contacts and also from arts organisations, theatres, holiday companies. As a receiver, here’s my thoughts:
    (1) Use RSS: On balance, I now prefer to receive mailings via RSS. This mechanism works better for me: it’s easy to control, the mailings decay – the notifications disappear if I don’t read them. They don’t clutter my inbox. I get nice lists of everything that organisation sent. I would encourage anyone who’s thinking of emailing newsletters to consider posting and RSS feeds instead.
    (2) ALWAYS provide an “unsubscribe” option at the foot of every email, and also a web link for unsubscribing.
    The reason for this web link is that some people, like me, have forwarding on certain email addresses. So if I just hit “unsubscribe” sometimes it doesn’t work because the email address at which I receive the email is not the email address they have on their database. As well as the straight unsubscribe, provide an option for the receiver to list which email addresses they want unsubscribed.
    Do NOT send me to your website and ask me to fill in a complicated form before you’ll unsubscribe me. Certainly do not ask me to enter a password. If you do this, I will blacklist your address as junk mail in my mail server and you’ve lost me forever.
    (3) Provide a mechanism for changing email addresses. I frequently shift email addresses on which I receive mailings, partly to avoid spam, and also as a mechanism to filter them so I don’t get them appearing on my phone. I want to tell the good guys where to find me if I move. Some of those good guys lost me when I changed my email address. This must happen a lot with people who move company.
    (4) State your content in your subject. Please don’t just say “Latest Newsletter from Balloons Incorporated” say “Balloon Flights over London Suspended” or something.
    (5) Don’t send me more than one newsletter a month.
    (6) Please don’t include huge files of pictures, complicated backgrounds, or anything that’s going to take a long while to download. It just makes me irritable and I will delete immediately. Also your wonderful formatting will be ruined because I don’t download it all.
    (7) And whatever you do, don’t send my email address to someone else. I will only subscribe if you assure me you won’t do that.
    (8) Don’t put my email address in the header. Use blind copy (“BCC”). I don’t want all subscribers to see my email address. You’d be surprised how often this happens.

    Yes – it is a valuable medium. And I do read newsletters. I think a bit more discipline would help both senders and receivers to be more effective.

  3. Toby Duckett

    I personally think there’s no good to come of sending emails to people who haven’t asked for them, you are essentially spamming people when they haven’t given permission. Unless the list has been chosen specifically and there is a good likelihood it will be successful then no opt in, no way!

    So many people seem to think email fishing will work, unless the bait (content) is pristine and scientifically proven it will just get people’s backs up.

  4. Ian Brodie

    Hi Sonja,

    This is a real dilemma for many businesses. It’s easy for people like me who’ve already built up quite a big permission based list to say “no, no, never email without explicit permission”, but for many businesses they see this asset of a list of people they’ve been in contact with in the past and it seems like a tremendous waste not to use it.

    And while I’m like you – I absolutely hate it if someone subscribes me to a newsletter when I didn’t ask – I’ve also heard others say that they got positive feedback from some people saying “thanks for sending that, I wouldn’t have signed up but now I’m getting it I find it very valuable”.

    The underlying issue is that out of your list of previous contacts, you’ll have a group who would be offended if you signed them up without asking and a group who wouldn’t have signed up but once they get the newsletter they find they like it. And a whole bunch somewhere in between.

    If you knew who was who there’d be no problem. But you don’t.

    I’d recommend a variant of what you propose above.

    Send a one-off email to them inviting them to subscribe. I’d suggest that rather than just an invite to get your newsletter, do a couple of things:

    1. Firstly, name the newsletter based on what they’ll get from it. I call mine simply “client winning tips”. Nothing clever, but “client winning tips” sounds a lot more valuable than “newsletter”.
    2.Focus the invite on a “lead magnet”. A free report, video, audio or other valuable piece of content you offer them along with your newsletter.
    3. Write to them very casually. Don’t try to oversell the newsletter. If yu know them already the tone should be more like you’re recommending a good TV show to watch or magazine article to read rather than a huge list of the wonderful things they’ll get from subscribing which sounds far too much like you’re trying to sell them something and will raise their defences.

    So I would do something like…


    We met and I thought you might find this useful.

    It’s a short guide to attracting and winning more clients without the pain and expense of traditional marketing. It’s called “Pain Free Marketing” and you can grab a copy and my regular client winning tips via email from this page on my website .

    Or just hit reply to send me a message and I’ll hook you up.


    – Ian”

    (With many thanks to my good friend Lee Duncan who has helped me make messages like this rather more friendly and less salesy).

    The link obviously goes to a page where they can sign up to get the report/video/thingy and emails. With a bit of clever programming you can also pre-fill the name and email fields on the form.

    You could also – over time – get away with sending 2 or 3, maybe even 4 of these emails. Worded differently with a different angle. After that, assume they’re not going to sign up and don’t email them any more.

    Only a smallish percentage of the people who you meet or who’s name you have will sign up. But look at it this way: you’ve emailed them 2 or 3 times with a great offer of something free and they’ve taken no action. How likely is it that if you kept emailing them with your newsletter than somehow they’d take action on that. Highly unlikely.

    So you’re not really losing out by doing it this way. You end up with a much smaller list, but comprising of only the people who are genuinely interested in the sort of things you’re going to email about. So less spam reports, more engagement (and these days more engagement with emails means better delivery to the primary inbox).

    – Ian

  5. Ian Brodie

    Lol. WordPress mangled my sample letter a bit as I used signs. It should read:

    “Hi {name}

    We met {place where we met or common link} and I thought you might find this useful.

    It’s a short guide to attracting and winning more clients without the pain and expense of traditional marketing. It’s called “Pain Free Marketing” and you can grab a copy and my regular client winning tips via email from this page on my website {link to page where they can sign up for report and emails}.

    Or just hit reply to send me a message and I’ll hook you up.


    – Ian”

  6. Sonja Jefferson

    Hi Bryony, Toby, Ian and Jane. Wow – thanks to all of you for the thoughtful responses. Massively useful – to anyone looking to build a list.

    Jane – your perspective as a receiver of emails is enlightening. Bringing some discipline to this medium is a exactly what Ian and Bryony look to be doing here. Many thanks for giving us this view.

    Ian – you give so much value as ever. I look to you and Lee Duncan as masters of the email format. There is a lot to learn from your approach. The lead magnet certainly works for me if it’s valuable enough (I didn’t hesitate to sign up for your emails when I first found your blog articles). Thanks for making us think and giving us a structure to work to.

  7. Eli Trier

    I send all my new contacts a single invitation to opt-in to my (sort-of) weekly newsletter, if they choose not to do so then I don’t send them anything further.

    I would never dream of adding someone to my mailing list without their express permission – emails can be an absolute nightmare to manage and I would hate to add to anyone’s inbox overwhelm!

    Besides, I would rather have a small list of people who have deliberately signed up and are thrilled to hear from me; than a huge list full of people who either don’t know me or don’t want to be there.

  8. Sonja Jefferson

    Thanks Eli. Thrilled is what we all want isn’t it. Cheers for the comment. S

  9. David Turner

    This is a very interesting and comprehensive post, I’m wrestling with the task of vetting my company’s database and working out how to draft an email asking people if they want to receive my content. Striking that balance in tone between being seen an an interruption while trying to promote your brand is quite a delicate one to achieve.

  10. Sonja Jefferson

    It is a delicate one David, you’re right.

    Success is often down to the tone of your communication. Giving people choice and inviting them to receive useful ideas via email is the right way to go.

    We find that giving a flavour of what they’ll receive and motivating them to sign up with the promise of something really valuable in return (we give away beautifully designed content calendars to our subscribers) works well. I hope that helps.

    Good luck in your task.


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