It is not uncommon for a company or association to operate under several brands. For example, a publishing company may have a dozen or more different titles, and an association might have several different divisions. One of the potential advantages for this type of organizational structure is the opportunity to cross-market: the publishing company can sell its subscribers on some of its related titles, and the association can program its conferences so that they appeal to members of several of its divisions instead of just one. Email plays a big role in these cross-marketing efforts, but organizations should be aware of some of the potential pitfalls of email cross-marketing and subscriber sharing.

Is it legal?
If Publication A has enlisted an email subscriber, who actually owns the permission to email that person – Publication A, or the parent organization? It depends on what the CAN-SPAM law defines as “Affirmative Consent.” According to the provision, an email address can be shared by multiple parties as long as there is “clear and conspicuous notice at the time the consent was communicated.” You have seen this in practice, I’m sure. When you sign up for an email list you might see two options, such as “( ) Please subscribe me to email communications from ABC Company” and “( ) Please send me offers from partners and affiliates of ABC Company”. In our publishing example above, if the subscription option says “( ) Please subscribe me to email communications from Publication A” then only Publication A can mail to that subscriber. If cross-marketing is an objective, the publisher would need to change the language to clearly communicate that Publication A and other publications owned by Publication A’s parent company will email the subscriber. Alternatively, the organization might employ a second subscription option reading “( ) Please also send me communications from other Parent Organization titles that are relevant to me.”

Does being legal make it acceptable?
Your organization may follow all the CAN-SPAM rules to the letter, providing “clear and conspicuous notice at the time the consent was communicated” without fail, giving you every legal right to cross-market to your heart’s and division budgets’ content. But your objective with Affirmative Consent is not simply to abide by the law; it is to ensure that your subscribers anticipate all of the communications that you send them. If someone subscribing to Publication A signs up for email from sister publications at the same time, it does not necessarily mean that the subscriber will realize she has a relationship with your other titles, or recognize them when they show up in her inbox. If this happens, even though you’re on solid legal footing, your subscriber could ignore the message, delete the message, unsubscribe, or even mark it as spam. Being legal may make you right, but being right won’t guarantee you are successful.

Subscriber sharing pitfalls
So what happens if a cross-marketed subscriber doesn’t respond as intended to a message from another part of the organization?  No matter what her response, it has ramifications on the rest of your email program. Here’s how:

– If she ignores or deletes the message, that means she has had no engagement with it whatsoever. Increasingly, deliverability is impacted by engagement metrics. As greater percentages of subscribers fail to interact with messages, a sender’s reputation will begin to drop, which makes it harder for any messages to any subscribers to get through. This is a change over the past year. Previously, there was no danger in emailing to unresponsive list segments; today and in the future, there is a deliverability penalty to be aware of.

– Unsubscribing means that she would no longer receive messages from the cross-marketed publication, which is ideal for the reason above – it means you are no longer mailing to this unresponsive address. But she may also unsubscribe from all the organization’s lists, either wittingly or not. This means that not only is the opportunity to cross-market gone, but the original publication that earned her permission in the first place can no longer mail to her.

– Marking a message as spam is particularly problematic for business-to-business emailers and trade associations. When a subscriber marks a message a spam, an internal email administrator or spam monitoring service is notified. When it happens often enough, the sender could be blacklisted from the subscriber’s entire domain. In the case of b-to-b, this would mean that the publication can no longer reach this subscriber or any of her colleagues. And depending on how the sender’s IP addresses are structured, it could mean that none of the publications can reach any of the people at that particular organization. The sender could become invisible to the entire company.

How to avoid the pitfalls
The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to over-communicate. When your subscribers sign up, tell them clearly what they’re in for. When you send a cross-marketing message from an organization they do not have a direct relationship with, use the opening copy of the message to tell them why they are getting this message, and make it very easy for them to unsubscribe just to this type of message, keeping their original relationship with your organization intact. Remember, your objective is not solely to remain above the law; it’s to nurture and grow your relationships with your subscribers.