For better or for worse, I see email in everything. Even in the line at the self-serve yogurt shop, or the insensitive driving tactics of some of the people in my neighborhood, as you’ll see in my column from MediaPost this week. It’s about respecting your subscribers, which is not merely the golden rule of email marketing – it’s the diamond-tipped dremel tool used to engrave the rule into a 27.4 ounce gold brick.

There is Always Room for Respect in a Full Inbox
by Mike May
published on 6.28.11 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

Have you been out in the real world lately? In the past week, I’ve had two people pull illegal u-turns right in front of me — one to steal a parking spot my turn signal was already aiming at, and another that nearly sent me and my scooter through his rear window.

At least once a week, someone rings my doorbell during dinner time (which still exists in my household) pushing me to donate to this or buy that. And yesterday, at the self-serve yogurt bar, a mother watched idly while her two young kids cut right in front of my own sons in the topping line, while my sons were waiting for the customers in front to get their fill of the gummy worms.

In all of these instances — and dozens more I’ve witnessed over the past few months — the perpetrators have not been embarrassed or apologetic, even though I’ve given them ample opportunity by confronting them, often at decibel levels that rival Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier. Instead of shame, I’m almost always rebuffed with a smug sense of self-importance. One guy actually said to me as I was reaming him out over the scooter incident, “Hey man, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

There is a profound shortage of respect in the modern world. If I’m noticing it, other people are as well. And by other people, I mean your subscribers. I wish we were only at the point where I could remind email marketers to exercise the respect we tacitly promised our subscribers when they joined our lists in the first place. But the situation has spiraled so deeply, that treating your subscribers like actual people with the respect they deserve has become a meaningful point of differentiation. I’m ashamed to admit that by acting like a decent member of a society, email marketers can achieve a competitive advantage.

Respect is the foundation of trust, which is a tenet of email marketing. Respect also speaks to relevance, as it shows an unwillingness to waste a subscriber’s time simply because it’s easier to email everyone than to target messages to different customers. Respecting your subscribers is the difference between an email program that is merely a tool, and one that is a strategic communications asset.

So what is the email equivalent of letting your kids jump the line at the yogurt bar? Here are a few examples of subscriber disrespect from my own inbox, in just the past week:

Hiding the unsubscribe link: Everybody knows to look at the very end of the message if you want to unsubscribe. Trying to discourage subscribers from actually doing so by omitting the word unsubscribe altogether and linking instead to words like “click here,” using hyperlink text that is just barely a different color than the text around it, or using some other means to hide the actual link to unsubscribe does not earn your brand warm fuzzies. If you love someone, set them free. The same rule applies if they don’t love you anymore.

Mistargeting messages: I know that not all email marketing databases are segmented. For many small to mid-sized emailers, email is binary — either someone receives it or does not. The better you are able to target messages to your subscribers, the more respect you show, though a one-size-fits-all email program is not inherently disrespectful.What is disrespectful is if the content of an email message mis-targets subscribers, such as an email to your prospects that reads, “Dear Customer.” If I’ve never bought from you, you might as well call me Nancy. Better yet, don’t call me at all. You’re wasting my time.

Borrowing email addresses: Many organizations have multiple brands under the same corporate umbrella. If I subscribe to receive messages from Brand A of ABC Company, I’ve only agreed to receive messages from B and C at ABC Company if that was made clear to me at my point of subscription. If it wasn’t, don’t go lending my email address to your colleagues Bryan Boylston, the Brand Manager of Brand B, or Carrie Carlisle who heads up email for Brand C. You may call it cross-promotion, but I call it SPAM. And if I was not given “clear and conspicuous notice at the time the consent was communicated,” SPAM is exactly what it is. Count on me to report it as such to my email administrator.

Not offering a preferences center: You may have something to tell me every day, but I might not be that into you. Many of those daily deals and newsletters that seemed like a good idea at first are now cloying with their insistent frequency. I know these subscriptions are betting on me keeping my daily subscription because the occasionally on-target message justifies all those that are wholly irrelevant to me. But those odds are decreasing and that’s no longer a bet I’d recommend emailers take. Instead, it’s time to offer a preferences center, by frequency and/or content. Even if it isn’t common practice yet, it should be. Like actually having 12 items or fewer in the express line at the grocery, for example.

In the past week, over half (52%) of the commercial emails that I received (not counting daily newsletters) contained at least one of these elements of disrespect. That total does not include the lack of a preferences center in daily deal newsletters, which would bring the total above 90%. I know that this may come across as the minutiae of email marketing, and that my general urgings for more respect are hard to justify when the metrics of “disrespectful” messages often tell a different story.

But an email program is about more than the metrics for each message; it is about a long-term relationship with your subscribers. Like any relationship, it has to begin with respect.