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Oops I Spammed The Internet

John Doherty —  August 9, 2012
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A couple of weeks ago, when I announced that I am writing an ebook about blog marketing, I decided that I should step up my broader marketing game a bit and send out an email to my contacts.

Here is the email that I sent -

Then I started seeing some tweets like this from the community:

 

And I received this email:

To which this email correspondence took place -

And I received this email from Mailchimp -

Lessons Learned

I learned a few valuable lessons through this experience. I didn’t receive a fine or anything like that, but I realized that email marketing has its own set of rules that apply to it, and we must adhere to them.

Be Careful with Non-Opt-Ins

The first lesson I learned was to be careful with the email addresses that have not opted in to hear from you. I used a Content Exporter plugin that allows you to export the emails of the people who have commented on your site. If I had been smart, I would have segmented the list and not sent the email to both the opt-ins and those whose emails I gathered.

Ask for Permission, Not Opt-Out

The second area where I went wrong was asking people to unsubscribe if they did not want to receive the updates, as opposed to emailing and asking people to then opt-in to the list by clicking on a Subscribe as opposed to an Unsubscribe button. This may still have technically been against Mailchimp Terms of Service, and I would have ended up with fewer opt-in emails, but I also may have annoyed fewer people and thus would have a happier email list in my possession.

What I Did Right

The biggest lesson I learned was to be personable, honest, and approachable in the email. In essence, I tried to be TAGFEE with everything that was in the email.

I included the following elements in the email that I think helped the recipients (many of which are you who are reading this post now, and I thank you for going easy on me):

  • How I got their email;
  • What I plan to do with it;
  • Easy unsubscribe in multiple places;
  • Thanking them for commenting on my site.

Would I send this email again? I think so. Why? Because it not only helped me to connect with my readers, but it also made it easier on a larger group of people to stay subscribed when they might not have been before. Funny enough, the way this email was sent made life easier on more people than it inconvenienced.

Email marketing is a tricky business, I realize. Mailchimp has extremely tough standards to which you must adhere, while other email delivery programs do not have as strict of standards. I definitely recommend doing your research into the different providers before embarking on your email marketing campaigns.

Thoughts? Would it be wrong for me to repeat this “mistake” in the future? What would you have done?

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

23 responses to Oops I Spammed The Internet

  1. Email marketing is the ultimate permission-based activity. If users have not explicitly asked for your content, you should not send it to them.

    Doing email marketing is easy – just collect emails and start sending. Doing it right, now that’s an entirely different story. (Just like SEO I suppose.) Having sent emails to subscriber lists in excess of 1 million unique emails & having rolled out campaigns with open rates in excess of 50% and CTRs of over 65%, as well as having had entire domains blacklisted due to email spam, I can vouch for the importance of permission-based email marketing.

    I would instead have written a blog post asking people to sign up. It would not have gathered as many subscribers, but it would be entirely permission-based and your final list would be incredibly more engaged with the content you’ll be sending them.

  2. While I don’t recommend that people take this tack, CAN-SPAM actually does not require and explicit opt-in. Not opting out from an email like the one you sent is an implicit opt-in, which is legally okay. Now, that doesn’t make for a great list, but as far as the legality goes, the people saying that you violated CAN-SPAM are wrong.

    Either way, you handled it well. Good on you, John.

    • Oh yeah? Very interesting Eric. Thanks for sharing that. I need to dig into it more.

      • Yeah, there’s probably something about it on the FTC CAN-SPAM site and/or the Marketing Sherpa site. I recall going pretty in depth on it at the Marketing Sherpa conference earlier this year.

        We’re actually pretty lucky in the US, at least on the marketing side, because regulations in some other countries are crazy strict. The proposed legislation in Canada would require you to reconfirm opt-ins every 18 months :-|

    • I of course remembered something right after I commented. CAN-SPAM only applies to business-to-consumer email or, to put it more broadly, to organization to individual email, so while it probably doesn’t help a lot in this case, you’re not a spammer in a legal sense as long as your email did not represent John Doherty the business ;)

      • Tracey Swanson August 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm

        Eric, I don’t see anything in CAN-SPAM that says only incorporated businesses are covered under this law. Quite the opposite. It defines the term Sender: ” a person who initiates such a message and whose product, service, or Internet web site is advertised or promoted by the message.” and Person: “means any individual, group, unincorporated association, limited or general partnership, corporation, or other business entity.”

        You’re right that CAN-SPAM only requires one to provide an opt-out at first, and only kicks in with penalties if that request is not honored, however unsolicited commercial email is rightfully called “spam.”

  3. E-mail marketing is tough. And mailchimp makes it tougher with their very strict rules. I learned a similar lesson a few years ago when a completely permission-based opt-in (though quite old) list got us suspended. Over 10,000 emails. Explaining that to the higher ups who weren’t digitally savvy to begin with was fun :)

    At least you can say that it benefited more people than it inconvenienced, but that’s typically how small things get blown out of proportion. A few with the loudest voices getting all the attention.

  4. I really liked getting your email, which is rare. You are someone I follow and converse with and I’m not sure I would have seen a blog post asking me to sign up.

    One thing you might have tried is a segmented list, emailing only blog commenters, asking for permission first.

    I think your email was specific, purposeful, targeted, and relevant so I’m wouldn’t over think it.

    I used to send 150k emails a day to targeted, opt-in subscribers and I still received hate mail, unsubs, complaints, etc. The only reason it wasn’t all over social is becauae it pre-dated the concept of sharing your whole life (and more than most want to know about you) online.

  5. John, you’re transparency here is refreshing, much respect for that.

    In the 10 years I’ve done email marketing, the scariest moment I ever had was when a recipient of an email felt like they were getting scammed, but instead of just unsubscribing they actually contacted the company we bought our domain from.

    I don’t know what they said to our domain provider, but we got an email from them threatening to shut our domain down. They sent us info from their TOS that proved they had the ability to do this over spam complaints.

    Personally, I liked your email, I thought it was a smart move. You may want to check out all the risks before you send another.

    • I’m sure that was quite scary. Thanks for sharing your experience, David! And I’ll definitely check out all the risks before sending another email!

  6. I was with you until this:

    “Funny enough, the way this email was sent made life easier on more people than it inconvenienced.”

    Prove it. Just because people didn’t unsubscribe or complain to you doesn’t mean they weren’t inconvenienced. Even people who clicked the email may have done so in an effort to find a way to register their displeasure with receiving your unsolicited email. It certainly made life easier for you (in the short term), because it forced people to use their time to tell you that they aren’t interested in your commercial venture. Spam is the lazy way; it’s black hat email marketing; and ultimately its going to waste a lot of everyone’s time because you’re still going to have to weed out a lot of chaff from the wheat in your email list.

    And this:

    “Mailchimp has extremely tough standards to which you must adhere, while other email delivery programs do not have as strict of standards. I definitely recommend doing your research into the different providers before embarking on your email marketing campaigns.”

    Mailchimp has the standards it does because over half a million customers rely on its spotless reputation with email providers. The email you sent was unquestionably spam. It was unsolicited commercial email, that was not a necessary part of a previous commercial transaction (receipts, recall notices, etc.). A service that will let you send spam is not keeping your best interest in mind. Even casting aside the legal element of this, it ultimately comes down to your reputation. Spammer is a very ugly thing for a marketer to be called, and it’s an epithet that doesn’t go away easily. Even if you’re following the letter of the law exactly, once your emails are spam in someone’s mind, they might as well be going straight to the trash folder.

    • Haha I can’t prove anything. I can though say that I received a lot of positive feedback from people, way more than the negative. I was just pointing out that technically, I spammed, and I found that both funny and educational since I try to be so squeaky clean.

      Thanks for your comment. And I totally agree with you that Mailchimp should have tough standards. I totally understand why.

  7. An e mail opt in or opt out check box added to comment forms would be a straightforward solution.

    For those who took offence to your communication, can’t see what fuss is about!

  8. Hmmm… this title sounds vaguely like this one…http://www.seomoz.org/blog/oops-i-ruined-the-facebook-ipo

    Or perhaps that idea came from Britney Spears?

    Hehehe. I see what you did there. Thanks for sharing your experiences. People forget they opt in all the time.

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, especially as I’ve never had any involvement with email marketing before, but is the double opt-in a legal requirement in the UK now? I.e. People sign up and even have to confirm the sign-up via email before receiving anything?

    Either way, great post – really respect and admire your honesty and accountability on the issue. We live, we learn. Hell, could’ve been a lot worse – at least you targeted people who you’d had some form of existing relationship with, rather than complete, random strangers…

  10. I’ve been through a similar situation before and on the Internet there will always be haters as will there be trolls. 3.06% complained, haha, that means most people didn’t, so although a few folks complained, you more than likely helped a ton of people or at least engaged with them and got them interested in your eBook.

    Would I send this email again? I think so.

    So would I!

    And what Eric says is correct, this isn’t illegal at all.

    What

  11. It’s a cliché, but we will always learn more from our mistakes than we do when nothing goes wrong, provided we ask the right questions (of ourselves and others).

    In a way the critical responses and the complaints serve you far better than any amount of congratulation or admiration that might be forthcoming, regardless of how satisfying the latter may be.

    For me saying something like “3.06% complained, haha, that means most people didn’t, so although a few folks complained, you more than likely helped a ton of people or at least engaged with them and got them interested in your eBook.” (per Chris M, above) is only one potential response and it really depends on how deeply you want to dig into that 3.06% for useful information so that next time that is a far lower figure.

  12. John,
    I have found myself in a similar situation before – not fun to say the least. Once tact that I have found incredibly successful, but equally time consuming is crafting a personal email to your audience and sending them out in small batches from a personal account. Announcing your new ebook as well a link to sign-up for an opt-in email address might have been a good way to kick off your campaign.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Chris

  13. Good read John – thanks for being so transparent (in both cases)

    Just out of curiosity.. how many people complained vs how many didn’t? (as a %)

  14. I’m glad you did this and published this, but I am not too thrilled that you would do it again, hence my comment. The point that you helped more people than you inconvenienced or even than would interpret the message as spam is irrelevant. That’s the same flaw in collectivist mentalities. On the extreme end of analogies, bombs do that. However, they are still bombs and they still do things that are not OK to some people. Spam is similar in that spam isn’t “something that annoys everyone who gets it.”

    A bit extreme, so perhaps weeds are a better metaphor here. Like spam is defined by the receiver, weeds are defined by the gardener since a weed is something a gardener doesn’t want in their particular garden. If you think of your emails like planting a plant in people’s gardens, you’ll avoid most of the problems people may have with Spam. Planting your plant and then telling them they can pull them out if they consider it to be a weed is pretty inconsiderate and doesn’t respect a person’s space or privacy.

    I hope when you say you’d send the email again, you’d meant you would only send it to those who opt to receive unsolicited emails from you.

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