To Spam Or Not To Spam

Recently, I attended a dinner meeting hosted by a business organization of which I am a member. The guest speaker was an attorney who specializes in working with small businesses, and since my business falls into that category, I thought that enduring a two hour presentation would be the least painful way to stay on top of what I needed to know about the law.

Big surprise — she was a terrific speaker! Smart, funny, interesting and filled with real life stories about what to watch out for and what to ignore. The two hours flew buy, and (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this) I actually enjoyed the talk.

I was so impressed in fact that at the end of the evening, I found myself walking up front just to tell her how much I enjoyed her presentation. We spoke for a few minutes, did the obligatory business card exchanging, and said good-bye.

Two weeks later, I received a copy of her enewsletter in my email box.

So, here’s my question for you: Was I “spammed?” In other words, was it inappropriate for her to add me to her enewsletter mailing list without first asking my permission?

Arguing for the Prosecution(stay with me, I’ve got a legal theme going here): “She has no prior relationship with you, and she never asked you if you wanted to receive her newsletter. Guilty as charged; it was spam.”

Arguing for the Defense: “Look, she sort of knows you. You met, you spoke, you told her how much you enjoyed what she had to say, and hey, you voluntarily gave her your business card! It wasn’t spam, it was marketing. Not guilty.”

This question is at the heart of the debate over what is allowable in the world of email marketing. No respectable business blasts emails to strangers; the tough calls occur in these gray areas of what’s appropriate and what’s not. As you begin to incorporate electronic communications into the marketing of your products and services, your business needs to give some serious thought as to where it stands.

I’ll tell you where I come out on this in a minute, but let me first say that there is no right answer. A lot of factors go into the decision (your industry, your urgency in growing your business, your willingness to risk a hit to your image, etc.).

That said, here’s what I think: She made a mistake. Here’s why. . .

• She’s ignoring the importance of first establishing a relationship. If I am not your customer, and/or have not asked to receive your information, then you’re sending me junk mail when you add me to the list by default. To paraphrase “Permission Marketing” author Seth Godin — who uses a dating analogy to explain the concept — this is the equivalent of saying, “I’m going to kiss you unless you tell me not to.” Ask, don’t assume.

• She’s giving up the ability to measure her value in the market. If the only people on your mailing list are people who have put themselves there to begin with, then you have a real time barometer for gauging the quality of what you’re doing. The rate of growth (or decline) of your subscriber list tells you what your target audience thinks of your newsletter. On the other hand, if you start dumping in every email address you can get your hands on, you add so much “noise” to the mix that you can no longer tell what’s causing the list size to vary.

• The newsletter that she writes won’t be as good. (This point is slightly metaphysical, so left brain people try to stay with me.) When you know that 100% of the people reading your stuff want to hear what you’ve got to say, you write from a different place (i.e. better and more focused). The energy is different when you know that people are listening. If however, your list includes people who think you are a thought leader, people who can’t remember who you are in the first place, and everybody else inbetween, it will be reflected in your writing as you wander around trying to find a voice that appeals to such a scattered audience.

What should she have done?

A better approach would have been for her to hand out “newsletter sign-up sheets” at the beginning of her talk (send me an email if you want a copy of the one I use). These invite the audience to sign-up for the newsletter if (and only if) they are interested.

This approach tells the audience that, “You’re in charge, not me, and only you decide if you get the newsletter.” That starts the relationship off on the right foot, and takes full advantage of the opportunity that speaking to a group represents for growing your subscriber base.

Bottom Line: When it comes to your enewsletter, it’s better to have a smaller number of extremely interested readers, than a ton of “delete key pressers.” Focus on building strong connections, over time, with a core group of customers and prospects. The rest will take care of itself. This court is now adjourned.

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