The importance of gaining ‘permission to market’

About four months ago, I sent an email enquiry to a venue I’ve never engaged with before to ask them about an event. As it happens, I ended up not going, but a couple of times every month since, I’ve received a marketing email from them. 

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not affecting my life – it’s not stopping me from doing anything, or going anywhere - but it is annoying. 

Why is it so annoying? 

There’s no ‘opt out’ link anywhere within their emails.

Earlier this year, I replied asking them to unsubscribe me. 

The emails kept on coming.

Sick of moving their emails into my trash - and then later - my junk mail (which didn’t stop them coming through for some reason), I dropped an email to the info@ address to ask them again to unsubscribe me.  I received a prompt, polite reply; apologising for my trouble and yes of course, they’ll remove me from their database.

Being the curious digital marketer I am, and feeling I might be able to help what was clearly a small business, I emailed them back and I basically said “thanks, but look, what are you using for your marketing emails? Because this is missing, and so is this…” I tried to help the marketing bod there – clearly a lone soul carrying everything (I’ve had roles like that myself) – we got into a bit of a conversation about it, and I offered him some advice about what kinds of mailer systems he could use instead. I advised that using any of these would instantly improve the look and feel of their mailers, their responsiveness, and most importantly - allow them to market in a compliant way. 

I never heard back. It was strange. Had I offended him? I didn’t think I had. I thought no more of it, as I thought he’d unsubscribed me, and simply moved on.  Fair enough.

Last week, I received an email from the same company again. It was unbelievable. I was so irritated by it at first. BUT, this time the mailer looked much better, and there was an opt out link at the bottom (cue fanfare and fireworks). I thought perhaps something I’d said had stuck after all. I unsubscribed in the conventional way, and that was that. 

I guess the point here is that it’s obviously really annoying to get emails that you haven’t subscribed to get – we’ve all been victims of it.

I ended up asking a total of three times before I was finally unsubscribed.  It’s not really on, is it?

What’s the long-term effect of their poor practice?

Well, for one, it’s lowered my opinion of how they operate, and it’s also made me wary of ever sending this company an enquiry again. I’ve never been a customer of this company, and now I’m less likely to be in the future. 

No-one can argue with genuine opt-ins via forms

If, like me, you’re a digital marketer working for an organisation with a sales team, or with other client-facing professionals, you’ll be familiar with the old “oh, yeah they said they wanted to receive that, so just sign them up” or “they said they wanted the newsletter in our meeting, so sign them up.”

You must resist adding them on without the verifiable permission. (General Data Protection Regulation requires you can prove consent was received which means getting some sort of record of such conversations!) You must also stop your colleagues filling in forms on their external contacts behalf by any means possible. This can cause no end of technical woe if your system then gets confused because of it, because it can lead to, for example: overwritten records, or unintentionally merging two contact records.

Of course you want to add these prospects on your database. You want to mail them and tell them how brilliant and shiny your company is, how snazzy your mailer campaign is, and you want to avoid being called the biggest jobsworth in the land by your colleagues.

But where is the proof this person wants to hear from you, really? What if they turn around and say “no I didn’t opt in – AND THESE MAILERS ARE GETTING ANNOYING NOW - the next time your colleague sees them?” Not the best way to start off their pitch, or build a business relationship.

“But people don’t like filling in forms”

There is often some debate between sales / client-facing teams and marketing teams about whether weighty content should just be given away or whether to require that people fill in forms to get their sticky hands on it. 

They may say “people don’t like doing it”, “people won’t do it” or “it doesn’t work”. As a marketer, I can tell you from years of experience that it does work, people don’t mind doing it, and people will do it in the majority of cases. We want to get that completed form, track that person, know who they are, what they’re interested in, and what they’ve done. This is marketing, people!

And if a piece of content is valuable and attractive enough to someone, they will trade their details willingly, and often with the expectation they will be further marketed to – but usually under the proviso that you won’t share or sell their details to third parties, you’ll keep their details on a secure database, and you won’t misuse their data.

What can you do today to strengthen your approach? 


If you’ve read the above and you have any doubts, review your current system/s, and research others. You need to make sure you’re using a mailing platform which includes opt-out links and preference change options for the recipient in your mailer templates as standard. Some even make ‘double opt-in’ compulsory. 

Duncan Smith, from iCompli says:

"Double opt-in is currently the preferred method in many countries e.g. Germany, Italy etc. to achieve the regulatory requirement ‘to prove a specific individual agreed to receive your marketing’. This could become the preferred method in the UK, once the General Data Protection Regulation is in force in 2018."

Any software supplier worth their salt will offer this, and there are some really great platforms out there that are totally free to use (if you remain within a certain contact / sent email limit each month).  If you can, make sure your mailing platform is the same as, or is properly integrated with, your CRM system, so that you always have a single view of each contact. It avoids confusion, duplication, and error. This is the ideal.


Try to employ a strict view on this - contacts must opt in themselves to receive your mailers in the first place; and always via a method which allows them to express their consent through marking a tick box, clicking a button or saying yes in a recorded conversation. 

If you’re collecting sign-ups at an event on hard copies, that’s fine – just keep them somewhere safe once you’ve added contacts to your system, as they’re records too.

Double-check that people are segmented in to the right marketing lists at the back end of your marketing platform. If they want to hear about riding boots, they may not want to hear about flip-flops. It never hurts to do a spot-check on this.


It’s for this reason that you must make sure that your form is clear and sets out what they are signing up to in the first place. Set out clearly what your audience is registering for, and ask them to reveal the minimum you can possibly bear to reduce losing conversions. These days, more advanced marketing platforms allow you to use ‘smart’ forms – meaning that as the contact’s record fills with information in the back-end, new fields replace old ones on existing forms at the front-end – meaning you’re always asking for new data and building up that person’s profile.

Don’t forget the User Experience (UX) can have dramatic effects on things like opt-in rates, so always split test if you can to see whether a red opt-in button performs better or worse than a green one.

Let them know if they should expect to receive more from you in the future. 

Duncan Smith, from iCompli says: 

You can cover this off with a simple tick box at the end of your form which tells them so. The law requires (far more so under the General Data Protection Regulation, Article 11) that we explain clearly, and in a manner comprehensible by our audience (plain English) what further marketing they may receive. Link to your privacy policy here so that there is little doubt you provided the information for them.


When was the last time you reviewed your website’s privacy policy, your terms and conditions and the page which outlines how you use cookies? 

Where did you even get the words from last time?! 

My company’s website has recently relaunched, and with it came a reviewed and much longer set of pages on this. Our legal team were all over it, and at first I thought ‘wow, this is a bit much’. But actually, having shown it to a digital compliance expert earlier this year, I now know it’s a watertight, comprehensive policy – which covered all bases and is futureproofed (thanks Legal!).  

Yes, it feels like a chore, it’s boring, and no one is likely to ever read it all - but it’s necessary, it protects you and your company, and it shows the world that you’re employing good practice. It also shows that your company isn’t a ‘Mickey Mouse’ operation.


It’s just good practice. We all have a right to stop receiving marketing emails from x and y if we want to. If you’re using solid software like Mailchimp, Act-On or Hubspot, they’ll take care of that part for you once someone has expressed this online. Some platforms will even remember that they opted out should someone keen tries to opt them back it again…

Duncan Smith, from iCompli says:

"Don’t forget the right to be forgotten and erasure (Article 17 General Data Protection Regulation) which requires you to have a method of both removing data upon request and retaining data which allows you to prove you have opted some out! i.e. keep an opt-out master list."

And if you follow these pointers…

Adopting these into your BAU processes and protocols, will almost certainly mean that you’ve strengthened your adherence to the current UK Data Protection Act 1998 and the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation.

But there are other benefits to this approach: 
•    You now have a firm record of each contact; black and white evidence that they opted in.
•    You hold the data on when and how they opted in, and what they opted in for.
•    Depending on how sophisticated your inbound marketing platform is, you’ll have their genuine IP and you’ll therefore be able to start tracking (or continue to track) their user behaviour – yay! 
•    You know that they are genuinely interested and happy to receive your marketing communications; whether it’s sales content or thought-leadership / practical content.

The bonus of the very last point is that, because they opted in themselves, they will be less likely to unsubscribe, they’ll be more engaged when you do send them mailers, and if they do unsubscribe, it’ll likely be at a far slower rate than it would have been otherwise...