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What's in an Opt-In?

Best practices for when you know you can add someone to your email list - and when you probably shouldn't.

Email Opt InKnowing how to properly handle your email list subscriptions is an important part of maintaining good relationships with your supporters and will help you do more effective organizing. You also should avoid adding someone to your list who wasn't expecting that to happen.

Here are some guidelines to help you decide when it's OK to add an address to your mailing list, and when you probably shouldn't.

Be Transparent

The best thing to do is to be perfectly clear what you are going to do with someone's email address. Make it clear that the person is opting to be added to your mailing list. The best example of how to do this right is to put a form on your website and call it "Sign Up for Email" or something similar. Link to your Privacy Policy on that same form. You can also require that all new subscribers confirm their email address. This method known as "double opt-in" also helps keep your list cleaner because false email addresses won't be added to your list.

Single Opt-in or Double Opt-in?

The debate around which opt-in procedure to use has always been a lively one. There are pros and cons on both sides. Here are a few facts to help guide your decision here:

  • Single Opt-ins are a faster subscription process and should result in more list signups. The downside is you do get more bogus email addresses this way which clutters up your reporting and your database.
  • Double Opt-ins require a second step after the initial signup and you might lose some potential subscribers because they don't see your confirmation email or forget to complete the registration. However, you'll have a better quality list.

In the end, you may not be able to choose anyway because your Email Service Provider has their own policy for opt-in procedure. You should always honor the terms of service you've agreed to when using any service provider's email system.

Gray Areas

An email signup form is not the only way an email address can make its way into your database. For example, you might have an event registration form that gathers email addresses so you can send event information to the participants. However, unless you specifically state it, you should not assume that person also wants to be added to your regular email list.

There are innumerable variation on the example above that you may or may not feel constitutes an opt-in. Let's look at what the law says, and at what Email Service Providers say about this.

Know the Law

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003

is a federal law that governs unsolicited email. Heavy fines can be levied if you are found to be in violation of this law. Among other things, the law states that mass email must:

  • Contain a working unsubscribe link
  • Contain a physical mailing address of the sender
  • Not contain false or misleading information in the subject line
  • Not contain a false or misleading From address

Since the government mostly had retail marketers in mind when they wrote the law, it is meant to cover email that is "commercial" in nature. You might think that being a nonprofit, this law doesn't apply to you. However, most Email Service Providers (providers mass email delivery systems) define "commercial" to include:

  • Newsletters
  • Fundraising
  • Solicitations for Votes or Political Action
  • Surveys
  • Invitations to Seminars

We can debate all day whether or not that definition is fair or whether your specific case is exempt or not. The buck stops with your Email Service Provider and if they feel your actions are in violation of their terms of use, you might see your account closed. The bottom line is, follow the provisions of the law and your provider's terms of service for all mass emailing.

When in Doubt

Whew! I know this is a lot of information to think about and that there is much more gray area than clear distinctions here. My advice is always to be conservative about these issues. If you think (even a little bit) that someone would not know how they got on your list or be surprised to start getting your monthly newsletter, then don't go there! A successful email list is founded upon a happy, interested, and engaged audience.

Note: This article is specifically written about mass email. Single emails from one person to another, especially those that are "transactional" in nature are a different sort and aren't subject to the same kinds of laws or terms of service.
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