Whatever your social commerce and customer loyalty marketing plan is, it’s basically guaranteed that emails are part of it. When your customers click to use a tool like Refer a Friend or join your loyalty program, you’re probably going to collect their emails and then use them to send your customers more offers.

But what exactly are the rules that dictate the sending of those emails? You’re obviously not going to bombard every email address that you get with every type of email content, but email marketing best practices can be ambiguous. That’s why we’re writing this post — to lay out exactly what you need to ask and tell your customers when it comes to using their emails for marketing.

For our purposes, there are two relevant categories of email content:

  • Transactional emails: emails that are triggered by an action that a customer took, like joining your loyalty program, making a purchase, returning a product, and so on.
  • Marketing emails: emails a company sends out in an attempt to sell a customer something.

There are also two main categories of opt-in strategies, which are:

  • Implicit opt-ins happen when you state in your site’s terms and conditions that whenever customers use a certain feature and enter their emails, they’re implicitly agreeing to receive marketing emails.
An example of implicit email permissions that link to the site's terms and conditions.

An example of implicit email permissions that link to the site’s terms and conditions.

  • Explicit opt-ins occur when you place a disclaimer of some sort underneath the sign-up information for a specific tool, and customers have the option of checking or unchecking a box, or clicking “I agree” or “I disagree” with regards to opting in to marketing emails.
An example of explicit opt-in terms and conditions.

An example of explicit opt-in terms and conditions.

  • Confirmed explicit opt-ins happen when a business sends a confirmation email after the customer elects to opt in. Only customers who click the appropriate link in the confirmation email will receive further marketing emails.
An example of an explicit opt in check box.

An example of an explicit opt-in check box.


Legal Concerns

The Canadian Anti-Spam Law, also known as CASL, dictates that the Canadian version of any ecommerce site must have the customer explicitly opt in to receive both marketing and transactional emails by checking the agreement box. While Canadian sites are beginning to have two different opt-in options–one for marketing emails and one for transactional emails–in recent years the two have been lumped together. This means that when a customer clicks “unsubscribe” on a marketing email, that unsubscription would also apply to transactional emails. Consequently, the company would no longer even be able to send that customer information such as order confirmations, shipping notifications, and so on.

The rules are similar in Europe. In most European countries, explicit opt-in consent is necessary. It used to be the case that it was only needed for B2C emails, while B2B messages were less restricted (you can read the legalese here and its 2003 amendment here). However, the EU recently overhauled these laws. Consequently, you’ll need to also ask for consent to use your customers’ personal, behavioral, and buying history data. You not only need to prove consent for these agreements; you also need to obtain “recent consent.”

Likewise, in the United Kingdom explicit opt-ins for consumers are mandatory. England and Wales endorse the older version of the EU’s laws, in that cold emailing is acceptable for corporations. However there is a fine line in B2B communications between who counts as an individual and who counts as a corporation, so it’s best to be careful. In both the UK and the EU you must clearly state:

  • Who you are
  • The fact that you are selling something
  • What the promotions or conditions are

The United States’ version of email spam law is called CAN-SPAM, which stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act. Strong language! But seriously, CAN-SPAM is less restrictive and less stringently enforced than CASL. One major difference between the two is that for the US versions of ecommerce sites, when customers opt out of marketing emails it is still acceptable to send them transactional emails. Most retailers in the US treat transactional email opt-ins as an implicit agreement regardless. Furthermore, the way CAN-SPAM is enforced today allows US ecommerce sites to use the implicit opt-in strategy. We probably wouldn’t have mentioned it earlier if it wasn’t legal somewhere, right?


Which Method is Right for You?

While Canadian, British, and European businesses do not have much of a choice, US companies will have to choose between these various opt-in approaches.

The advantages of an implicit method are:

  • The initial sign up rate is 100%
  • This method requires the least amount of effort on both parties’ behalf

Yet the implicit strategy can place you at a disadvantage because consumers may consider your emails to be spam. If prospective customers just enter a contest or send referral emails without buying anything, they may not connect the dots to realize that those actions are linked to email marketing. Even if they do understand why they’re getting emails from your business, they may not want them. They might report those emails as spam, delete them immediately, or just unsubscribe after the first email.

Because of these potential interpretations, using explicit opt-in methods is one of the most vital email marketing best practices.

It’s rarely helpful to email people who don’t want to hear from you, and it can be actively harmful if they’re just deleting your messages or reporting them as spam. Furthermore, in a time when data security has become a universal concern, why risk exposing the data of people who never even wanted emails from you in the first place?

The clearest benefit of an explicit opt-in method, though, is that you’ll have the most engaged and interested audience possible.

Of course, after deciding to use explicit opt-ins you must decide whether or not to auto-check the agreement box, and then in either case whether you should send a follow-up confirmation email.


Checked vs. Unchecked

In the realm of explicit opt-ins, you can make the assumption that the customer will opt in while giving them the option not to, or you have the option of employing a fully manual opt-in mechanism. In other words, you can create your form so the “I agree to opt-in” box is already checked, and the onus is on the customer to uncheck it, or you can have the customer be the one to check it.

Of course, Canadian sites must leave the box unchecked, but if you are an ecommerce business based in the US, you may want to consider the numbers. At Social Annex, we’ve seen that email opt-in rates for the pre-checked strategy tend to be around 80%, while those for the unchecked method are about 20%.


Confirmation Emails

The practice of sending a confirmation email after a user has opted in to your emails is known as a double opt-in or confirmed opt-in. In this process, after prospective customers get added to your marketing email list, they’ll receive an email confirming that they’d like to hear from you. They’ll then click a link in the email and be taken to a confirmation page.

Double opt-ins do come with the risk that someone who is actually interested in your company may miss the confirmation email and thus not receive your messages. Of course, it makes sense to remind customers to look for that email when they sign up, but sometimes they’ll still miss it. Yet unless you’re desperate to grow your email list quickly, sending confirmation or welcome emails is a best practice. Marketo, Experian, ExactTarget, Silverpop, and Listrak, among other ecommerce platforms and ESPs, prefer this route.

The reasons for confirmed opt-ins being so highly recommended are similar to the justifications for an explicit opt-in strategy. You’ll get higher quality contacts who are actually interested in your goods and/or services, and you won’t earn a reputation as a sketchy or spammy company.

Of course, it becomes necessary every now and then to modify best practices to suit the specific needs of your company. As long as you’re not flouting the law, you sometimes need to consider your own needs above the dictates of the industry at large. That said, a wise marketer knows that certain practices that correlate with slow short-term growth can grow to propel considerable long-term growth. In other words, what sounds best for you this quarter may turn out to be a detrimental policy two years from now.

But regardless of what you decide, look forward to more blog posts about email marketing in the near future!


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