The Green, Yellow, and Red Lights of Email Marketing

The Green, Yellow, and Red Lights of Email Marketing

"And what's the process for controlling email marketers and taking away the power of the channel? It's easy. Call them a spammer."

One of the things I love about email marketing is the control you can have over the process. From content and images to timing and segmentation, email allows you to dive deeply into the cause and effect of a marketing relationship.

What's ironic is that – while the channel allows for incredible control – the people who run the channel are so easily controlled and manipulated. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to fundamentally limit the power of the channel because the people who run the channel are afraid. The fact that it's so astoundingly simple is a testament to the power of emotion being more important than logic.

And what's the process for controlling email marketers and taking away the power of the channel?

It's easy.

Call them a spammer.

Email marketers fear that word like Superman fears kryptonite. The sad part is, everyone knows it – from CMO's to deliverability consultants. They use the spammer slur to try and get what they want...not necessarily what is best of either the consumer or the business.

So let me help you. There are three levels of email programs. One is fine. One is OK. The last means you're a spammer. I'll make it like a street light – so the brand people can understand.

GREEN LIGHT – You only eat what you kill.

Green Light programs are ones where people actively sign-up for your email. They provide their address and know that they're going to be emailed because, hey – they want to be emailed! The box can be pre-checked. In fact, there doesn't even need to be a box if the message states "By going to the next step in registering, we'll send you email." The key is clarity and transparency between the company and the consumer on the other end.

Green Light programs also make it easy to unsubscribe via both prominent unsubscribe boxes and immediate removal of both unsub requests and FBL (feedback loop) requests. Green Light programs also feature opt-down and/or preference data, to help the user calibrate their communication frequency.

Green Light marketers also only include legitimate links that go where you say they will and are coordinated with the subject line/message of the email.

If you're a Green Light mailer, push back. Tell the "spam police" to stuff it and/or get a hobby. You're good.

YELLOW LIGHT – Hazy sign-up processes

Yellow Light programs actually have some sort of relationship with the customer...they just make some assumptions about the relationship that the customer may not either like or be aware of.

For example, if you automatically assume that the consumer is signed up for the email program upon completing the transaction – but don't make it clear that this is going to happen – you're a Yellow Light program. Usually, there's been an attorney involved who says "it's not it's OK." Programs like these make one simple mistake – they make assumptions based upon what's best for the business rather than what the consumer wants.

Another example is email appending. You may have a postal address from a retail transaction. Using external data to backfill this data then adding them to your active email list is the calling card of a Yellow Light program. Not saying you should not do it – but you might want to onboard those names more carefully than your Green Light process.

What's also interesting about Yellow Light programs is that they are often run by big brands who wield the "SPAMMER" weapon like some sort of magical trident. The funny thing is that these programs often make it hard to actually sign up for the email program (because the web people don't want to "interrupt" the consumer experience) yet have no trouble sneaking in a sign up via the back door.

If you run a Yellow Light program – or have a portion of your program that is Yellow Light – you make want to take a look at what you're doing. You don't have to stop...just make the consumer more aware of what you're doing and make it easy for them to stop.

It's like driving. It's fine to drive through a Green Light. A little less so for Yellow. Proceed with caution.

RED LIGHT – Money For Nothing

Red Light programs are defined by one simple fact – you didn't get that email sign-up yourself. Just like a spammer does. (Yes, I said it.)

If you buy (or steal or harvest) an external list, you're a Red Light program.

If you're mailing other people's list, you're a Red Light program.

If your friendly from does not contain you're at least a portion of your mail domain name, you're a Red Light program.

If you're not honoring unsubs – and actually using it to prove the validity of an email address – you're a red light program.

If you're sending to links that have nothing to do with the content, you're a Red Light program.

And, of course, if you're loading bots/'re the reddest of the Red Light programs.

Here's the thing. Red Light programs, like Red Light districts, are both seedy AND profitable. Here's the other thing. If you blow through this Red Light, there's NO penalty. Which is why people do it so often.

If you're a Red Light program – no matter how "legitimate" your brand – you're the knuckleheads causing problems for the rest of us. If the anti-spam community wants a place to focus, this is it. As an industry, these are the sorts of behaviors we should strive to eliminate and self-patrol. Yet we don't. Which causes problems with each of the groups who call us spammers – they don't know the difference between green/yellow/red because, as an industry, we don't respect the differences ourselves.

Take a look at your program. If you're a Green Light marketer, congratulations. Be comfortable in pushing back. Calling Green Light marketers spammers is like kicking a puppy. It's simply unnecessary.

If you're a Yellow Light marketer, proceed with caution and try to clean up your act. Calling Yellow Light marketers spammers is like yelling at a grown dog. They might be remorseful in the moment but may not actually stop.

If you're a Red Light marketer, you're a spammer. Calling this group spammers is like yelling at a deaf dog. Things won't change until there's a more powerful penalty they actually recognize and respect. Or maybe even fear.

Hopefully, recognizing these differences –and knowing where your program lies – helps combat the "spam cops" trying to limit the power of your program.