The Industry Consequences of “Opt-Out” Email Marketing

A few weeks ago I received a business inquiry in my personal Gmail. These days I use a professional, grown up domain-based E-mail address, but I still get the odd business E-mail in my personal Gmail from when I was starting out. The subject line “Can we meet next week?” was in the Promotions tab of Gmail, the new quarantine for opt-out marketers everywhere.

Sure enough, it turned out to be a marketer who had already E-mailed me once and was mining local Chamber of Commerce directories. This is also someone who was reaching out to businesses falsely claiming to be a member of one particular Chamber of Commerce; not a relevant point but this guy isn’t on my Christmas list right now so I’m mentioning it.

He had added me – among countless others, no doubt – to a MailChimp list without my permission and was attempting to solicit new business by pretending it was an individual request for a meeting. The really juicy part was in the first paragraph, emphasis mine:

As a fellow local business owner, I wanted to introduce myself so we can connect about your current or future social media/digital marketing/website needs. I assure you this isn’t spam – I have a vested interest in working with other like-minded folks and local businesses.


1 irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of recipients.


2 a canned meat product made mainly from ham.

Your message is at least one of those, my friend, but don’t worry, this post isn’t going to be about you.

I’ve been contemplating a post like this for the better part of a year, but each time I’ve sat down to write something it progressively turns into me having a go at “opt-out” E-mail marketers for being reckless, shortsighted, and willing to put putting their short term fluffing of analytics and potential profit above the overall health of E-mail marketing. As always, I strive to be a little more constructive than that.

Let’s back up and establish some context. I refer to “opt-out” marketing as the process by which business owners or marketers add E-mails to a mailing list without the explicit process of opting in by the individual who owns the E-mail in question. Mining Chamber of Commerce directories like my own example is a popular method for this, as is making the assumption people who gave your their business cards are also consenting to receive your newsletter, sales pitch, E-book, or whatever the case may be.

Either way, I have a message for you if you’ve done this: It has to stop.

Look, I get it. Maybe you’re starting a marketing company and it’s becoming urgent that you find new business so you can start breaking even because you’re burning through cash. Or maybe you’re a business and you really need to find any source of potential new leads in a slow season. You might even work for a larger company and need to fluff up engagement levels because your job is on the line. Maybe it’s just benign and you really don’t understand how irritating unsolicited newsletters can be. There are plenty of non-malicious reasons for this.

Except this has consequences. I’m not talking about the prospect of getting blacklisted by Constant Contact or MailChimp, the potential for this making your business look spammy or shady, or the very unlikely possibility of the Federal Trade Commission getting involved, though I’ll get into some long term legal ramifications of this later. I’m not even talking about the fact that this is just rude.

I’m talking about this particular practice being something that you do to the detriment of the health of the E-mail marketing industry. When you decide to spam people who may not even be your customers and in all likelihood won’t even be receptive to be reached out to in this way, you tarnish the credibility of E-mail marketing as a whole. You make people phase out promotional E-mails collectively. You make E-mail a less viable method of communication because people may be more reluctant to even opt-in to mailing lists.

Furthermore, when you resort to this, companies take notice and their efforts to curtail it often inconveniences even people who are playing by the rules.

This is why the notorious promotions tab in Gmail exists in the first place. Among other reasons it was designed by Google as a bulwark against unwanted promotional E-mails, and to allow users to specifically whitelist newsletter content they really did want to read. Marketo’s initial discussion of the promotions tab hit back at people suggesting that this was going to be the “doom” of E-mail marketing, specifically pointing out one of the root causes of it:

If you are sending out old-fashioned, “batch and blast” messages to email addresses that you bought or tricked people into giving you, then, yes, the Promotions tab is bad for you. But if you have spent time building a list of customers who trust you, and who have opted-in to your communications to receive your relevant, quality content, then Gmail’s Promotions tab is probably not going to ruin you – it may even help. 

In many ways this reminds me of Facebook’s algorithm change that I’ve talked about in the past. While Facebook wasn’t being entirely altruistic when it came to its motives, they were absolutely justified in reducing the amount of brand page clutter that was flooding into peoples’ timelines. It was pushing down actual content from other people and turning the Facebook newsfeed into a mess.

It’s the same concept when it comes to newsletters. Your own content is just junk that’s pushing down actual important E-mails people want to receive, or actual newsletter content peolpe have actually opted into receiving. Whether you like it or not, no matter how much time and effort you put into your meticulously crafted newsletters, it’s still junk and spam if you’re adding people to your list without permission.

That Marketo article also notes that if you’re already practicing ethical E-mail marketing you in all likelihood have nothing to worry about. This highlights the biggest problem I have with the concept of “opt-out” marketing. Your time should be spent cultivating a list of readers, listeners, or viewers who access your content because they want to. Your E-mail list should be full of people who clicked a button essentially saying “Yes, I want to receive your E-mails.”

If your only way to reach people is to essentially invite yourself into their inboxes without permission, then I’m sorry to say it: You probably don’t have a newsletter that’s worth reading in the first place. Nor do you have a particularly compelling sales pitch if it’s not tailored to the business you’re selling to.

Most ominously, it’s this behavior that brings legislation into the mix. Right now there really isn’t much on the books when it comes to the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement of antispam laws. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, despite necessitating that newsletters allow people to opt out, doesn’t require e-mailers to get permission before they send marketing messages. The Act itself isn’t really unenforced. Even though you should concerned about ethical scrutiny as much as legal scrutiny, none of this skirts or breaks any laws.


Yes, in today’s current political climate Congress likely cares as much about E-mail marketing spam as much as Marco Rubio cares about anything. That could all change very easily if the right Senator is lobbied, or if the political winds change. Even if it doesn’t, you should be thinking about where this industry goes in five years or ten. You should be considering the weight of your own actions and how they reflect on this industry, and the consequences of what you do. As a marketer you’re a steward to your industry.

So when you incessantly send mass pitches without peoples’ permissions and expect them to go through the process of opting out, all you do is tighten the noose around everybody’s collective neck. So you can either enjoy your carte blanche to spam people while it lasts, or you can put in that time and effort to building a real mailing list of people who are actually interested in hearing from you. That’s how it’s meant to be.