When An Ex-Subscriber Comes Back
By Janet Roberts
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After CAN-SPAM became law in December 2003, one of the first questions some panicked Ezine-Tips readers sent in had to do with subscribers who sign up again after they've unsubscribed.
Although everyone asked the question differently, it came down to this concern: "If they have asked to be unsubscribed, but then they come back, can I send to them again?"
My instinct was to say yes, of course! Someone is sending you a request, either through an email subscribe or by filling out your Web form, which is about as affirmative a request as you can get in the online form. Even if that person previously opted out, you should treat the second request like any other.
Ah, yes, but ... . The more I dig into CAN-SPAM and its many gray or undefined areas, the more I tend to doubt that old instinct.
So, I lobbed the following question to R. David Lewis, who is vice president for deliverability management and ISP relations for the email services provider Digital Impact and has spent many hours reviewing the new law and its implications for email communicators, especially email marketers:
If someone on your suppression list (an in-house do-not-email list) subscribes to a newsletter or other regularly scheduled mailings, such as corporate or product updates, should you honor the request when it comes in or send out an email probe first, reminding the person that he/she had previously declined?
Here's what he said:
"You've raised an interesting point. If a customer re-subscribes, you should record that fact in your database and honor the request. Just remember that a transactional request for information doesn't equate to a request for ongoing communication. Permission should be explicit and specific.
"As a best practice, I'd always suggest that you show all your publication options whenever a customer subscribes or unsubscribes. It's all about choice, and an unsub request could simply reflect changing needs that might be met by a different publication.
"While specific reminders about a prior unsubscribe request shouldn't be needed, it would be wise to carry both current permission data (what, when, where) as well as permission history in your database."
As Dave said, a request for information related to a transaction such as a purchase or a contact person in an organization is not the same as a request to sign up for a newsletter, product updates or corporate news.
If your list-management software doesn't keep track of multiple requests and unsubscribes, you'll probably have to create a separate spreadsheet to track list comings and goings or find a program that does let you capture more detailed information. It's a data-entry nightmare, but it could save you time down the road if you have to deal with ISP or legal complaints.
I still think the issue of resubscribing an ex-subscriber is pretty straightforward, as long as you use a double opt-in process and a confirmation email that includes an escape hatch (an unsubscribe link) just in case the request was either a joke or generated by an email virus.
The picture will get more complicated if Congress ever enacts the do-not-spam registry authorized in the law. If someone on that list were to seek information from you, could you send it out? I still say yes, as long as you send only what has been requested and not add the address to a general database.
Ezine-Tips for January 20, 2004
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