Time to Rethink Opt-In, Opt-Out?

Last Updated Apr 28, 2010 1:57 PM EDT

We've been taught since the birth of e-mail marketing to never assume our customers want to hear from us. Your unsolicited e-mail (you know, spam) will make recipients hate you. Ask your customers to opt-in to your mailings rather than opt out, most experts will tell you.

So along comes Ruth P. Stevens, president of eMarketing Strategy, to shake up our thinking on this practice. In the case of B2B communications, Stevens writes, your business customers generally expect to hear from you. Follow-up messaging is part of the business culture, she argues. It's how you build networks. It how you do the next deal. It's why you put your e-mail address on your business card.

Now here is the critical key to this arrangement. You of course have to give your recipients an easy way to opt out if they wish, she says. Act on their wishes quickly.

"Consumers prefer opt-in policies, and regulators have stood behind them," she writes on HBR.org. "Many B2B marketers abide by a similar policy, but they don't have to -- and shouldn't. In fact, I'd argue, your business customers generally would prefer the reverse: an opt-out arrangement in which you send them messages unless they say "stop."'
This sounds like playing with fire to me. I'd worry about customers flagging my e-mails as spam and triggering a review by my e-mail provider. And I'm not sure companies looking at your business as a potential partner or vendor might appreciate this practice.

But Ruth brings up a valid point. We should always be challenging our assumptions and practices, especially if they were developed before this decade.

What do you think? Is it time to rethink opt-in when it comes to communicating with your business customers?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.