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Icons to depict purist vs. pragmatist

Purist vs. Pragmatist: What Kind of Email Marketer Are You?

What kind of email marketer are you?

This question sounds like a sketchy Facebook quiz. But I’m asking for a legitimate reason.

Here’s the set-up: An email marketer—sometimes a novice but not always—asks whether double opt-in is the only way to add subscribers to a mailing list that complies with data privacy laws and email regulations like GDPR, CCPA, CASL, and CAN-SPAM.

(Clearly this is not someone who has read Iterable’s post, 4 Reasons Why You Don’t (Necessarily) Need Double Opt-In, or my views: Not All Email Best Practices are Equal, Nor Are All of Them Best Practices.)

How would you answer?

A. “Yes, double opt-in is the only way you can be sure that someone is giving informed, positive consent to comply with the law.”

B. “No, double opt-in is one way, but it’s not the only way. It’s not specifically required by law, and you can even end up hurting legitimate list growth if you use it exclusively.”

If you answered A, then there’s a good chance that you’re a Purist. You believe that hard and fast rules and limitations are the only way that marketers can stay on the right side of the law and uphold the best practices that have come to define email marketing.

Following these laws or best practices to the letter might mean having to forgo revenue opportunities, but you believe the sacrifice is worth it because it will keep your company out of trouble with the ISPs, blacklist operators and government regulators.

Did you answer B? Then you’re more likely to be a Pragmatist. You know that the laws are how best practices developed around the question, but you see gray areas that allow you to create solutions to challenging situations. You obey the law, of course, but you’re more focused on delivering the best results for both your customers and your brand.

When Questions Lead to Public Shaming

I’m not here to say that one type of marketer is better than the other. I’ve learned over years of working with clients that it can be dangerous to depend on black-and-white interpretations of best practices. It can stunt email growth and cost your company revenue or otherwise thwart your efforts to reach your business goals.

It also can put the chill on the kinds of vigorous discussions that have helped our industry evolve and develop an informal set of standards (that we call best practices) that we can use to guide our goal-setting, strategy and tactics—but not handcuff it to unproven methods.

We’ve even trained ourselves to expect a verbal beat-down if we ask about an email practice. You can see this in the way people, often novice marketers who have not been through the email wars of old, phrase their questions:

  • “Please don’t hate me, but…”
  • “I know this might not be best practice, but…”

How can we encourage new generations of email marketers to join the conversation and learn the ropes when they’re afraid to ask questions for fear of looking like the worst spammers in the business?

Most often, these marketers have to ask for help because they find themselves between the rock of company practices beyond their control (“I know they say not to buy email lists, but this is what my company does, and I don’t have the power to stop it, so how can I manage it and stay out of trouble with the law and the ISPs?”) and the hard place of responsible email marketing.

The Purist would say, “Never buy an email list. Organic acquisition is the only way.” The Pragmatist will say, “You can’t stop them from buying email lists, but you can manage those email addresses so that they don’t end up torpedoing your sender reputation. Meanwhile, here’s what you can do to improve your organic acquisition.”

Purists often come to email through IT or compliance, where the whole goal is to protect the integrity of the email channel. Pragmatists often come up from direct or other marketing formats and have jobs that depend on hitting company-assigned goals.

The Problem With Best Practices

I’m not encouraging you to flout your country’s laws on email acquisition, consent and data management. But best practices are another matter. 

We think of best practices as generally accepted laws of good email marketing. But, too often, these best practices are archaic, self-serving for ISPs or vendors, untested or based solely on conventional wisdom instead of proof. 

Instead of helping marketers stay on the right side of the law and serve their brands and customers as best they can, they can often squelch discussion and innovation.

Purist vs. Pragmatist Battles

Here are two common situations that often pit purists and pragmatists against each other:

1. Email Frequency

Purists who regard marketing campaigns—especially broadcast (same message to everybody) campaigns—as assaults on the email channel, generally hold that the less email you send, the better for everybody. No more than one message a week, please!

Years ago, when email maverick Dela Quist questioned the accepted best practice of ‘less is more’ and suggested that marketers would get more results by sending more email, Purists rose up in arms to protest.

But time went by and marketers who had goals to meet and paychecks to earn began testing the concept. They discovered that a strategic, managed approach could help them find the frequency sweet spot that earned more money for their brands while maintaining a good subscriber experience. In fact, my old business partner and mentor, David Hughes, actually asked this same question all the way back in 2009.

2. Prospecting

In another situation, a veteran email marketer asked an industry group for comments on a prospecting email they received. Was this a legitimate offer? Was it legal? Those were valid questions asked.

In response, they got a scornful—and irrelevant—answer that belittled the email offer as spam and mocked their questions without answering them.

In this case, this Purist approach overlooked the reality that both the sender and recipient are American citizens, covered by CAN-SPAM laws that legislate opt-out messaging—and the email was a 1:1 personal message, not part of a broadcast campaign.

It was a Purist attitude, not a Pragmatist one, and it can limit the company’s ability to grow via email prospecting.

In Closing: Work Out What’s Best for Your Brand and Customers

Once again, I’d like to make clear that I don’t advocate for the kind of relentless spamming, scamming and abuses that nearly killed the email channel way back when. I was on the front line with the U.K.’s DMA Email Marketing Council during this period and I’ve fought long and hard for email to be seen as a legitimate, valuable channel.

However, many marketers I’ve worked with believe they need to be Purists, to hold themselves accountable to the highest email marketing standards, to be successful. When they fall short, they feel guilt and shame. It shouldn’t be that way.

Here in the real world, I believe that marketers need to be Pragmatists who can work within the confines of the law to develop an email program that best serves both of their constituencies: their companies and their customers. 

Pragmatists are really just realists who want everyone to win—our brands and our customers. We need to make decisions for solid reasons that you’re happy with, not for someone else’s reasons.

That’s where you’ll find sustainable, responsible email success!

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