Vonage Reminds Us Why Permission’s Not Optional

Here’s a Grade-A example of why permission matters, and why only you can give permission to someone to email you.

I was going through Google Reader this morning and found my subscriptions littered with posts blasting Vonage for a Tell-a-Friend system that they had set up.


This is a great example of the oft-overlooked negatives of Tell-a-Friend:

  • It gets abused – through carelessness, or through a belief by some (such as Vonage) that there won’t be any consequences
  • It potentially violates (or weakens) a company’s privacy practices – note that Vonage included the referring friend’s name in the email/s sent to the people referred

The Big Picture: Permission, Reputation and Long-Term Success

My point here isn’t to remind everyone not to use Tell-a-Friend with AWeber. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely already well aware of where we stand on it.

This Vonage fiasco highlights more than just Tell-a-Friend specifically:

It reminds us that while getting more subscribers is a key to a successful email marketing campaign, how we get them also matters.

Shaky permission based email marketing practices aren’t good for any business looking to build long-term relationships and profits:

  • They have the potential to piss off customers – and potential ones – which negatively impacts a company’s image and reputation (not exactly what viral campaigns aim to do)
  • They lead to a spike in spam complaints which negatively impacts the company’s reputation and email deliverability with ISPs

Whether it’s TAF or any number of other list-building tactics, the short-term allure of sending email that might not be 100% permission-based pales next to the long-term consequences.

27 Comments

  1. Chris

    6/26/2007 11:35 am

    This is a little off-topic, but I’ve also noticed that big corporations like this almost always use single opt-in. Any idea why that is?

    As far as "note that Vonage included the referring friend’s name in the email/s sent to the people referred" – don’t all the TAFs work that way? Otherwise how would the friend know the message was supposedly from someone they know?

  2. Ruth

    6/26/2007 12:02 pm

    True True,

    I did receive one of those Vonage "Tell A Friend" emails. And, you are right, even though I did not get ticked off, I was NOT impressed with it either.

  3. Justin Premick

    6/26/2007 1:55 pm

    Chris,

    I’ve noticed that also re: single opt-in. I’m sure the reasons vary somewhat between companies, but I’d imagine that at least in part it has to do with the email marketing department having to justify its budget (and very existence) to upper management through metrics.

    The metric that probably most impresses/concerns someone not intimately familiar with email marketing would be the overall number of email addresses subscribed to a list. With single opt-in that number will be artificially inflated by nonresponsive and/or invalid subscribers (to what extent depends in part on their mailing practices, such as bounce handling). So they use single opt-in to make their email marketing appear more effective than it actually is.

    That’s my take, anyway 🙂

    Re: the TAF form and whether the friend’s name is typically included, I can’t say. I can understand why a company would want to include the friend’s name, but that doesn’t change the fact that it could easily be interpreted as a privacy invasion.

    Ultimately the perception that subscribers/customers/prospects have of a business should affect our actions more than whether a tactic is common or not. And as Vonage has been kind enough to illustrate for us, things that might be seen among the marketing community as accepted practice may not be interpreted that way by the people we’re attempting to reach.

    If you’re interested in corporate email tactics, check out Chad White’s RetailEmail.Blogspot. It’s a great source of data and examples of what major companies are doing with their email programs.

  4. Marcel

    6/27/2007 10:04 am

    Tell-A-Friend… yes, this looks like a great idea at first glance. But the risk to loose reputation is there. But a real danger is the risk of getting abused for spam and as a result blacklisted by ISPs and eMail providers… This risk for me is too high in comparison to possible results.

    If Tell-A-Friend would be available in a way avoiding all the above I may consider using it. But till date as far as I know the real-deal is not invented yet.

    There really is a big temptation to use Tell-A-Friend scripts. They can bring in new subscribers. But I would not recommend it and see a big danger in using such "helpful" scripts as well.

  5. Ben

    6/27/2007 12:25 pm

    Hi Justin.

    I’ve read all the Aweber posts about TAF and there is a situation that is not clear to me.

    Is it OK for my site to have a TAF form next to articles posted on my site? As in, tell a friend about this article. But the friend told would not be added to my list. The same way the NY Times does this.

    Thanks for clarifying.

  6. Justin Premick

    6/27/2007 4:01 pm

    Hi Ben,

    The issue with TAF is that it can be and is (ab)used to send unsolicited email to people (not only by people filling it out, but also by web bots).

    When someone gets that email and clicks "Spam" their ISP takes that complaint and looks at the email that caused it.

    Part of what they look at is not only the domain/URL referenced in the email, but also whether there are any other sites associated with that domain. (Such sites may be referred to as "Spam Services" or "Spam Support Services.")

    If you had an AWeber form on the page that those TAF scripts point to, that means that ISP could make that association between not only you and the complaint/spam, but us as well. As our relationship/reputation with ISPs is a key reason that businesses use AWeber for their email marketing needs, such associations aren’t something we can permit to occur.

    Hope that helps!

  7. Joshua

    6/27/2007 7:05 pm

    Hi Justin,

    Is it ok to use TAF if it is in a membership site, specifically I used the TAF on my membership site using Butterfly Marketing script. I am guessing the web bots cannot access the TAF because you have to authenticate, am I right or wrong on this assumption? Please advise.

    Thank you.

    P.S., As always, your blog article is always very informative and greatly appreciated.

  8. Marc David

    6/27/2007 8:35 pm

    "This is a little off-topic, but I’ve also noticed that big corporations like this almost always use single opt-in. Any idea why that is?"

    Yes.

    I truly believe a small business owner thinks more about permission marketing.

    A large company is only concerned with numbers. I’ve been involved with SEVERAL large companies and it seems like the marketing departments are always trying to find sneaky ways around permission based marketing.

    Any way they can capture an e-mail address (account info, single opt-in, friends, etc) is fair game.

    The ONLY difference is they don’t usually go about just buying a list and soliciting people.

    Many times, if you have an account with a big company, that is permission enough. I have to sign many forms for privacy clearly opt-ing OUT of 3rd party affiliated companies from sending me related marketing materials.

    Re-read that again.

    If you have an account with many banks, you have to OPT-OUT. They are using the opt-out method which is clearly a violation in many of our business ventures.

    That’s like if you e-mailed me a question today, I’d just sign you up on my newsletter and you’d have to unsubscribe. You mailing me just once is permission enough for me to sign you up on something.

    Clearly that is wrong.

    And companies that don’t really market via the web, when they start, it’s all a single-opt in mentality.

    We are very aware of permission based marketing because of Aweber, Spam complains and such. Larger companies don’t care, they have thousands and thousands of customers who use products. Their e-mail reputations isn’t a big deal when they can PAY the ISP’s like Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail to be on trusted lists regardless of their practices.

    How many stories have you read about banks losing sensitive customer data?

    They are required to send out a letter to affected customers and maybe provide a 1 year credit check service if that.

    How many people do you know who have received such a letter?

    How many people do you know that canceled every service they had with the company because of that theft incident?

    It goes to show that as a small business owner, e-mail reputation is CRITICAL because you need that in order to sell a product.

    Bigger brick and mortar companies don’t need that as much because you are tied into physical products first and e-mail is only a method of communication.

    This isn’t always true for every company. There are large companies that care but it does answer the question about why some bigger entities simply don’t care as much.

  9. Marcel

    6/28/2007 4:34 am

    Ben,
    if anybody is going to use Tell-A-Friend Scripts he should not use aWeber services for it or connect aWeber in any way (directly or indirectly) with it. As Justin pointed out, this could seriously harm aWeber and the complete aWeber community as a result.

    But even if you use it running any mail list script on your own, e.g. under your own name and server, I see similar risks and drawbacks.

    I know TAF looks very promissing at first glance, but here’s a BIG warning.

  10. Justin Premick

    6/28/2007 7:05 am

    Joshua,

    Using a TAF form on a site where you’re also using or linking to AWeber just isn’t something we can work with at all.

    Tell-a-Friend forms send unsolicited email (the friend didn’t ask to receive the email, whether his/her email address was entered by a human or a web bot). While web bots are an example of how such forms can be abused, they’re not the only way – people abuse them as well.

  11. Mark Riffey

    6/28/2007 1:06 pm

    Justin,

    You said: "Using a TAF form on a site where you’re also using or linking to AWeber just isn’t something we can work with at all. Tell-a-Friend forms send unsolicited email (the friend didn’t ask to receive the email, whether his/her email address was entered by a human or a web bot). "

    I dont use a TAF script at present, but it’s lost on me why they are so bad when they are properly secured and used by a human being. And here’s WHY its lost on me: Using the definition quoted, EVERY email I send to anyone I know (friends, family, customers, whatever) that isnt a direct reply to a question theyve asked me is an unsolicited email and in your eyes: SPAM.

    That seems a bit excessive, unless we assume that no "real friend", family member or customer would ever use a TAF script to tell you about a product, article, service, etc – in which case this discussion is moot.

  12. Justin Premick

    6/28/2007 3:52 pm

    Mark,

    "Using the definition quoted, EVERY email I send to anyone I know (friends, family, customers, whatever) that isnt a direct reply to a question theyve asked me is an unsolicited email and in your eyes: SPAM."

    Thanks for pointing that out. I inadvertently omitted a key word in the definition of Spam – Unsolicited *Bulk* Email – in my comment.

    The difference between a personal (or "one-to-one" as they’re often called) email as opposed to the type that we commonly refer to as spam has to do with that second word.

    If I send you a personal email, you may not have asked for it (so it’s unsolicited) but it’s a message I sat and wrote it *just for you.*

    Spam, on the other hand, is not only unsolicited, it’s sent in bulk. Who the recipient is doesn’t really matter – the message is the same regardless. As Spamhaus puts it, copies of a spam message sent to different people "all [have] substantively identical content."

      http://www.spamhaus.org/definition.html

    A message you send me from a TAF form meets both criteria:

      * it’s unsolicited (I didn’t ask for it)
      * it’s bulk

    As for having a TAF script "properly secured" – I don’t see how that could be done, given that they inherently send out email that meets both of the above criteria. Whether or not the person filling out the form did so in good faith/responsibly doesn’t change what the message is, and doesn’t control how the recipient perceives the message.

    Thanks again for getting that clarified.

  13. Andy Sernovitz's Damn, I Wish I'd Thought of That!

    6/28/2007 8:03 pm

    Vonage spams customers, burns influentials, gets people really angry…

    Vonage is harvesting names from their refer-a-friend program to send spam promotions. I am a Vonage customer. In December, 2004 I entered 18 friends’ email addresses in their refer-a-friend program. This was clearly intended to be a one-time referral,…

  14. Vonage Email Marketing Disaster | Abraham Club

    6/29/2007 1:59 am

    […] A couple of days ago, I was reading a post on my email autoresponder provider Aweber about an email marketing campaign by Vonage that went awfully wrong. […]

  15. Cody Goodman

    6/29/2007 2:20 am

    There’s a simple solution to all of this… redirect opt in’s to a tell a friend page (that has captcha!) and offer them a bonus… they enter their name.. a personal note.. and recommend the url of your squeeze page to the person.. making EVERY subscriber opt in…

    I don’t see anything spammy with that.. do you?

  16. Martin Lee

    6/29/2007 2:54 am

    I have also used such scripts previously but after I found out that Aweber does not allow their usage, I have stopped using.

    I think if your site is valuable and can create a buzz, people will refer others to you with or without a form.

  17. Justin Premick

    6/29/2007 7:46 am

    Cody,

    I like the idea of someone sending a personal note rather than filling out a Tell-a-Friend form; however, I see two issues with the implementation you’re suggesting:

    1. Offering a bonus in exchange for someone else’s email address is going to end up in people sticking in addresses just to get the bonus. This ups the spam risk that’s already inherent to TAF.
    2. The CAPTCHA doesn’t change the fact that the person receiving the message didn’t request it. So they’re getting a piece of unsolicited bulk email, sent from your website, which has an AWeber opt-in form on it. Complaints against those messages would be against you and us.

    What I recommend to people is this: rather than using a tell-a-friend form, put a call-to-action in your email messages that encourages people to forward those messages to someone they know who would benefit. Combine that with a section that tells people who may have been forwarded the message how they can sign up.

      https://www.aweber.com/faq/questions/267/

  18. Marcel

    6/29/2007 8:04 am

    Hi Justin,

    thanks for bringing up this idea:

    "What I recommend to people is this: rather than using a tell-a-friend form, put a call-to-action in your email messages that encourages people to forward those messages to someone they know who would benefit. Combine that with a section that tells people who may have been forwarded the message how they can sign up."

    This has been a great idea of yours. We could add such sentence at the footer of each mailout, encouraging happy subscribers to tell their friends the most natural, no-spam way imaginable. Thanks for that!

  19. Ben

    6/29/2007 10:25 am

    I have never used a TAF form and won’t out of respect for Aweber’s policy.

    But to clarify, is Aweber accusing the New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and every other news organization in the world of spam given that they all have ‘send this article to a friend’ functionality on their sites???

  20. Di

    6/29/2007 11:15 am

    TAF forms are illegal in some EU countries. I often get offers if I fill in a TAF form – I simply ignore as I don’t want my French/Italian ISP to ban me.

    I can’t even suggest that my newsletters are forwarded on – they were not requested and so are deemed SPAM.

    This has far deeper implications considering that we are dealing with a world-wide system where even Sates in the US have differing rules to the rest of the US.

  21. Martin Lee Abraham Club

    7/3/2007 1:18 pm

    One potential problem about people forwarding your emails is that the receipent might click on the unsubscribe link! Then you lose the original subscriber. lol

  22. Justin Premick

    7/3/2007 2:23 pm

    Martin,

    That’s true. When you encourage your subscribers to forward your message, you may want to remind them to clear the remove link so that doesn’t happen 🙂

  23. Chris

    7/10/2007 9:46 pm

    Re: "If you have an account with many banks, you have to OPT-OUT. They are using the opt-out method which is clearly a violation in many of our business ventures."

    I’m not sure what you think that is a violation of; if you have an account with a bank, you are their customer, and that is enough permission for them legally to email you (at least in the US).

    I find it odd that someone would trust a bank enough to give them the info a bank needs to open an account, but not want the bank to email them.

    If it’s a physical bank, I’m not sure why you’d even need to give them an email address in the first place.

  24. Moose

    3/20/2009 7:59 pm

    Now, if the user sends an email from their own account to a friend is that considered SPAM?

    For example, having a "send to a friend" link that has a mailto: type hyperlink (with no email address, but with suggested Subject and Body)?

    This would initiate the user to send an email from their own account using their own computer and having to click on send on their own.

    Some of the blogs that I have read do it that way instead of a TAF script that sends from the site.

  25. DallasBK

    3/23/2009 10:35 am

    Sending to a friend can be a one-time event between individuals who already have in place a policy to share information. TAF gets you subscribed to a multi-message campaign.

    As pervasive as Vonage ads are already, I cannot see any significant benefit to them by using their TAF system.

  26. Aaron Schulman

    1/1/2010 9:00 am

    Hey Justin,

    Not sure if I can do this- but a client of ours is an Animal Hospital-

    and a recent newsletter we launched is right on this topic for TAF

    and I thought you could give me some feedback on our strategy for their newsletter-

    We launched a campaign using AWEBER to set up an opt-in for VIP status for this hospital’s foot traffic-

    becoming part of the VIP newsletter online gives the customers access to promotions and discount coupons as well as resources that are not available to those who do not opt-in (alternates have been made for people who cannot get email access)

    on the right of every newsletter is an opt-in graphic leading to the squeeze page (which they are also promoting in the office through inexpensive business card sized promotionals)

    Also- there is a “refer a friend” link for the specific issue –

    We launched it and in two weeks were well over 150 subscribers and growing –

    but I think we kept these principles of TAF in line-

    can you check this out and if you have time, make a few suggestions we may not see?

    http://www.munstervip.com/paw-print-post-11-09.html

    Again- not sure if we can share this so I trust you’ll figure out a way to share if it is in alignment with what you are saying here.

  27. Tim

    10/1/2010 7:38 pm

    “One potential problem about people forwarding your emails is that the receipent might click on the unsubscribe link! Then you lose the original subscriber. lol”

    Oh man, I never thought of that! I didn’t think the link would work when used by someone other than the original recipient. I will have to rethink ever putting a “forward” request in an email again!