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Purists vs Pragmatists: What kind of email marketer are you?

By Kath Pay

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 – often 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. More on those later.)

How would you answer?

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

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

If you answer A, you’re a Purist. You believe rules and limitations are the only way marketers can stay on both the right side of the law and uphold the best practices that have come to define email marketing.

Following these laws and/or best practices to the letter might mean having to forgo revenue opportunities, but 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 what the laws are and how best practices developed around the question, but you see gray areas that allow you to create solutions to challenging situations that deliver the best results for your brand and the best experiences for your customers.

When questions lead to public shaming

I’m not here to say that one type of marketer is better than the other. However, I’ve learned over years of working with clients that it’s 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 discussion that has helped our industry evolve and develop an informal set of standards 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 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.” 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 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 squelch discussion and innovation.

2 Purist-versus-Pragmatist battles: Email frequency and prospecting

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 1 message a week, please!

So, when email maverick Dela Quist 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 paycheques 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 without burning out their subscribers.

In another situation, a veteran email marketer asked an industry insiders’ group for comments on a prospecting email she received from a mobile database vendor.

Was this a legitimate offer? Was it legal? Those were her valid questions. In response, she got a scornful – and irrelevant – answer that belittled the email offer as spam and mocked her questions without actually answering them.

This Purist approach overlooked the reality that both the sender and recipient are American citizens, covered by CAN-SPAM laws that permit opt-out messaging – and the email was a personal message, not part of a broadcast campaign.

It’s 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 the kind of relentless spamming, scamming and abuses that nearly killed the email channel way back when.

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, as they inevitably do, they feel guilt and shame. But it shouldn’t be that way.

Here in the real world, 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!

Interested in finding out more? Check out how the awesome team at Holistic Email Marketing can help take your email programme to the next level.

Originally published in on February 27th 2020. Updated November 2021.