There are overwhelming practical reasons for organising a system of effective management of your email lists.
The eight principles of good practice as published by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) deal essentially with the methods of gathering, maintaining and the security of email lists. The ones which we will deal with here require them to be:
adequate, relevant and not excessive,
accurate and up to date,
not kept longer than necessary,
We can dispense with the security immediately. Your email list is an asset. It would be of immense use to your rivals. Ensure it is safe when being digitally transported at all times. The requirements of the law should not be your main motivating force in this matter. Security is a practical essential.
Adequate, relevant and not excessive
Adequate might seem an odd word to use as it lacks precision. This can be seen as a good thing as it allows flexibility in interpretation, but taken on it own it can be confusing. What this provision seems to mean is that you must collect and retain enough details of your customers for you to fulfil the requirements of the law. For instance, the details you maintain should be sufficient for you to be able to service a request made under the Data Protection Act (DPA) for their details. If they initially provided the relevant details for you to do so then it is no good suggesting that your are unable to identify them because you failed to keep all the information. Your systems should ensure that these details are collected and retained.
Relevant and not excessive can be taken together. In any list of things required in a database for precision in a direct email marketing campaign, relevant and not excessive would come high up on the list. It is an essential. Inputting and retaining information that is of no use is a waste of effort of data imputers. Further, irrelevant information can confuse a search of a database for customers with specific preferences.
Further, asking for a great deal of information may well put off a subscriber, either initially or later. Remember the threat of the unsubscribe button.
Legally, though, relevant and not excessive is something that you may have to prove. It need not necessarily mean ‘at this time’. You might have plans which you hope to come to fruition within the next few months and, whilst the information you hold might well be irrelevant at the moment, the details of your planned direct email marketing campaign would be sufficient justification.
Accurate and up to date
The importance of accuracy, which includes being up to date, goes without saying, but I will. The essence of emails lists is precision. It is more important than numbers. It is essential therefore to establish systems which ensure that when additional information is obtained about a customer it makes its way to the data imputers. People change email addresses fairly regularly, some research suggests figures as high at 20% per annum. Your procedures must take this into account. Your systems must include regular checks of emails addresses and ways of ensuring that such changes reach the data processors.
Not kept longer than is necessary
Necessary is subjective but the ultimate decision as to how long this particular piece of string is depends on the courts. All you can do is to act reasonably, i.e. have reasons for everything you do.
Such matters may come into dispute where your reasons for retaining an address come into conflict with the reasonable expectations of the addressee. It is unlikely that a court would find it reasonable for you to retain an email address merely to prove that you had included a caveat in your correspondence with the customer. You must take steps to be able to prove this in some other way or devise a system not only ensures your message gets through but that you can prove it did.
However, it will probably be seen as reasonable to keep the address for some time after the customer has asked to be removed from the direct email marketing list so as to ensure no confusion in your systems. As to the question: ‘How long may it be kept in these circumstances?’ the only answer is: as long as you think a court will find reasonable.
Opt-outs are an irrefutable comment on the effectiveness of your direct email marketing campaigns. If the rate remains steady or starts to drop then they are at least no worse than normal and possibly a little better. The reverse is true if the rate goes up. Therefore it must be monitored closely. But just as importantly, the opt-outs must be dealt with efficiently and effectively.
By the side of most opt-out boxes will be a caution that the subscriber should allow a certain period of time for the request to be dealt with. There is not legal justification for this. You must do it promptly. Unsubscribe procedures are a major source of criticism. Customers might well take their frustrations out on you via a complaint to the ICO.
It bears remembering that an opt-out is not forever. A customer’s circumstances might change to the extent that they wish to unsubscribe for a short period. In the method of opting out is prolonged then the urge to re-sign might well be overcome.
Those mail administrator system errors have various causes but one that must be dealt with is the hard bounce. This is when a reply is received that the mail server could not deliver the message because the user does not exist on that domain. You should establish a procedure to deal with them which takes into account your particular requirements. If you deal in thousands of email addresses you might consider it most economical to resend the email after a period of, say, a day or two, or continue to send it every day for a week. If you eventually have to accept that it is undeliverable then the address should be deleted from your lists. However, if you deal in hundreds of addresses then the value of each might make it worth your while, after the resend, to check the original opt-in to confirm the address is correct. The original address may have an obvious misspelling.
Also check if the address has been used successfully before. Whilst with B2B addressees do change positions and accounts often, with B2C this is less common. It could be that there is a problem with the recipient’s mail server. If it does seem probable that the email account has been suspended then delete the address. Bounces take up your time. Your should consider the likely returns before you invest too much time on it.
The management of all types of bounces needs to be a factor in all email marketing campaign planning.
There are few hard and fast rules that can be applied to the management of email lists over and above the rather crude, but rather important, one of return on investment. The ICO’s principles of good practice are, surprisingly, effective practical guidelines for good business management of email lists. This has the added benefit of ensuring you comply with the law in such matters.