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What is Opt-In, Anyway?

By: Azriel Winnett

Azriel Winnett is senior staff writer at Sling Shot Media LLC, which offers a wide range of hosting solutions for email lists of all types and sizes, as well as many other services for email marketers and list owners. Visit our site at: or e-mail us at:

You are sitting in your house one sweltering summer morning and chatting to a friend on the telephone.  Because it's so hot and stuffy inside, you've left the front door slightly ajar.

You're so engrossed in conversation that you're all but oblivious to what's happening around you. Eventually you look up, and emit a loud gasp out of both fear and astonishment.

A well groomed gentleman clutching on to a typical salesman's briefcase is sitting opposite on the settee opposite you, apparently waiting patiently for you to finish your conversation. You excuse yourself momentarily to your friend on the phone to accost the stranger. You angrily demand to know who he is, and how he had the effrontery just to walk in like that, without as much as a knock.

"Well, nobody objected, so I strolled right in" he explains. "I have a certain product here that the whole neighborhood is going wild about, and I knew you'd be awful mad at me if I left you out.."

Your adrenaline level slowly returns to normal as you persuade yourself that at least he looks pretty harmless. You motion for him to wait while you finish off your phone conversation. Then you look up again - but he has disappeared!

Ah, but there he is! The intruder has now moved to the kitchen where he is eagerly devouring some goodies from your refrigerator. "Just refueling." he insists, somewhat hurt by your black look. "You didn't say I can't..."

"Gee, what did I do wrong now?" our would-be salesman thinks to himself as you bodily eject him from your premises.

This parody was inspired by a certain phenomenon I sometimes notice on the Internet. I've found it puzzling at times and
and at other times downright disturbing. But if anybody else is bothered by it, they seem to be keeping it to themselves.

The whole crux of the matter is: When is opt-in NOT opt-in? And when IS it opt-in?

Many mischievous marketing antics are, to be sure, easy enough to rule out. Take, for instance, those strange email messages with the "reassuring" intro: "This is not spam! You are received this message either because you have answered an ad of ours in the past , or because we have corresponded at some stage, or..."  Aw...come on!

OK, but let's look at another case. (And now we're coming to the crunch. As list owners, we pride ourselves, don't we, that we live by the opt-in principle?)

It's a common enough case, too. You're filling out a form on somebody's website, either to take advantage of a freebie offer, or to request further info on one of the company's products, or even to make a purchase.

You may or may not notice the tiny print that making your request, whatever it is, also signifies that you agree to receive certain other things - including, perhaps, the company's weekly or monthly newsletter?

Do you really want it? Well, you DO want your free gift or your purchase, and you haven't the time or inclination to think about trivialities like these right now. 

Now, what do you say? Opt-in? Or maybe, just non-opt-out?

Of course, there are many - more subtle - variations. Some site owners do have some empathy for your situation, and are reluctant to twist your arm - or at least, are concerned that it shouldn't hurt so much!

When you register your URL at some of the major search engines - to mention one obvious example - they require you to furnish a valid e-mail address, and ask you whether you want to receive periodic updates, special offers, etc. You indicate your acceptance by ticking off a check-box. More often than not, the tick is there by default.

Human inertia isn't a force to be underestimated, and for some, even "unticking" a tick is beyond their endurance. But other sites, some very big names among them, wouldn't let you off that easy.

"When you buy from us," they tell you, "we'll send you regular news about new products and services, and improvements to our site. If you aren't interested in receiving these, log on at the 'members only' section and change your personal preferences..." 

So what does "opt-in" mean, anyway? Does it imply free choice and a conscious decision, or can one "opt-in" by default?  Is all this really what is meant by the term "permission marketing" that we've been reading so much about? 

If you, as a list owner, use any of the above techniques - and sometimes you may feel you have no alternative - then at least be aware of their limitations.

"Non-opt-out" and "opt-in by default" subscribers may swell your numbers, but are they really interested in your publication? Will they last? Do they help your targeting efforts? Will they help in your quest for increased advertising revenue?

Succinctly put, the quality of your subscribers may well be as important as the quantity.

If inertia is a kind of negative force that you can use to your advantage, remember that other negative human traits are even more powerful. Like active apathy, irritation, even annoyance or anger.

At the best of times, you have to watch out for these, but more especially if you have half-hearted opt-ins on your list.

© Copyright 2000, Azriel Winnett, Sling Shot Media, LLC

Other Articles by Azriel Winnett

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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