One Person’s Networking Is Another’s Spam

Is it ethical to add your online social networking connections to your annual holiday update email, your company's monthly newsletter list, or even just to a list of people you routinely contact? Where are the boundaries?

Generally speaking, adding people to an ongoing mailing list without their express consent is considered spamming. On the other hand, isn’t it professionally necessary to communicate regularly with the people you know? Otherwise, aren’t they just a database entry? How are you supposed to keep in touch with even a few hundred people, much less a few thousand?

It’s not a simple problem. Let’s explore it in more detail. A discussion earlier this year on the LinkedInnovators Yahoo! Group looked at this issue, starting with a proclamation from Steve Delaney:

"If you are a spam vigilante… or in any way opposed to networking via email or inmail, then please remove your connection to my network. I have to assume that people who connect with me want to communicate."

Steve has a valid point. Business-oriented social networking sites are meant to be tools for strengthening and leveraging relationships. In a virtual world, communication — largely through email — is the basis on which relationships are built. How can you possibly be willing to send referrals to and through people if you aren’t even willing to take the time to get to know them by actually communicating with them? Certainly it’s reasonable to expect your connections to receive your communications, right?

But where is the boundary? Kai Roer responded:

""IMO ("in my opinion"), when I accept or invite a connection, there is nothing in that acceptance that says it is OK for the connection to send me a weekly newsletter. Some people seem to be using LinkedIn as a newsletter subscription service -- and I do not approve of that kind of behavior."

Interestingly, despite common perception to the contrary, CAN-SPAM (the U.S. bill governing unsolicited commercial email) is not completely clear on this topic -- it doesn’t seem to specifically prohibit this practice. Look at the definitions regarding a commercial electronic mail message (Sec. 3 (2)):

  • "(A) IN GENERAL -- The term 'commercial electronic mail message' means any electronic mail message, the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose)."
  • "(B) TRANSACTIONAL OR RELATIONSHIP MESSAGES -- The term 'commercial electronic mail message' does not include a transactional or relationship message."
  • "(D) REFERENCE TO COMPANY OR WEBSITE -- The inclusion of a reference to a commercial entity or a link to the website of a commercial entity in an electronic mail message does not, by itself, cause such a message to be treated as a commercial electronic mail message for purposes of this Act if the contents or circumstances of the message indicate a primary purpose other than commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service."

Don’t go jumping to conclusions about what a "relationship message" is… they do go on to define it in great detail. We won’t reprint the whole thing here, but let’s suffice it to say that in the context of CAN-SPAM, it does not include "just keeping in touch".

That said, is "just keeping in touch" considered "commercial", i.e., "the primary purpose…is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service"? It’s a gray area to which there’s no easy answer (and no court precedent we know of).

Even if it is a commercial message, there’s actually nothing illegal about sending multiple unsolicited commercial email messages, so long as they meet the legal requirements, such as providing complete contact information and providing a functional opt-out link.

It’s clear, though, that regardless of the legality, it does cross some people’s ethical boundaries. In a response to the above discussion, Jarrod Broussard wrote:

"I would disconnect with a user who took the liberty to subscribe me any newsletters without my explicit permission… Newsletter subscriptions…should be explicitly "Opt In" as opposed to a condition of connecting to an individual that the connectee has to forcibly undo."

Generally we agree with Jarrod, but "should" in this case is solely an ethical issue, and not a legal one.

However, Jason Alba, founder of JibberJobber, takes an opposing view. He adds people from his LinkedIn connections to his monthly newsletter list, which he produces using Constant Contact. He explains his rationale:

"If you request a connection, I feel like I have the right to send you an update about me and my business each month…hopefully people that have the opinion that this is wrong will not go asking for loose connections and expect nothing in return… don’t you think?"

Jason’s point about loose connections and reciprocity is well-made. And aren’t you supposed to keep in regular contact with the people in your network? Isn’t that just good networking?

If you write one person an email to tell them what’s going on in your life and in your business, that’s certainly not spam. If you copy/paste and send the same message to another person, certainly it’s still not spam, right? How many people do you have to send it to before it’s "spam", if each individual message isn’t spam? And does it matter if you do a mail merge instead of a copy/paste? That’s just simple operational efficiency -- you can’t fault anyone for that.

Now here’s Jason’s dilemma:

  • On the one hand, he is trying to manage his list conscientiously by using Constant Contact. This allows people to easily opt out and not get accidentally added back in somehow in the future.
  • On the other hand, because he is using Constant Contact, it is now very definitely a "mailing list", and not simply a number of "personal contacts."

Our suggestion to Jason and anyone else wanting to add their online social networking contacts to a newsletter is this: instead of auto-subscribing them to your newsletter, send those new connections an email something like this:

I’m glad to have added you to my LinkedIn network this month, and I look forward to continuing to grow our relationship and be of service by referring appropriate opportunities and people to each other.

I’m a firm believer that communication is the basis for building relationships. If I don’t know what’s going on in your life and business and you don’t know what’s going on in mine, it would be very difficult for us to be of service to each other as I would like.

As I’m sure you understand, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with several hundred or several thousand contacts on a regular basis if you do it all via one-to-one personalized e-mail. To reduce the time it takes me to keep in touch, I’ve set up a mailing list for people who are willing to keep up with what I’m doing, and I’d like to invite you to join it at http://(insert link here.)

I send it monthly, and it’s purely informational -- I will not be constantly trying to sell you something. I also want to keep up with what you’re doing, so if you have something similar, please let me know so that I too can be of better service to you by keeping up with you and your business.

That’s one approach. You may get fewer subscribers, but you’ll get fewer opt-outs too, and no one can fault you for this approach.

A second approach is to create a group within the social networking site and invite people to join it. As the owner, you can post whatever information you want to the group and people can leave if they don’t feel they are getting value from it.

Here’s our third approach:

  1. Don’t make it a newsletter, don’t write it like a newsletter: Write it in the conversational style you would use if you were writing it to one and only one person, vs. the "announcement" style we tend to use when writing a "newsletter".
  2. Be explicit that you're sending out a bulk mail: Some people feel it looks artificial to send out a 'personal' email that's really a bulk mail created with mail merge. So, somewhere in the document, we suggest use some text like, "I apologize for the bulk mail. I'd be very happy to catch up with you via phone/in person at your convenience." Or say, "Happy Holidays/New Year" at the appropriate time of year----it's common to send out a bulk holiday greeting, so that way you won't send out a message that may strike some as misleading.
  3. Use the mail merge function of your contact manager and/or word processor: Depending on the number being sent, you may have to divide it into batches. You don’t want to send several hundred messages through your mail server all at once.
  4. Only send it to people you would send a personal note to, and with "reasonable" frequency: Monthly is much too frequent for a personal update -- we suggest quarterly or annually. Neither of us do this on a regular basis, but we'll send out an email to many of the people we know when major events happen, like the publication of The Virtual Handshake.
  5. Manually review the list each time you send out an update: Don’t send it to anyone you’ve talked to in-depth in the past couple of weeks who’s already heard what you’re saying in the letter. It's irritating to have someone you just talked to on the phone two days ago send you an obviously bulk message.
  6. Personalize: If you set up your mail merge so that the messages don’t go out automatically, but get generated and sit in your outbox, you can go through and manually edit the few of them that would benefit from a little personalization.
  7. Invite dialogue: As we did in the example above, be sure that at the end of your message, you invite them to e-mail you back or call you and let you know what’s going on in their life and their business.

Think people won’t respond to this approach? Think again. We have both done messages like this several times, and usually get a very high response rate from people. And not once has anyone asked either of us to take them off the "list". It’s an approach that's a bit more time-consuming approach, but also more effective.

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