When you visit a supermarket in the UK, one of the first things you have to do is give a pound coin deposit before you can get hold of a shopping trolley (sorry, cart). It is an awful way to start a customer relationship. It says “Welcome to our store. Even though you are going to spend hundreds of pounds with us, we have no trust in you whatsoever”. It is an inconvenience, but because every company does it, it becomes accepted.1
A deliberately confusing email opt-in is much the same thing.
This week Sky News producer Roddy Mansfield took UK retailer John Lewis/Waitrose to task for pre-ticking an email signup checkbox as part of their online registration (a “soft opt-in”), with a county-court deciding that this did not indicate permission. Subsequently the DMA published a piece highlighting that Mansfield’s employer themselves engage in arguably worse practices, that legally the case does not set a precedent, and that the brand likely preferred to settle rather than take the issue further.
This may be true, but our benchmark for acceptable practices should not just be what we can legally get away with. When users call marketing email spam, it is because they do not expect or want it, regardless of any legal permission. Our approach to acquisition should not be based on deception — for many brands, a user’s being a part of the email audience has great benefits, and that is what we should be highlighting when we want people to join.
All our talk of relevance, preference centres, and giving users control means nothing if we start the conversation by deceiving people.