Last month I received a large white envelope from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

It was not a letter from my doctor. Nor test results.

Enclosed were a fundraising letter, a postage-paid reply card and envelope, and a sheet of return address labels for me.

My first thought was “Enough with the return address labels already.” Charities often include them in direct mail solicitations with the hope that the recipient will feel obliged to donate in return.

The return address labels were annoying. I’ll use them rather than throw them in the garbage but I feel no obligation to donate.

My bigger objection was that the hospital’s development office put my name on their mailing list.

This infuriated me.

Just because I am a patient doesn’t mean I want to be a donor.

Penalized for Patronage

Have you had a similar experience?

You donated to a charity once, perhaps to support a friend riding to raise money to combat cancer or a loved one walking to support their favorite cause. And then the charity started soliciting you directly.

Or maybe you purchased something online from a company once and suddenly they began emailing you with daily promotions or sending brochures and coupons to your home.

You might think this is hypocritical from a marketer, but I unsubscribe from email and mail senders who add me to their list without my permission.

My time is too valuable to be interrupted by companies and organizations I don’t want to communicate with.

Just Don’t Do It

Maybe the situations above seem egregious to you. Maybe not.

Here’s a subtler version of this marketing mistake, one that may make you wince.

You go to a networking event. You meet a few people. You exchange business cards.

Sometime in the next week, month or year you discover that you are now on your new acquaintance’s email list.

Even if you haven’t spoken since that initial encounter.

Even if they didn’t ask you if you want to subscribe.

Are you okay with this?

I’m not.

Why don’t people ask before subscribing you?

I can think of several reasons. First, just putting your name on the list is easier than asking. Second, they are afraid you will say no.

Third, and worst of all, is when their desire to grow their mailing list exceeds their interest in respecting your privacy and building a relationship with you first.

Yet that’s what the lists and communications are for. Building a relationship with you in the hope that business transactions may follow.

Not getting permission upfront is a lousy way to initiate a relationship.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same.

Email and direct solicitations without permission are likely spam and junk mail in the eyes of the recipient.

If you are wincing, perhaps you have done this yourself? If so I urge you to stop.

Get Permission Before Adding a Name to Your List

Just having someone hand you a business card isn’t permission to subscribe them to your marketing communications lists.

Purchases and donations don’t qualify as permission either.

You need to ask.

If you are afraid most people will say no, then I urge you to look at what you are offering them in your communications and how you are offering it. More on this below.

In the U.S. unapproved inclusion on marketing lists annoys and inconveniences recipients. In Europe it is illegal and it could cost you your business.


On May 25th the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect. The GDPR requires the protection of EU citizens’ personal data and privacy inside and outside the EU.

Any business collecting personal data from EU citizens must comply.

Personal data includes any information that identifies an individual, such as their name, address, email address, ID number, health and genetic data, racial and ethnic data and location. IP addresses and cookie data that your website collects qualify as personal data. Even political opinions are included.

Compliance involves getting permission to have the data, encrypting and protecting the data when it is transferred or stored and ensuring it is not used for any unapproved purposes. If an EU citizen requests that you delete their data, you must do that.

Hefty fines await those who fail to comply. Fines will be assessed according to the nature of the transgression and can go as high as 20 million euros (U.S. $23,600,000) or 4 percent of revenue, whichever is higher.

Emailing marketing communications to an EU citizen who did not agree to receive them violates the GDPR.

The Right Way to Build Your List

To increase the chance that someone will agree to be on your email mailing list:

  • Offer something of value for subscribing. The thing you offer is referred to as a “lead magnet” or an “opt-in gift.” The best lead magnets help your ideal reader in some way. They solve a problem, make their life easier or remove a barrier to trial. Opt-in gifts can be as simple as checklists that lead the reader through the steps to solve a problem, resource guides, a free sample or a one-time discount to try one of your products.
  • Specify what they are going to get and when. Setting clear expectations about the content and frequency of your emails increases the likelihood that those truly interested will opt in and stay subscribed.
  • Help and amuse your audience. Respect your audience’s time. Make them feel that reading your emails is time well spent. Provide information that’s helpful and interesting. Supply a laugh. You can offer promotions or discounts, but that isn’t the only way to deliver value and overusing these tools can damage your brand.
  • Adhere to the expectations you set. If you promised twice-monthly informative emails, then don’t start sending daily sales offers. Even during the holidays.

Treat customers and prospects the way you’d like to be treated. Your time and privacy are valuable. Show that you value their time and privacy too.

As I was finishing this article I received a second appeal from the hospital. It had all the same elements as the first one plus a “Certificate of Recognition” in “recognition of my generous support to Brigham and Women’s Hospital.”

I wrote “Please take me off your mailing list” on the pledge card and sent it back in the return envelope.

The hospital’s unwanted marketing cost my time and a stamp and did not result in a donation. It cost them printing, collating and mailing expenses. A net loss for us both.

Spend your marketing time and money wisely. Ask first.

If you liked this post, you’ll love the next one.

To have future posts sent to your inbox... 

Sharing My Secret Subscription-Building Sauce
Twitter Turned 12, But Will It Make 20?