I participated in a lively exchange online with some email industry colleagues recently around the topic of improving deliverability through permission-based lists versus data management techniques, such as list hygiene. My contention was that for years the industry has been hung-up on the term ‘permission’ – single opt-in, confirmed opt-in, double opt-in, etc. But at the end of the day, does permission really matter?

Posing this question isn’t to suggest that I don’t believe in permission. But it’s not the ‘holy grail’ of email marketing and not in conflict with good data management practices. So I see nothing wrong with applying address hygiene routines at data capture to ensure you don’t inadvertently introduce undeliverable records into your database (syntax errors, etc.). And I do believe it’s a good practice to send a confirmation or welcome email to ensure that addresses are deliverable and you’ve correctly captured customer preferences before repeatedly mailing them. I believe further that marketers should immediately drop hard bounce records (unknown users, etc.) from their lists and routinely purge them of non-responsive addresses if they can’t activate them. I also don’t see anything wrong with accessing different services, such as FreshAddress, to intelligently recover deliverable addresses and restore communication with customers. All of this is just smart marketing and data management.

At issue here is what ‘permission’ means. As a direct marketer, I believe in it – though not in its extreme form of double opt-in. However, I don’t believe in ‘permission’ in the way many email marketers use (or perhaps, abuse) the term. Too many assume that permission is the holy grail, that it’s evergreen and once they’ve got it, anything goes — mailing whatever they like as often as they like, propagating permission across enterprise, sharing data with partners, renting names, etc. Too often permission is served up as the excuse for a variety of bad practices that aren’t respectful of the customer’s preference or privacy.

To me, such activities done under the guise of permission are wrongheaded. They’re destructive of trust between a company and its customers, sacrifice the company’s long term interests (and brand) for short term gain, and run counter to the type of relationship that marketers should be seeking to establish with their customers.

So my conclusion is that the term ‘permission’ is passé. It focuses us on the wrong issues. Yes, you should get the customer’s positive affirmation to receive your mail. And, yes, if you don’t start out with it, you should get it as quickly as possible. And, of course, you should log it into your database too. But what’s more important is that you capture your customers’ preferences (including what they prefer you not do, such as data sharing) and act on them in each and every action you take.

To me, it’s the engagement metrics (both positive and negative) that matter most because they tell you whether customers truly find your content relevant to their needs and whether your practices are aligned with their preferences. Focus on engagement at every opportunity and monitor those metrics as closely as you can. After all, it’s the customer’s engagement that translates into brand loyalty and higher lifetime value — the things that marketers want most – not the permission you secured once upon a time.

Net/net: permission is transient. It’s a point-in-time indicator of a desire to engage – at best a starting point. But it’s certainly no excuse for poor practices and no protection from the customer’s retribution when it’s abused. To me, it’s all about positive engagement because permission is then implicit. And considering the kind of empowerment Facebook now affords its members (and something that’s sure to spread), engagement is what we should all be seeking with customers to retain access to their inboxes. Permission won’t ensure that unless you’re renewing it with every communication you send, and I’d prefer to call that engagement anyway.