If the Interact conference in San Diego back in October taught us anything it’s that our clients and partners have a thirst for information on how they can use our software to boost messaging performance or innovate new service offerings. To that end, we’re planning to publish a lot more customer case studies, how-to guides and use case pieces this year to help our customer base and the wider industry better understand how they can get maximum value from our software.

One of the topics we’ll be addressing in an upcoming piece is preference management. Email marketers for many years have discussed the issue of permissions, and with good reason. A newsletter you eagerly sign up for in January can become an annoyance by April and by June you might consider it spam. Same with offers or notices from retailers or your bank or other business. Many marketers wrongly believe permission is permanent, when that’s simply not the case. Permission is not evergreen, nor is capturing it once adequate for all purposes. A customer may express interest in receiving communications from you, but it is important to note that these preferences may change over time.

Not Just Email Permissions Anymore

These issues of preference management have morphed and expanded over time as social media, smartphones and proliferating message channel choices have created so many more opportunities for businesses to reach out and communicate with customers. For instance, if your prescription is ready at the pharmacy, would you welcome an email notification telling you so? Sure you would. How about a text? Probably, though you might prefer email over text if your mobile plan charges you per text received.

Similarly if you’re conducting a job search, wouldn’t you want to get an email or text if an attractive new job got posted that fits your search criteria? Of course. You might even prefer text over email in this instance since it’s more immediate than email. The point here is that in the age of social media, cloud computing and smartphones, the possibilities for setting preferences and approaching preference management are endless. Eliciting and managing preferences is no longer just a concern for direct marketers. It’s an issue that goes to the heart of core business processes for firms in a large and growing number of verticals.

How Social & Cloud Companies Do It

Companies like LinkedIn, Salesforce and Facebook do a great job of not just allowing their users to tweak their messaging preferences, but also making proactive assumptions about how their customers or users would like to be contacted. Back in September of last year, for instance, Facebook enabled their users to ratchet down the number of messages incoming to their mailboxes by transitioning to a single weekly or daily activity summary email. So instead of getting notified every time a friend followed up on a comment thread you’d joined in on, you’d get only a single email per day or per week. For active users like me, Facebook simply went ahead and implemented the digest automatically.

Proactively implementing this kind of change is somewhat at odds with the email marketer credo that all changes should be based on user permission. But it’s also a realistic recognition that we’re living in an age where the nature of communication is changing so fast that businesses have no choice but to monitor customer preferences, strive to anticipate emerging trends and give customers more choices. Just like email marketers continually refreshed permissions in years past by building interactive components into their mailings, businesses in social media, online retail and cloud-based services need to empower their users to personalize their messaging preferences in ways that best suit their needs.

This is not to say that businesses should aggressively push the envelope and seek to use demographic assumptions or turn to third parties data providers to expand lists and add new users without permission. There’s a term for this, email appending (PDF), and it’s very much frowned upon by MAAWG, the industry organization that governs email marketing and online messaging. So: creative, yes. Abusive, no.

An Issue For All Kinds of Businesses Today

For social media and other kinds of online companies creating a comprehensive preference management capability is a no brainer. Their business models depend to a large degree on customer engagement, so of course they want to empower users to take control over how and when contact is made. To a large degree conventional businesses in sectors like banking, healthcare and retail haven’t had to think about preference management as a core business concern, but that’s changing fast.

If your customer is interacting with your business through a smartphone – and if they aren’t already they will be soon – you very much need to understand how, when and through which channel they prefer to communicate. We’ve got research that proves the point. And we’ll have some more detailed collateral soon on preference management best practices and how Message Systems software fits into the equation.