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Should Marketers Use Subscriber Auto-Reply Info?

Let me pose an interesting question to your our ever-faithful One Degree readers:
* If someone on your permission-based e-mail marketing list configures their _old e-mail address which is on your list_ to auto-reply with a message that includes a _new e-mail address you wouldn’t otherwise know_, can you as a marketer safely update your list with this information?
* Would the subscriber expect you to?
* Would you be on solid legal ground in terms of having permission to use this address?
* What might you do to ensure that your subscriber is happy?
* What have you, or would you, personally do in this situation?

_By the way, this comes from a real situation a reader sent me. If you run into particularly sticky issues you are struggling with, let us know and we might put your question to the One Degree readership to see if they can help you out. (No promises though)_


  1. June Macdonald
    June Macdonald August 15, 2005

    Absolutely you can use that info to update a permission-based email address. If you want to be sure and perhaps remind the person your company exists and is respectful of their privacy, send an email to the new address and request a confirmation.
    By providing the autoresponder one assumes that the person wants to receive new messages and isn’t at all sure they will have updated everyone. And if they don’t want your mail, they can unsubscribe as soon as they get it, right?
    Having gone through the process of trying to update active subscriptions myself, never mind mail with companies who send me messages occasionally, it would be a lot easier if I could have relied on an autoresponder update.
    Another option for updating email addresses on a controlled permission basis is through a service provided by Return Path. End users can provide their old and new email addresses online free of charge. Companies then pay to run their own opt-in addresses against the list and when they find a match, Return Path sends a message out asking if the user wants to have their address updated with this company. Too bad Canada Post hasn’t included email as an option with their NCOA service.

  2. Stefan Eyram
    Stefan Eyram August 16, 2005

    Ken, this is a very good question. As someone who has experienced this both personally and with clients programs, there are a couple of different answers.
    First of all, with the US CAN-SPAM act there is no problem updating your database with the info in the auto-reply message. You just have to ensure each email sent includes a functioning unsubscribe method and a physical mailing address that people can reach you at.
    In Canada our privacy laws (PIPEDA) make this less clear-cut. In general, if you already had permission collect personal information from this person, or permission to send them email, it should not be a problem to update their data record with the new email address. Many people use an auto-reply, rather than a large email blast, to let senders know their email is changing.
    Where this gets a little more cloudy is when there is more than just an email address in the auto-reply. As is often the case with out-of-office auto-replies, these emails often contain more than just an email address. You are also likely to see other contact details including phone numbers like a mobile line and alterante contacts within a compnay.
    My personal feeling is that using this information is OK if you are a true permission marketer. In case you are in a highly regulated industry like banking, insurance or medical services I recommend getting a legal opinion.
    From personal experience I feel not enough email marketers (at least not the larger ones) are using this info to update their records. This is mainly due to the labour-intensive process of manually dealing with auto-replies and doing the proper data entry.
    Stefan Eyram

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