Here’s the question — is it ethical to add your LinkedIn connections to your newsletter list, or at the very least, a list of people you routinely contact? Where are the boundaries?
On the one hand, adding people to a “mailing list” without their express consent is spamming. On the other hand, LinkedIn is supposed to be a networking site. Isn’t one of the basic requirements of networking to communicate with the people in your network? Otherwise, aren’t they just a database entry? How are you supposed to keep in touch with even a few hundred people, much less a few thousand (and no, not only open linkers have that many connections).
It’s not a simple problem. Let’s explore it in more detail…
If you are a spam vigilante…or in any way opposed to networking via email or inmail, then please remove your connection to my network.
I have to assume that people who connect with me want to communicate.
Steve has a valid point. LinkedIn is meant to be a tool for strengthening and leveraging relationships. In a virtual world, communication — largely through e-mail — is the basis on which relationships are built. How can you possible be willing to send referrals to and through people if you aren’t even willing to take the time to get to know them by actually communicating with them? Certainly it’s reasonable to expect your connections to receive your communications, right?
But where is the boundary? Kai Roer responded:
IMO, when I accept or invite a connecting, there is nothing in that acceptance that says it is ok for the connection to send me a weekly newsletter. Some people seems to be using LinkedIn as a newsletter subscription service – and I do not approve of that kind of behavior.
Interestingly, despite common perception to the contrary, CAN-SPAM (the U.S. laws governing unsolicited commercial e-mail ) does not prohibit this practice in any way, shape or form. Look at the definitions regarding a commercial electronic mail message (Sec. 3 (2)):
(A) IN GENERAL- The term ‘commercial electronic mail message’ means any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose).
(B) TRANSACTIONAL OR RELATIONSHIP MESSAGES- The term ‘commercial electronic mail message’ does not include a transactional or relationship message.
(D) REFERENCE TO COMPANY OR WEBSITE- The inclusion of a reference to a commercial entity or a link to the website of a commercial entity in an electronic mail message does not, by itself, cause such message to be treated as a commercial electronic mail message for purposes of this Act if the contents or circumstances of the message indicate a primary purpose other than commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.
Now, let’s not go jumping to conclusions about what a “relationship message” is… they do go on to define it in great detail. I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but let’s suffice it to say that in the context of CAN-SPAM, it does not include “just keeping in touch”.
That said, is “just keeping in touch” considered “commercial”, i.e., “the primary purpose…is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service”? It’s a gray area to which there’s no easy answer (and no court precedent).
It’s clear, though, that regardless of the legality, it does cross some people’s ethical boundaries. Jarrod Broussard wrote:
I would disconnect to a user who took the liberty to subscribe me any newsletters without my explicit permission… Newsletter subscriptions…should be explicitly “Opt In” as opposed to a condition of connecting to an individual that the connectee has to forcibly undo.
Generally I agree with Jarrod, but “should” in this case is an ethical issue, not a legal one.
Jason Alba, though, who has certainly been highly ethical in all my experience with him, is one of those who practices this, adding people from his LinkedIn connections to his monthly newsletter list, which he produces using Constant Contact. He explains his rationale:
If you request a connection, I feel like I have the right to send you an update about me and my business each month…hopefully people that have the opinion that this is wrong will not go asking for loose connections and expect nothing in return… don’t you think?
Jason’s point about loose connections and reciprocity is well-made. And aren’t you supposed to keep in regular contact with the people in your network? Isn’t that just good networking?
If I write one person an e-mail to tell them what’s going on in my life and in my business, that’s certainly not spam. If I copy/paste and send the same message to another person, certainly it’s still not spam, right? How many people do I have to send it to before it’s “spam”, if each individual message isn’t spam? And does it matter if I do a mail merge instead of a copy/paste? That’s just simple operational efficiency – you can’t fault anyone for that, right?
Now here’s Jason’s dilemma:
- On the one hand, he is trying to manage it conscientiously by using Constant Contact. This allows people to easily opt out and not get accidentally added back in somehow in the future.
- On the other hand, because he is using Constant Contact, it is now very definitely a “mailing list”, and not simply “personal contact” to a lot of people.
My suggestion to Jason and anyone else wanting to add people to a newsletter is this: instead of auto-subscribing them to your newsletter, send those new connections an e-mail something like this:
I’m glad to have added you to my LinkedIn network this month, and I look forward to continuing to grow our relationship and be of service by referring appropriate opportunities and people to each other.
I’m a firm believer that communication is the basis for building relationships. If I don’t know what’s going on in your life and business and you don’t know what’s going on in mine, it’s very difficult for us to be of service to each other as I would like.
As I’m sure you understand, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with several hundred or several thousand contacts on a regular basis if you do it all via one-to-one personalized e-mail. To reduce the time it takes me to keep in touch, I’ve set up a mailing list for people who are willing to keep up with what I’m doing, and I’d like to invite you to join it at http://_______.
I send it monthly, and it’s purely informational — not constantly trying to sell you something. I also want to keep up with what you’re doing, so if you have something similar, please let me know so that I can be of better service to you by keeping up with you and your business.
– J –
That’s one approach. You may get a few less subscribers, but you’ll get less opt-outs too, and I don’t think anyone can fault you for this approach.
Here’s another approach:
- Use the mail merge function of your contact manager and/or word processor. Depending on the number being sent, you may have to divide it into batches. Even if you really do know all of them and no one will report it as spam, you still don’t want to send several hundred messages through your mail server all at once.
- Don’t make it a newsletter, don’t write it like a newsletter. Write it in the conversational style you would use if you were writing it to one and only one person, vs. the “announcement” style we tend to use when writing a “newsletter”.
- Only send it to people you would send it to, and on a “reasonable” frequency. Personally, I think monthly is a little too frequent for a “personal” update – I’d probably suggest quarterly. I don’t do it on a regular basis — I do it when major events happen, like the publication of The Virtual Handshake.
- Manually review the list each time it goes out and don’t send it to anyone you’ve talked to in-depth in the past couple of weeks who’s already heard what you’re saying in the letter. When I get things like that from people, I don’t get so pissed off that I want to disconnect from them, but it is irritating to have someone you just talked to on the phone two days ago send you an obviously bulk message.
- If you set up your mail merge so that the messages don’t go out automatically, but get generated and sit in your outbox, you can go through and manually edit the few of them that would benefit from a little personalization.
- As I did in the other example above, be sure that at the end of the message, you invite them to e-mail you back or call you and let you know what’s going on in their life and their business.
Think people won’t respond to this approach? Think again. I’ve done messages like this several times, and I usually get a 30-40% response rate from people. And not once have I had anyone ask me to take them off my “list”.A little more time-consuming approach, but an effective one.
UPDATE: For some more excellent thoughts on this, see Marc Freedman’s article on sending LinkedIn updates.