A Guide to Permission-Based Email Marketing

Table of Contents

This isn’t a blog about how trends are changing in email marketing—if we had a dollar for every blog that started with a declaration about that, we’d no longer be writing emails! This is a blog about the pivot in email marketing ethos

A few key milestones collectively signal the end of what was once the former lawless “Wild West” of email marketing, including: 

  • the May 2018 enactment of the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR),
  • Apple’s September 2021 Mail Privacy Protection update, and
  • Gmail and Yahoo’s crackdown on senders with spam rates over 0.3% in 2024.

While there will always be email marketers who like to operate in gray areas, terms like accountability, privacy, consent, respect, and data security are now more important than ever.

What is permission-based email marketing?

It’s an answer to the prayers of the 89% of customers who care about data privacy!

Permission-based marketing, or opt-in email marketing, is an ethical form of email outreach where emails are sent only when express consent is given by recipients. 

This email marketing method contrasts sharply with email marketing that is sent without prior approval—spam messages or otherwise unwanted emails—which often lead to consumer frustration and distrust.

The key elements of permission-based email marketing are:

  • Clear and explicit consent from the recipient
  • Transparency about what the recipient is signing up for
  • The ability for recipients to control their subscription preferences
  • Relevant, valuable content tailored to the interests and needs of the recipients
  • Adherence to legal and regulatory frameworks such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and the CAN-SPAM Act in the United States

Why is permission-based email marketing important?

The most obvious advantage of permission-based email marketing is that it saves you from hefty fines under anti-spam laws (GDPR can fine businesses up to 4% of their global turnover).

It also keeps you in compliance with ethical business practices.

On a more practical side, fewer spam complaints mean better sender reputation and email deliverability.

With permission-based email marketing, your recipients are people who want to hear from you, which results in more reliable marketing campaign data and higher engagement and conversion rates.

Since you’re sending fewer (but more effective) emails, you’ll also see a better ROI.

10 permission-based email marketing best practices

These aren’t just strategies and tips to implement permission-based email marketing campaigns…they’re representative of a shift in business attitude. Engaging in permission-based email marketing means you’ll redefine who you sell to, how you get their attention, and how you respect their preferences.

1. Focus on consent and interests

Imagine turning on the TV to watch The Bachelorette and being forced to sit through a survival documentary instead. (Or vice versa. No judgment.

Or worse, imagine someone barges into your home, fishes out the remote buried under the mountains of laundry on the couch, and turns the TV to the highest volume while you’re trying to do your taxes. 

That’s how people receiving irrelevant and unsolicited emails feel.

A GDPR prerequisite before emailing someone is that you obtain consent that is “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous.”

Make disclosures during sign up

When asking for an email signup, explain how subscriber data will be used. 

Ask explicitly for permission before sending marketing emails, and allow recipients to pick topics they’re interested in receiving marketing messages about.

Expressly state that they may opt out at any time, and that the emails you send will be relevant, personalized, and informative.

Get explicit permission

If they’ve given you their email for a specific purpose (say, attending a webinar), you can convert their implied permission into explicit permission with soft-confirm tactics like: 

  • built-in consent blocks (shown within emails to users who haven’t consented to receiving promotional emails)  
  • consent emails
Permission-based email marketing campaign example


2. Use popups wisely

You typically won’t find a lot of enthusiastic takers for the old “you give me your email address, and I’ll send you marketing emails till the end of time” exchange.

But what about when the product they wanted to buy is on sale and out of stock? Or when they’ve just read a blog they loved so much they added it to their bookmark bar?

Popups are unmatchable at striking when the proverbial iron is hot.

Take inspiration from these 29 email sign-up popup templates and enable pop-up displays at strategic moments, like when website visitors have spent a few minutes on a blog (time-based), are about to close the window (exit intent-based), or based on another trigger of your choice.

Follow data privacy best practices

According to the GDPR, consent must be given through a “statement or clear affirmative action,” so you’ll want to avoid pre-ticked boxes.

Permission-based email marketing sign-up example

Outline in 1-2 sentences what site visitors can expect on sign up, with a link for more details.

Keep them short and scalable

Limit the permission marketing opt-in form to 2-3 fields. 

Prevent image cutoffs on smaller screens by making forms scalable.

3. Tailor content for your audience

Use surveys, personas, and social media listening to better understand audience preferences.

Figure out your audience’s interests based on where they’re from, what page they visited first, what they do on your website, and how much time they spend on it.

Use dynamic content

If a customer found you using a particular search term on Google, visited your website via a social media post, or found you using an affiliate link or advertisement, you can feature related dynamic phrases on your landing page and/or sign-up form to cater to their interests and boost conversions.

Permission-based email marketing sign-up example

Send tailored emails

Monitor your subscribers’ engagement with your emails and send them messages: 

  • on topics they’ve engaged with, 
  • at times they tend to open emails, and 
  • containing customized attributes they respond to. 

Create different emails for an audience segment that interacted more with gamified emails vs those who prefer plain text emails.

Internet slang terms can make you relatable for a younger target audience, but you might want to swap them out when emailing Gen X-ers.

Optimize emails for the devices your customers read them on (mobile, tablet, desktop, etc.).

4. Balance your email frequency

When you obtain permission, disclose how often you’ll email subscribers and what you’ll email about. 

Monitor engagement

If a customer hasn’t opened your emails in a while, reduce the frequency before hitting them with a re-engagement campaign and/or asking them to reselect their preferences.

Permission-based email marketing campaigns example


Allow subscribers to opt down

If a subscriber has clicked on the “Unsubscribe” link, first redirect them to a preference center (legally, you’re allowed up to two clicks between the time a user chooses to unsubscribe and when you take them off your list). There, they can choose whether to unsubscribe completely or simply change the frequency and topic of emails they receive.

If you’ve launched a special email campaign you know some of your subscribers won’t be interested in, provide an opt-out link for that particular topic in each email. 

Shooting your shot on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 8 AM to 4 PM is generally advisable, but keep analyzing email campaign data to hone in on the best time for sending emails. 

5. Simplify the unsubscription process

The harder you cling to subscribers and try to prevent them from opting out, the more desperate they’ll get to escape. It doesn’t just dent goodwill, but also tanks deliverability rates.

Instead, you should make the opt-out process as fuss free as possible. 

Display a clear unsubscribe button at the bottom of your email, like this:

Permission email marketing example


Adhere to legal and email client-specific regulations. As of 2024, both Google and Yahoo require single-click unsubscription with requests processed within 48 hours.

You can also proactively unsubscribe customers after a few months of inactivity.

After they’ve unsubscribed, you can 

  • give them the option to resubscribe through a popup or confirmation email, or
Permission-based email campaigns example for unsubscription


  • ask them to take an exit survey ending with the option to resubscribe. 

Lastly, have checks in place to ensure an unsubscribing customer is not sent any further marketing emails.

6. Motivate with a signup bonus

Offer valuable, relevant content and lead magnets (like free quizzes, tools, ebooks, white papers, etc.) to entice subscribers.

Align these lead magnets with behavior and interests. 

For instance, a blog visitor reading your article on “Kitchen Design Trends 2024” could be offered gated content like the “Kitchen Color Palette Handbook” to encourage them to sign up.

Contests, giveaways, and sale announcement posts can funnel social media followers to your email marketing list.

As a later-stage tactic, encourage referrals by offering freebies for every new subscriber you get from an email your subscriber forwards.

That said, it’s common for people to sign up for newsletters just to get a freebie and never open another of your emails. 

Clean up your contact info

Some people use burner accounts or fake addresses to sign up for email marketing.

If you send emails to fake or temporarily inactive email addresses, it can also cause irreparable damage to your sender reputation and condemn future emails to the spam folder.

To prevent this, verify email addresses before you add them to your list. 

Email verifier

You should also verify again from time to time to prevent list decay using the bulk email verifier.

Validating addresses in your list keeps your bounce rate in check and improves inbox placement or deliverability rate.

7. Categorize your audience

You can’t catch fish without bait.

It won’t matter that you’ve “technically” done everything right if your email marketing messages aren’t relevant and targeted to audience interests.

Compartmentalized but not hyper-niche communication is the key here, because granular segmentation can take too long and leave you with just a handful of subscribers per segment.

To categorize your subscribers, use a mix of demographics and psychographics, like age and location, combined with buyer journey stage.

Create custom sequences

B2B businesses or those with complicated models can make separate email marketing sequences for each decision-maker.

For example, you could create an email for the UI/UX designer who will be the end-user, one for the Head of Technology, and one for the VP approving the purchase.

You can also sub-segment audiences based on specific behavioral triggers, like responding or not responding to an email.

8. Make it personal

Set the right tone with the very first email or series of emails you send subscribers. Welcome sequences are highly personalized and have some of the best open rates.

Show them you care

Send birthday wishes, purchase reminders, and exclusive content.

Successful email marketing campaign example


Still don’t think it’s worth it? 71% of customers would disagree. In fact, they not only want business communication be personalized—they expect it.

Personalize copy and offers

Instead of using the subscriber’s name once at the start of the email, scatter first name personalization throughout your copy to mimic natural conversations. 

Permission-based email marketing example


Use their name in dynamic call-to-action (CTA) buttons and landing pages.

Make personalized offers based on website activity and purchase history.

Personalize sender details

Personalization extends to both sides of the equation. Your emails should create a connection between you and them

Use branded templates to establish a strong identity and become recognizable.

The more your users come to associate a specific look and feel with your emails, the more likely they are to interact with them. This includes elements like:

  • style (color palette, images, font styles), 
  • content format (educational, informative, transactional)
  • tone (friendly, humorous, cheerful), and 
  • sender name (e.g. Sarah from Spotify)

9. Use A/B testing to improve your strategy

Emails, no matter how carefully researched, written, and edited, always involve some guesswork and prayer. 

Before they land in a recipient’s inbox, it’s difficult to know how they’ll perform.

A/B testing minimizes the risk involved in these email campaigns by sending two variants to sample groups to determine which one fares better. These two variants can have different subject lines, images, copy, CTA buttons, design, layout, and so on. By selecting the better-performing version of each element, you can perfect your emails and improve customer engagement.

With A/B testing, you can also discover groups of like-minded individuals within your subscriber list.

You can keep their likes (and dislikes) in mind and create separate email sequences corresponding to their preferences.

Run these tests for each email marketing campaign, and analyze the reports to identify trends and issues over time.

10. Prioritize privacy and transparency

Of the many ways to get potential customers to like you and give you their money, taking liberties with their privacy and preferences isn’t one.

When customers share their personal information with you, you are obliged to honor that trust.

Permission-based email marketing sign-up popup example

Display your privacy policy

Your privacy policy should be easily accessible on your website and should cover:

  • what data is being collected,
  • how it’s being collected,
  • why it’s being collected,
  • and where and how it will be used.

Don’t overstep or manipulate the data privacy and usage terms shown when subscribers sign up.

Only collect necessary data and rely on zero and first-party data more than third-party data to gather additional insights about audiences.

This one goes without saying, but take measures to protect personal information and never sell customer data to third parties. 

Guard against leaks and if a breach does happen, communicate it promptly to your users.

Wrapping up

Permission-based email marketing is a sign of a healthy business model. You send relevant messages with personalized content to people interested in your product or service, building and nurturing long-term customer relationships.

The adoption of this permission-based model represents a crucial turning point for your business, but you don’t need to dive headlong into it. Integrate permission-based emails slowly with other digital marketing approaches. 

Once you’ve found your footing, gradually phase out less effective tactics to create a more sustainable marketing mix.

About the author

Antonio Gabric is an outreach manager at Hunter. For the last three years, he’s been helping SaaS companies grow their organic traffic and revenue through link building. At Hunter, Antonio leads a link-building and outreach team to build backlinks that move the needle and connect with industry leaders. To get in touch and follow his experiments, say hi on LinkedIn.