Dylan Smith

Democratisation of knowledge in a capitalist industry

Email marketer Russell Dawson gave a talk at a London email meetup a few years ago where he described donating his time and expertise to local businesses and non-profits, summing it up with the relevant words “I do it for free; I don’t do it for nothing.” I’ve dabbled in building tools for email practitioners for a while now. Supplementary to design roles at Taxi for Email and now Litmus, I’ve also created some free resources: How to Target Email Clients, Better Placeholder, and Sensitive Subjects.

I’m probably paid back in some small way in exposure, which then manifests itself into increased likelihood of getting job interviews or speaking engagements, etc. But even without that, I enjoy the satisfaction of spending a bit of my time to make something that will save other people a little or a lot of their time. And I like the creative and technical challenges, which help me brush up on certain skills, feeding back into my career.

With that in mind, my ears perked up when Email Geeks community member Steven Sayo asked a question about legislation. He wanted to know if there’s a resource that people could reference to make sure their emails are legally compliant with all relevant legislation across all regions. One place to read all of the dos and don’ts without having to comb through and interpret each country’s laws. A single list using the strictest all of the strictest laws as standards. I loved the idea and thought that, if it didn’t exist, it sounded like the perfect opportunity for a crowd-sourced community project.

I’m especially interested in this area as I’ve given a talk called Ethics & Email Marketing. In the presentation, I say that “legality should not be your baseline” — that is, I think senders should be respecting their audiences far more than to do only the least they can get away with. And while a resource like this might encourage compliance instead of best practices, compliance with the most buttoned-down laws on the books worldwide would be a big improvement for the recipients of many email programs. (Shameless: My email address is in the footer of this site and I’d love to speak about this to your conference audience.)

It turns out a resource like this does exist. The Email Experience Council has published a Global Email Marketing Compliance Guide that covers a whopping 77 jurisdictions. It costs $500 USD. (EEC membership costs $399/year and includes access to the guide.) Both the fee and membership are for personal or team use only; distribution, meant for whitelabelling to clients for example, costs hundreds or thousands more. Distribution to anyone else is presumably forbidden.

This is valuable information. Staying compliant and out of legal trouble is definitely worth $500. Multiple people researched and wrote this guide, and that’s worth $500. You’d almost certainly save $500 of your own time by buying the document instead of digging through all of the various laws and blog articles. But $500 is out of reach for many email practitioners. Small companies. Small teams. Small-time freelancers. Do they not deserve the same access to the information as the big companies or big-time consultants with big budgets? Do their subscribers not deserve to receive the same lawful and respectful emails? Well, not under capitalism.

This isn’t a critique of the Email Experience Council. People deserve to be paid for their work (even if I sometimes choose not to be). And if they didn’t think they could make money selling the guide, it wouldn’t exist at all. Surely it’s better that some people can benefit than no one. I personally believe in the democratisation of knowledge, but now I’m left struggling with where to draw the line. This knowledge is already freely available online to anyone. The guide is not. Should equal access to information include equal access to guides based on it? To tools or technology built on top of it? To the information in its most convenient form?

I don’t know, but I do know that the EEC’s for-profit approach doesn’t preclude a community-driven approach. Conversely, the existence of a free resource wouldn’t preclude others still, either free or paid. There’s more than enough room for all players. Making this information accessible to as many people as possible would raise the standards for email across the board. That’s an outcome that I hope everyone in the industry can agree is worth working toward.

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