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Are Lists Collected at Tradeshows Considered Opt-in?

Tradeshows are a great place for networking — they offer a great opportunity to meet new potential clients, collect sales leads, and generally meet and greet other companies and individuals in your industry. If you have collected a list of email addresses from a tradeshow that your company attended — either through business cards given to you by individuals, or through the tradeshow organizer — you may find yourself wondering, “Can I send an email newsletter or marketing campaign to these email addresses?”

The most common answer to that is no. A list of email addresses compiled from business cards at a tradeshow is not considered an opt-in list. Sending unsolicited emails to addresses that were acquired in this way typically produces a high abuse rate, and could cause your hosted account to be shut down.

But I spoke to each individual who has given me their business card, and they gave me verbal permission to contact them in the future.

This may be the case — however, the simple fact is that regardless of what was communicated between individuals when the contact information was exchanged, tradeshow lists gathered from business cards almost always produce high spam/abuse rates (meaning a large number of subscribers on that list will mark your message as spam).

Typically, individuals who offer you their business card or email address at a tradeshow do not expect to be added to a general email marketing list or newsletter. Even if that fact was clearly communicated to them verbally at the time they offered you their contact information, they may not remember that this was the case, or recognize your company, by the time your newsletter or marketing campaign is sent.

So what can I do with the email addresses I collect at tradeshows?

You can email them individually, from your own personal email client (not from an email marketing software application). The best thing to do when you obtain a person’s email address is to email them personally, as soon as possible, with general information about your company or services (especially pertaining to any specific details that were discussed with that individual), followed by a link to your website, which should have a subscription form on it.

If you’d like, you might choose to mention something in your initial email that encourages users to sign up to your newsletter if they’d like to receive more information. In any case, make sure this initial email is personal, and is sent soon after the contact information was given to you, so that the individuals you are contacting will have their recent exchange with you fresh in their minds.

What about hand-written opt-in forms?

In some cases, individuals may fill out contact forms or cards at your tradeshow booth, in which they write down their name, email address, or other contact details. If these forms or contact cards contain a check box saying something along the lines of, “please add my email address to your mailing list,” then any person who checks that box would be considered opted-in.

However, be explicit — if this check-box/option simply says, “please contact me in the future,” then anyone who signed up would still need to be emailed individually first, as described above. Basically, the person must know, without a doubt, that they are signing up to a mailing list. Even so, it would be beneficial for you to keep these subscribers on a separate list (do not add them to your general email marketing list right away, until you can confirm the list is clean), and try to email this list as soon as possible after the tradeshow. You may even choose to mention the tradeshow in the initial email to this list, so that the subscribers do not have any doubts as to who you are or why they are receiving emails from you.

The organizer of the tradeshow has given me a list of all tradeshow attendees.

This is not an opt-in list. Do not contact any individuals on this list, as it is highly probably that they did not expect to receive any communications from vendors at the tradeshow.

I have collected business cards in a “fishbowl” — can I contact these individuals?

If you have collected business cards in a fishbowl, box, etc, for a contest or raffle, this is not an opt-in list. These individuals most-likely do not expect to receive any communications at all, and may not necessarily even be interested in your company or product/services.

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