Do ‘My email address has changed’ autoreplies give you permission to send?

By Ros Hodgekiss on 27th November 2012

Following any send, you're likely to receive an automated reply or two that goes along the lines of: "I've changed my email address... Please update your address books". But does this really give you permission to update a subscription?

For such a common message, there's remarkably little guidance out there as to how to handle 'change my address' autoreplies. So while we're going to let you know our recommendation shortly, we'd love to open this up for discussion - you likely have a point of view that's just as salient as our own.

Escaping Planet Email

First of all, why do folks set up these autoreplies in the first place? Our top guesses are that:

The final point is the one that bothers us the most about updating a subscriber's email address manually. How about if they don't want to hear from anyone but their nearest and dearest? If they are really determined to receive your newsletter, they likely can subscribe again - why make that choice for them?

On the other hand, these autoreplies are, well, a request to do something. An "I'm abandoning my inbox, please help me", of sorts. However, as they aren't explicitly asking you to add their new address to a mailing list, doing so doesn't really hold water for us.

That said, there is the option of emailing the subscriber personally to confirm what their preferences are. But for most senders, these autoreplies, like hard bounces, are an inevitable and statistically insignificant part of the greater wonder that is email marketing.

Do 'my address has changed' emails give you permission to send? We'd love to hear your opinion, so lets get the party started in the comments below.


  • Neil Lewin
    28th November

    Interesting question… I think on balance if someone has gone to the trouble to set up the auto response, then it suggests they still want to receive the emails they were getting.

    If I wanted to start afresh, I’d tell people using some other means, not an auto responder that everyone would see!

  • Andy Francis
    28th November

    Do they give you permission to send? Well the easy answer is no as you need expressed permission on each unique email address in your mailing list and an auto reply is not expressed permission.

    We have seen auto-replies where people have included a disclaimer of sorts along the lines of “you do not have my permission to add this address to your mailing list” but that’s rare.

    At the end of the day this will only become a problem for a sender if/when someone reports you for spam and demands to know how their email address got on to your list.
    Ask yourself if the answer “we took it from your auto-reply” would be accepted…I suspect not.

    However, frankly we consistently update peoples records when these auto-replies come in and will continue to do so. We would prefer to increase the chances of conversions through email marketing to these people rather than risking someone getting grumpy over where I have got their data from.

  • Julian Wellings
    28th November

    Maybe the difference here Ros is whether it’s an auto reply or a manual one. For manual replies I or my customers always change them. It’s no different to any other customer service email.
    For auto replies if you’ve sent to a large list of business email addresses it’s potentially a time consuming job to filter* out the “change my address” emails and action them. So I’d tend to concur with the point you make above (“bothers us the most”) and not action them.
    * I think you did a blog post on this a while back.

  • Christian
    28th November

    On a separate, but somewhat related note: Are we able to edit syntax errors? I.E., yahoo.comm, etc.

  • Ros Hodgekiss
    28th November

    Julian - You’ve hit the nail on the head, I dare say autoreplies and manually-sent requests to change one’s email address should be treated differently.

    Christian - Great question! I reason that’s fine, as long as it can be shown that you have permission to email that person. Happy to hear opinions on this, though!

    Great to see the discussion rolling, everyone! We’ve had some really valid points made so far :)

  • Nic
    29th November

    I understand what Andy is saying - in the most technical sense, this may be a no-no, but I think there is room for interpretation. I personally do not feel like I am betraying the trust of a user by updating their address from auto reply messages. For those of us in reputable companies, the unsubscribe link in our communications is always available and easy to complete and if that same user ever replied to a communication that we sent them and asked me to remove them from the list I would be sure to respect their wishes and opt them out of future messages.

  • Robin
    29th November

    I agree with Andy—you need expressed permission. I never change their email address based on an auto-reply though I do archive those emails just in case.

    But do you leave their subscription as is and let it continue to send to that email address even though the person has abandoned it? Or do you discontinue their subscription? I would only discontinue if I could follow-up with the user to let them know I’ve put their subscription on hold until he/she updates his/her profile. But it somehow feels wrong to email them at their new address based on the auto-reply. Auto-replies always seem to feel like they’re for personal use.

  • Adam
    29th November

    I have to agree that you need permission more than just a simple auto responder. Perhaps they have changed their email because of all the spam (subscription newsletters) they were getting? I don’t think it’s worth the spam complaint on this one.

  • Jeremy
    29th November

    I believe an auto-reply advising of an email address change is the equivalent of a person asking you to modify your record of their address from the old one to the new one.

  • Geneviève
    1st December

    I am with Nic and Jeremy.  If you are a reputable sender, the person who just changes email to unsub from annoying newsletters would already have been able to unsub from yours (or will do so at their new address).

    As for Christian’s question about syntax errors, our practice is to correct them outright.

  • Kevin Hunter
    19th December

    I would probably tend to agree with Jeremy (Nov 29). We have a fairly small subscriber base to our blog, with a relatively small pool of technical customers with whom we tend to have strong, trusting relationships. If someone’s email changed for some reason (they got married and their last name changed, for instance, so they’ve updated their company address), then I would see it as a service to them to update their information on our system based on some sort of address-change autoreply, rather than forcing them to personally contact us. I would imagine they have many other less attentive business relationship that would continue to use an old address.

    On the flip side, we use the same address in our contact management systems as in our news distribution systems, so they tend to stay in synch (though they are ultimately in different databases).

  • Philip Osborne
    19th December

    I would think that if they were changing their address to escape “spam” then they wouldn’t have set up an auto-responder, they would have found a way of communicating their new email address privately to only those they want to share it with.
    Also, if you represent a reputable company, then you are not the kind of “spam” they are trying to escape because you already offer them an easy way to unsubscribe if that’s what they really want.
    If they’ve gone to the trouble of setting up an auto-responder, it’s because they are explicitly asking senders to update their settings so that they don’t have to go through everything manually, individually updating every subscription. I think not updating is actually disrespecting the wishes of your customer and giving poor service.

  • James
    19th December

    Why not just set up rules to send the person a one time email inviting them to subscribe at their new address by clicking a link in the email?

    If they don’t respond, you don’t email them again. It would take the guess work out and keep subscription rates up.

    Would this be a violation of CAN-SPAM? It seems more like it would be a transactional email to me

  • Michael
    19th December

    I’m of the same mind as all those who’ve pointed out that, if I’m a legitimate publisher, unsubscribing is only a click away. The rest is a grey area and really just depends on the sort of relationship you as a sender have with your audience. At the risk of being cheesy, I think the “Follow your heart and do what you think the user would want” approach is valid here.

    Also, it’s easy enough to reply (personally) to the new e-mail address and say “Hi, I noticed you changed your e-mail address. Would you still like to receive our newsletter?” I guess it depends on your business case, but in my experience, any excuse to strike up an interaction with a customer — even a trivial one like this — is worth pursuing.

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