The Ethics of Email Amongst Colleagues: A Manifesto

One of the big challenges we face as therapists in practices which require us to do some element of marketing, is our ambivalence about social media.  Readers of my last post will note the irony that this one will encourage us to be thoughtful about how we use social media to market.  But in my opinion, the question of whether one uses the internet and social media has been supplanted by the question of how.  Fundamentalist ethical stances tell us, I won’t ever do X, and it is easy to hold rigid stances like this when one doesn’t want to have to engage thoughtfully with things, like social media in this case.

But I’m assuming two things about you if you’re still with me.  First, that you are ready to move from a fundamentalist stance to one that requires more self-reflection and flexibility; and second, that you’re interested in my opinion on this.  That’s why I used the term Manifesto, with tongue firmly in cheek:  These are my opinions and my ethical stance on email, and you may or may not agree with them.  They allow me to sleep at night, but maybe they won’t do the same for you.  And I’m practicing radical transparency, so you can know how I work, and opt out of working with me that way.  But first, here are some underlying assertions for you to consider:

Economics of Popularity Vs. Economics of Intimacy

One of the challenges that email falls squarely in the middle of is dual and dueling ethics of popularity and intimacy.  The internet caters to both of these ethics to some extent, but the ethics of intimacy is not as easy a fit.  So the market pushes popularity more, and confuses the two some.  People want to have lots of “followers” on Twitter, “friends” on Facebook, and be “in” or encircled on Google+.  The value here, like popularity in general, is more emblematic than holistic.  And there IS a value to popularity, no matter what you were told by adults in high school.  We pay attention to how many followers a person has on social sites, how many +1s they get.  They become an approximation that hints at value.  Sometimes on the interwebs, an economics of popularity is all you have to go on without digging (and yes, you should be digging, but more on that later).  For better or for worse, this ethics of popularity is what gamification can become preoccupied with, with its leaderboards and badges if we aren’t careful.

The Ethics of intimacy is a lot different.  It presupposes time, relationship, and evaluation through experience.  Of the hundreds of people you network with, these are the 10 people you refer to regularly.

As therapists, we value intimacy.  As humans we are seduced by popularity.  As businesspeople we need to negotiate the two economies ethically.  Some of this includes looking at whether we are confusing the two, and where we get indignant.  Are you wanting to build an email list like a Twitter following?  Do you think that the two are absolutely distinct?  I suggest that the answer to both questions should be “No.”

People sometimes love it when they follow, or connect with people via social media, and are then horrified when they get an email from them.  They were hoping for a pure economy of popularity, one more hit or friend, not intimacy, with the vulnerability and responsibility it can entail.  But in growing one’s business, I think there is a delicate balance between the two.

I have a group on LinkedIn that I moderate and curate, which has over 1,000 members.  Some of you read this blog via that group.  People ask to join it regularly, and then dialogue, lurk, or meet others through it.  They often utilize it initially for the economics of popularity predominantly, passing over groups with 50 or 100 members because the 1,000 means something to them.

When they are added to the list, I send each person a connect invitation which says we have the group in common, and that is how I “know” them.  If they accept they are added to my network, and I only ask once.  If not, they enjoy the group and whatever it gives them.

I often translate these situations into embodied reality to inform my ethics.  When we meet at a group or professional engagement, you ask me for your business card, or I for yours.  We may say we forgot them, whether it is true or not, or we may exchange them.  But I have never had someone pull a card out of his wallet, than say to me, “I’m only giving you this if you promise never to use it to contact me, and I also want you to promise you will never give this contact information to anyone who might want to work with me.”

With the exchange of the business card, virtual or physical, we are moving beyond the ethics of popularity.  If you want to network with me as an individual on LinkedIn or with your business card, my expectation is that you are willing to be in contact with me in a more intimate (from a business perspective) way.  On some level I think we all understand something of this; it’s why we don’t friend patients on facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Once you are in my LinkedIn network personally, my Outlook program downloads your email info and then I upload it into my Constant Contact database.  This is intentional, as it helps keep patient emails separate from business ones.  I only use the Constant Contact list for emailing my monthly (at most) newsletter, and maybe a book announcement when one comes out or a survey.  All told, you should never get more than 2 pieces of email from me a month and very rarely that.

At the top of every email is the option for you to unsubscribe, and one of the reasons I love Constant Contact is that once you opt out, the program locks me out of emailing you via them ever again.  It helps me manage a largeish list in a way that makes sure if you want to be unbothered by my newsletter you’re all set.  I average a 26% open rate on my newsletter, and about 25 people opt out each one month.  I think this is a good thing.

I would never sell these email lists.  Ever.  But yes I might share it with a colleague.  I have offered to do this a total of once in the 5 years I have had it.  This is with Susan Giurleo.  I have known Susan for just shy of a quarter of a century (sorry Susan, the truth is out 😉 ) have followed and read her work and collaborated with her on projects.  She hasn’t accepted the email list as of yet, but if she does, you can opt out of it just as easily on her part, because she practices ethical marketing.  And if you have known me, shared friendship and trust with me, argued and collaborated with me about psychology, and demonstrated your work ethic with me for over 20 years, let me know, and I’ll consider sharing my list with you also.


Ethics of Form, Ethics of Content

So that is some of the process and my thinking behind it.  But there is another piece that gets overlooked a lot in discussions of ethics, email lists and marketing your practice.  We need to not just attend to an Ethics of Form, but an Ethics of Content as well.  In other words, don’t just look at how you are contacting people, but ask yourself what you are contacting them about.

To a degree this goes both ways.  People rarely complain when they get an email asking whether they are accepting new patients, but often get downright hostile when the email is not clearly serving their self-interest.  If that sounds like you, you need to look beneath or behind the Ethics of Form reaction and questions (“How did you get my email?”) to Ethics of Content ones (“What are you sending me?”)  It is wrong to send a bomb through the postal service even if you have the victim-to-be’s address and use proper postage.  Content matters, and has an Ethical dimension as well.

For those of us that are contacting people with newsletters, etc., we need to practice both forms of Ethics, in my opinion.  I never send a newsletter to my list which only broadcasts my book and services.  At least 2/3 of my newsletter contains articles and research I think may be of interest, or news and resources that folks can use.  Sometimes if a colleague is doing something new and interesting I pass that on as well.  I never sell advertisement space on my newsletter, and consider it the twelve times a year I approach my colleagues with content.  And of course I mention my work, because I’m in a business that I want people to know about.  I also ask people to keep me in mind for speaking engagements, and the last time I was explicit about this, I received three inquiries that day, two of which converted to speaking engagements.

So what I’m saying is to please consider both as a reader and a writer of emails, the Ethics of Content as well as Ethics of Form.  Do I get hundreds of emails I don’t find helpful?  Yes, and big deal!  I’m a big boy, I can sort through them, drag as it may be, as easily as my paper junk mail. And if I were to sift through them, the majority of the people who got my email address got it from something I wanted from them originally, whether it was access to a website or voicing a comment.  I’m far more concerned with Ethics of Content than Ethics of Form these days, and where I am really concerned about the latter is how Target knows you’re pregnant, not some poor psychotherapist trying to market their practice.

I am not responsible for your digital literacy.

Here’s my last and most provocative point.  My newsletter clearly has ways to unsubscribe at the get-go.  And you got on the list initially because you wanted something from me.  So it is your responsibility to take yourself off the newsletter if you don’t like it.  Digital literacy is something we all need to have in the 21st century, and knowing how to take yourself off of email lists, out of forums, and filter your inbox is part of what you need to do as part of your daily life online as well as offline.

You can try to stay fundamentalist about it, but then don’t expect to take advantage of the web either.  Don’t think you can post a blog comment, or subscribe yourself to free content, and then be surprised that people want to contact you back.  Don’t expect your outrageous indignation to carry you very far.  If you are saying, “How dare you email me?” be prepared to answer the question, “How dare you ask me to network or provide you with free content?”  If you were willing to get the freebies, be prepared to get an email now and then.  If you wanted to add one more “follower” to grow yourself, be prepared that we’re going to ask you for something in return.  Undying fealty went out with the Middle Ages.

Look, we all need to come up with some sort of ethical structure to navigate Web 2.0, and we also need to be considerate of others’ time and bandwidth when we contact them.  But we need to start understanding how we participate in this process by engaging in the Economies of Popularity and Intimacy.  We need to pay attention to both Ethics of Form and Content, our own as well as others.  And we need to accept that we are responsible for being lifelong learners of digital literacy.  Because, frankly, Target is the one you need to worry about.  I just told you how I operate, don’t think they are going to.

Agree? Disagree?  I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts?  And not just to get your email address.  >;-)


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  1. Brian Daly says

    I started working with children about 2 years ago. As a reward for offering information that I sought as a therapist, I would allow the kids the chance to play games, on my computer. While they were playing, they opened up more. They enjoyed showing me their skill, especially a child with ADHD, who is usually getting re-directed constantly. Now I am listening to a 15 year old student, who is supposed to be on the spectrum, tell me the story behind one of his favorite games. He is using the computer to show me the characters, while he tells the story. His agility at finding the character on the computer is amazing and his ability to weave the intricate story is amazing It’s facinating to watch a shy kid transform into an animated storyteller over a game. I think there is plenty of room for working with kids and games.
    On the day that Bin Laden was killed, when I told the kids I was seeing about how it happened. They all commented that in Black Ops 2, that is the same way they killed an enemy. After a brief reading of your blog, I’m wondering how I could use games with adults. Up until two years ago, I never saw, played or knew about any games. It didn’t interest me. But I see now that if I have a group of kids and I can tell the whole story about a game, or ask them what level they are on, that makes me more interesting to them. I even reference certain characters to make a point during treatment.

  2. Holy crap. It took me two reads on two separate days to figure out what you were saying. Apparently your “radical transparency” doesn’t extend to frankly admitting what you dance around but don’t come out and say: you’re running your newsletter opt-out instead of opt-in. And this whole convoluted tangle of excuses is a defensive apologia for doing something you know perfectly well is a violation of netiquette and which wouldn’t fly among a more internet-savvy demographic than therapists.

    You know, if you’d come out and said, “Well, for the last 20 years or so, it’s been a norm online that opt-out is rude and opt-in is polite, but I want to challenge that thinking. I decided a while back to do opt-out, and this is my justification for doing that” you might have convinced me. But this, man, this is skanky.

    But I have never had someone pull a card out of his wallet, than say to me, “I’m only giving you this if you promise never to use it to contact me, and I also want you to promise you will never give this contact information to anyone who might want to work with me.” No, but umpteen hundred thousand people have pretty clearly said, “I’m only giving you this email address if you use it to personally contact me, and not send me impersonal marketing collateral and dehumanizingly treat me like ‘eyeballs’.”

    There are a lot of quite awful things you say in this piece (I discovered once I decoded it), but you know what the worst is? you got on the list initially because you wanted something from me. Really, Mike? “I’m justified in taking advantage of you because you wanted something from me”? “I don’t have to ask your permission because you initiated contact with me”? Really? Really? Is that who you want to be in relationship to your fellow humans? Your fellow therapists?

    Mike, if, as you say, People… often get downright hostile when the email is not clearly serving their self-interest, if people are saying to you “How dare you email me?”, if you’re getting exposed to outrageous indignation, maybe those are signs you need to stop doing what you’re doing? You know, if people are offended, maybe you should stop offending against them? How many people are you subscribing a month that antagonizing 25 of them is okay to you?

    Also, I don’t understand if you’re so radically transparent and so concerned with ethics, why you don’t just tell people, when you offer to link in LinkedIn, not only that you know them through the group, but that if they link you back you’ll subscribe them to your newsletter. I think it’s a boorish choice to insist “link me, love my newsletter”, but whatever; at least if you were to notify them with the offer that it was two for one, they’d have informed consent. Hell, you could even phrase it as if you were doing them a favor, “If you were to do me the honor of linking, I’d be delighted to give you a complementary subscription to my MH Profession current events newsletter. Just let me know what email address you want it sent to.”

    Mike, it’s been a long time since someone managed to drop themselves a precipitously in my esteem as you have here. You know better. I know you do: it radiates from every specious, hackneyed argument you’ve raised, like a host of shambling rhetorical zombies from the mid-1990s: “but there’s an opt out!” “just hit delete!” “I’m not breaking the rules, you aren’t good with technology.” It telegraphs in the way your normally direct and cogent writing got all elliptical and indirect and squirrelly (dude, don’t play poker online, ‘k?) And it blisters the screen with the angry defensiveness (“Don’t expect your outrageous indignation to carry you very far.” *rolls eyes*).

    The reason not to do what you do, Mike, the reason it’s considered bad and wrong, is because it damages a common. Every time you subscribe someone without their consent, you acculturate them a little bit to the expectation, “if I sign up for this, I will have some random other that imposed on me”. That, in turn, makes every one of those people a little less likely to reach out to others and risk signing up for things. Even if they like and appreciate your newsletter. Even your fans, Mike, are being conditioned thus. The next time they face a choice of whether or not to engage with a fellow professional online, in the back of their head with be the question, possibly entirely unarticulated, “Do I want more random email? Do I want to go have to set up a filter for this?”

    Your doing this contributes in a small way to professionals finding it aversive to network online. And you do this harm to our the attentional commons of our profession for your personal gain. Darn tooting right some people think there’s something wrong about that.

  3. Hi, Mike. While I, too recognize the delicate balance between popularity and intimacy in social media, I’m afraid that based on your statements above, you have tilted toward popularity at the expense of professional intimacy.

    I, too, prefer an “opt in” rather than an “opt out” default for email lists. I never think of you, Mike, as a guy who is too concerned about “coloring within the lines” and, mostly I appreciate that about you. However, from a business / marketing perspective, defaulting to an “opt out” position really feels like you are trying to “slip one over” on your readers. It’s certainly more in line with intrusion marketing than permission marketing.

    From my perspective as a Licensed Professional Counselor, one of the core values in our profession is personal autonomy (perhaps that differs for Social Workers?). While you may offer your transparency here in this post and place your option to “opt out” at the top of every email, you have already taken away that initial choice.

    I’m also really surprised and disappointed to learn that you would choose to share my contact info with anyone without my explicit permission to do so . . . . I, too, respect Susan’s work but would never have expected you to share my personal information with anyone else regardless of how long you have known them. (And, now I wonder if Susan does the same thing . . . . Susan, I know you follow Mike’s blog so I hope you’ll let us know if your practice is the same.)

    In many ways I value the information you share with us, Mike. Although we have yet to meet face to face and I’ve only known of your work online for less that two years, I have come to trust your tech-savvy and sometimes sassy ways. And, I am certainly appreciative of this blog post and your transparency concerning your social media and marketing practices.

    However, in these two ways, I feel a bit betrayed.I hope you will reconsider these two aspects of your policies.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Tamara,

      I am definitely NOT speaking for Susan, in fact, this may be one of the areas that she and I disagree, Let’s see. 🙂

      I’m always open to thinking about things. I also think there may be a generational difference between those of us who are digital natives to email and those of us who grew up with snail mail. Maybe you experience this on some level as if I sent a marketing company a letter with your address? Just thinking aloud, what is the physical world analogy to you?

  4. While it is true that Mike and have known each other since 1987, and agree on many things social media and marketing, we are not twins separated at birth and I would say that on this we diverge in our practices.

    My email list is double opt in only.I never add anyone to in manually, in fact. This keeps my list on the smaller side, but I get around a 50% open rate and minimal unsubscribes each week. I do not offer my list to anyone and, while I do appreciate the offer, Mike, I will not be borrowing your list.

    I do know several other professionals who do the “opt out” method of list building. It isn’t a practice I am comfortable with. I do err on the intimacy side vs popularity as I find that my business relationships are deeper, as are the business financial rewards down the line. I believe in the ‘slow and steady growth wins the race” approach.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Thanks Susan,

      I think that is is an example for me of how we each need to think through, weigh other people’s ideas and opinions, and ultimately form our own best practices in terms of this stuff.

      And if we WERE twins I’d be the adorable one. ;-P

  5. Susan, thanks so much for the quick response! I’m so glad to hear that your practice, like mine, is to double opt in to get on my email list. And, I know you have a very loyal following.

    Hey, Mike . . . I realize that I forgot to say “thank you” for actually bringing this dialogue to the table. I think that these stances are afterthoughts for far too many mental health and coaching professionals as they venture into social media.

    And, you’ve definitely pegged me right – I am a digital immigrant – but I’m don’t think in this situation that this is a generational stance so much as it is a relational stance.

    The physical analogy to me is this . . . it’s more like when I go to a fair and have the opportunity to I sign up to receive a free sample of your delicious cheesecake. I know, from past experience, that if I sign up for that cheesecake (or the “free vacation”) I can then expect to be bombarded with your marketing stuff. I learned that about 30 years ago at the State Fair of Texas so now I never sign up for those freebies.

    However, in my professional relationships (and I do consider that to be my relationship with you) – both on and offline – I expect more transparency and honesty in my interactions. (Perhaps you would say that’s about naivity or digital ignorance but I would not.)

    I expect a higher level of integrity – both on and offline – for many reasons not the least of which is because I expect to build authentic relationships with colleagues. It’s what I expect from my friends and my family of choice . . . . It’s part of what I consider when referring clients to another colleague . . . . I don’t want to seek services from or refer clients to someone who is going to “play” me or them. Nor do I want my personal information (or theirs) handled carelessly.

    Here’s the interesting thing to me, Mike . . . . You have a smart and savvy niche for your practice and you are generous in always providing pithy and useful content in your posts posts. I’m surprised that you would feel the need to be anything less than upfront with your readers / fans / followers / etc. You provide good value and service. And, an email or two once a month with great content is what I want more of in my box rather than more junk mail!

    Why would you even think twice about allowing them to “opt in” rather than “opt out?” or ask before passing their contact info along? (Ha ha – You know, of course, if our relationship was clinical rather than collegial, I would be looking for issues around value and self worth . . . !)

    You are right that you are not responsible for mine or anyone else’s digital literacy. I’m not thinking that I’m illiterate in this area. Nor am I responsible for your relationship literacy. Still . . . as good as your stats are . . . I have to think that your fabulous popularity just might be costing you some even higher quality relationships . . . .

    I imagine that it is possible that your numbers might shrink a bit (or not) but the quality of the followers and fans would most likely increase. What I am making up in my head is that you are being just a tad inauthentic with these practices and that you can and deserve to do better. I and the rest of your 1000 fans / friend / followers do, too.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Tamara,

      Great thoughts, and here are some more of my thinking:

      1. I try to focus more on what I am sending and frequency rather than where the email came from (within the parameters I discuss in my post.) I think that someone opting in doesn’t give me the right to bombard them, and I think it is more problematic to be someone who sends tons of emails to people who OKed it than someone who uses opt out and sends one. If they want to opt out, they have one click and they are opted out forever.

      2. I try to focus More on balanced content as well, rather than sending pure promo stuff just because they opted in.

      More to say later…

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Ok, time for more thoughts..

      I am glad you note that the reason we’re having this conversation is that I am being transparent. That said, I am always never perfectly conscious and therefore always never perfectly up front. But I am always open to thinking about things and revising things. To me the fix for this as far as LinkedIn goes is to add a note to the person which says that if they do network with me they will shortly received a newsletter from me which they are welcome to opt out of right away. This way they can know to expect it if they agree to network, and that they can easily opt out of it as well.

      I should also mention that this is not something that automatically happens to everyone who joins the group, but your point is well taken to be more transparent with the subsequent LinkedIn network invites as we discuss and learn more. I think that is overkill personally, but I also don’t think everyone else in the world thinks like me or ought to. 🙂

      In the philosophizing department, I think we’re also talking about “what does it mean to network?” in Web 2.0 and has it changed? Also, I do think this raises the question of how “personal” information email is. I do think it has a more personal valence for those of us who grew up without it and migrated to it than those who grew up in a world where multiple emails, email filters, and online traffic are a given and easy to use. I’m NOT saying you aren’t digitally savvy, I AM saying that you and I have expectations about personal information that was shaped by the technology and environment of our time.

      Lastly, I do want us to note several things that I am NOT doing. I am not moderating these posts, whether they be vitriolic or not. I am not asking people to pay a fee to post their opinions on a blog I pay for. I am not discouraging people from posting here and benefiting from those people who are my subscribers, where they get more visibility than if they emailed me directly. We tend to feel we are entitled to promote our ideas on other people’s platforms, and we aren’t. There is a lot more to professional integrity than email addresses, and in my opinion we need to cast a wide view on social media and tech when it comes to that.

  6. Mike, I know that the reason I stick with your blog . . . and the reason I just got around finally to subscribing to (in spite of my comments above) is that you absolutely DO strike a generous balance in selling your services and actually providing a service. I appreciate that. And, I really do get that you are a guy with integrity.

    I also noted long ago that you don’t flinch or edit commenting in a biased way. Yes, every blog owner has the right to publish / not publish what he chooses; however, you are generous in publishing comments here, too. You seem genuinely interested in building a community here and generating dialogues of substance.

    I also get that I am a product of my culture and generation and that has sculpted by expectations. So . . . yes, what I consider to be personal may not be considered personal by a 25 year old digital native who has lived her life out online. But, what I think she and I and her older brother and her younger nephew would all agree on is that IF we are pursuing genuine relationships with someone on or off line, we would each expect some level of authenticity and truthfulness.

    Now, I do realize that it is those very expectations that may be the problem – and that not everyone is going to live up to those expectations that I bring into the relationship. That happens, for sure. And, what I choose to do with that, as in this case, is to recognize them and have the discussion. Sometimes I change; sometimes the other person changes; sometimes we find a happy medium; and sometimes one or both of us decide to just walk.

    Mike, you’ve been such a trooper in this dialogue. Thank you. I’m re-thinking my generational biases and some of my digital challenges, too. And, I see that you are looking are your stuff, too. It’s always encouraging when I meet other professionals who are willing to nudge and be nudged and are willing to walk through muddy waters. It speaks volumes to me about the guy you are and the therapist you are. I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity to meet face to face one day and I look forward to it!

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Thanks Tamara, I appreciate it! And as a result of the dialogue I’ve crafted a response I send in my invitation to connect message on LinkedIn (edited to make it fit in their character limit) that I’m offering for any to borrow if they’d like:

      “Thanks for joining AMHP. Admission isn’t based on connecting with me, but I’d like to give you the opportunity to do so. If you do, you’ll initially become part of my newsletter email list. You don’t have to be on that either: Opt out by clicking the link on top, & you’ll never get it again.


  7. Nice, Mike! Thanks for sharing! I’ll be happy to pass a link on to my readers so that they can see your thought process, our dialogue, your earnestness at transparency and your commitment to bring the rest of us into the 21st century.

    Have a great day!

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