Everybody hates email spam right? We even call email spam on those who have our permission to email us. But what is spam? These days we equate email spam to emailing too much, too often, without permission, unsolicited email or even emailing off topic.
There is a difference between email spam law and the perception of spam. Unsolicited email is not necessarily illegal. What is law and what is myth? And because commonly perception is reality, what should you do to avoid being perceived as a spammer?
CAN-SPAM’s rules represent only a portion of what rules you need to follow in order to avoid the perception of spam. There are three areas that need to be addressed.
Let’s address each individually.
1. CAN-SPAM requirements
Without a doubt, you must comply with CAN-SPAM. But it’s not what most people think. Email recipients generally complain about two things:
The CAN-SPAM laws were dubbed “you can spam” because they don’t actually address these concerns but require the following:
- Don’t use false or misleading header information. Your “From,” “To,” “Reply-To” and routing information—including the originating domain name and email address—must be accurate and identify the person or business who initiated the message.
In other words, the email address that shows up in the “From” field should be your domain name and email address, if you are sending the email. This is why “borrowing” a list falls in a gray area. If you are business A and initiate a message yet send it from business B’s list with their own “From” and “Reply-To,” you’re breaking the law.
- Don’t use deceptive subject lines. The subject line must accurately reflect the content of the message.
This is pretty straight forward. Don’t bait-and-switch. If the subject line says “You could win a $50 gift card!” but the text of the email doesn’t offer a contest, you’re going against CAN-SPAM.
- Identify the message as an ad. The law gives you a lot of leeway in how to identify a message as an ad, but you must disclose clearly and conspicuously that your message is an advertisement.
If the message is an account-related communication, such as “Here’s your monthly statement” or “Here’s a receipt for your purchase,” it is not considered an ad. Many email marketers will disguise their email as customer communication to pitch promotions to client list. We’ll talk more about content a little later in this post.
- Tell recipients where you’re located. Your message must include your valid physical postal address. This can be your current street address, a post office box you’ve registered with the U.S. Postal Service or a private mailbox you’ve registered with a commercial mail receiving agency established under Postal Service regulations.
In other words, your address should appear in the email. Most email providers will automatically append this for you in the footer of the email.
- Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you. Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read and understand. Creative use of type size, color and location can improve clarity. Give a return email address or another easy Internet-based way to allow people to communicate their choice to you. You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to stop all commercial messages from you. Make sure your spam filter doesn’t block these opt-out requests.
Yes, the law doesn’t require that you get people to opt in, it merely requires that you give them clear and functional opt-out options. You know the contacts who receive your business cards at a networking event and add you to their email list without your permission? They do so because they can. This should answer the question: Should I add my new contacts to our email newsletter? You can, as long as you give them clear, simple and accessible opt-out options. We still recommend that you ask for permission, not for legal reasons, but for strategic reasons. We’ll discuss this later too.
- Honor opt-out requests promptly. Any opt-out mechanism you offer must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after you send your message. You must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days. You can’t charge a fee, require the recipient to give you any personally identifying information beyond an email address or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request. Once people have told you they don’t want to receive more messages from you, you can’t sell or transfer their email addresses, even in the form of a mailing list. The only exception is that you may transfer the addresses to a company you’ve hired to help you comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.
Once someones says “don’t email me,” you can’t email them any more. Period. Most email service providers will automatically block this account from being re-added to your email list, so you’re safe. But if you switch email providers, it is your responsibility to keep a list of opt-outs and opt them out again after the switch.
- Monitor what others are doing on your behalf. The law makes clear that even if you hire another company to handle your email marketing, you can’t contract away your legal responsibility to comply with the law. Both the company whose product is promoted in the message and the company that actually sends the message may be held legally responsible. [Source: The CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business]
Email service providers are your partners, so pick wisely and allow them to help you through this. Our preferred email provider is MailChimp.
3. Good Content is King
So you’ve done all of the above, yet people still think you’re spamming them! What is going on?
The perceived issue with spam and its solution resides with your email marketing strategy.
No laws or policies can prevent people from hating bad content and irrelevant messages. Even with permission, if your email content is of no interest to your audience, you’re a spammer to them.
Good content is king. If you provide real value to them, they won’t think of you as spammers. And I’ll leave it at that for this edition. More later.
Questions, comments, compliments? Please leave us a comment!
I wanted to know if you could help me combat a years ongoing battle with spammers spoofing my business email. I've had to stop my newsletter because most ISP's have blacklisted my email. Why don't they have an auto bot read the emails and punish the offender before shutting down legit busniesses who are also victims? I try to report each offense but they keep piling up from all over the world. My email must have made a list of emails to spoof that spammers pass around. I'm on the verge of just closing up shop and losing the website. This is bad for business and no one can help unless you know of another way to fight back? Thank you for reading and hopefully you have some ideas. Thank you
Echoing SoaringWindsMkt. I use Mail Chimp and their disclaimers kind of make you feel like you're doing something wrong if you don't have the opt in. I come home from events with dozens of business cards and permissions to follow up, and I still feel weird putting them on my list sometimes. It's a great reminder that not only is it within our legal limits to send unsolicited email, but that also relevant and targeted information is welcomed. Your email with this information being ironically a perfect example. Thanks Mana!
JonathanBranca I hear you. I don't put biz cards on our list unless they mark wanting to hear from us. I usually say "hey, we send marketing tips via email once per month, please mark your card if you'd like to receive them. I promise it's good content and we don't spam." ... And 90% of the people say yes to that. I really don't want us to email people who don't want to hear from us.
Excellent post. It came at the perfect time because I've been researching the topic of unsolicited (yet not necessarily SPAM) e-mail. For better or worse, unsolicited e-mailing has led to business for my company. As the new and first-ever marketing manager, I'm trying to get us to the point where we stop "throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks" and taking a more strategic approach to e-mail marketing. Until we can develop a good opt-in list...we'll have to take the "opt-out" approach. Thanks for the great tips!
SoaringWindsMkt Not emailing at all for fear of being perceived as a spammer is like not going out without makeup for fear of being perceived as ugly. If you're that worried, slap on some make up and get out! Slap some makeup on that email and shoot it off!