Uncanned spam ham on a white plate

Better than the other kind?

If you don’t know the law, you might be.

You know what spam emails are – emails you don’t want that are usually trying to get money from you, either by selling you something (cheap Viagra, anyone?) or soliciting money directly (as in the common 419 scams).

But is every unwanted email you receive considered spam? And is every unsolicited email you send considered spam? Short answer: no. To understand this, let’s look at the law.

The 2003 CAN-SPAM Act

This cleverly titled act (which gets its nickname from its longer title “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003”) addresses questions of commercial emails, both business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B). It is therefore relevant not just to criminal spammers and scammers, but to legitimate companies that want to connect with current and potential customers.

The act describes what is legal, what is illegal, how the law should be enforced, and by whom. Although it is reported that the laws have not been strictly enforced, as a business it’s always in your best interest to follow the law.

The Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with enforcing the act, has advice for consumers on how to reduce spam and advice for businesses on how to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act. I’ve extracted some relevant parts for you below.

Spam Compliance for Email Marketing

As a business, you can send unsolicited emails legally. These might include email newsletters or simple, plain text emails. But you must adhere to the rules:

  • Your message must have accurate and relevant information. It must contain an accurate from line (read about the value of “friendly froms”), an accurate subject line, and a real physical address from the sender or company.
  • You must allow the recipients of your message to unsubscribe from your mailing list free of charge, and this request must be honored within 10 days. Also, once they have unsubscribed from your list, you may not sell their addresses to a third party. (Beware suspicious-looking emails with unsubscribe links. Many times, if you click them, you are only confirming the validity of your email, and you can expect to receive more messages in the future.)
  • You must clearly identify your message as an ad. Don’t you hate it when you click on a message with the vague subject line “hey!” just to find out it’s spam? Make the purpose of your email clear in the opening paragraph of your message, if not in the subject line.
  • If you’ve put your email marketing into the hands of someone else, oversee that they are complying with the law. Ultimately, it’s your company, and the FTC says it’s your responsibility.

Best Practices for Businesses Sending Email

But even if something is legal, is it the best way to go? You’ll help your business more in the long run if you think less about sticking to the letter of the law and more about the relationship you want to build with your customers. Here are some tips that will both keep you compliant with the FTC and keep you in the good graces of your email recipients.

  • Get permission. Even if it’s not required by law, it’s still best practice to get permission from every single person on your email list before sending them something. You don’t want your messages flagged as spam, which can hurt you. And why bother sending messages to people who are not interested in what you have to offer?
  • Build your list yourself. You might know that you can buy email lists, which can vary in quality and price. There’s something of a debate on whether buying or building an email list is better but the general consensus is, if you’ve got the patience, building your list is better. Again, you don’t want to take the risk that your email will be marked as spam. Even if the FTC doesn’t consider it spam, the recipient might, and that’s no good.
  • Reconfirm subscriptions. Have subscribers reconfirm their subscription before receiving marketing emails. This step makes sure they really want to be on your list, and it helps weed out nonfunctioning email addressees, too.
  • Adhere to the guidelines of your ESP. iContact, MailChimp, and other email service providers have their own guidelines. The spammier you are, the worse it is for them. So they don’t want you using purchased lists or sending without permission. Read your ESP’s rules carefully and follow them.

These best practices are related to the legal and ethical aspects of sending email marketing messages, not to the effectiveness of such messages. That’s another big subject – one I’ll tackle in a future post.

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