Take a quick look at your spam folder. How many messages lurk out in there? How happy are you that these messages aren’t cluttering up your inbox? Spam is the bane of our online existence, and yet sales via email still haven’t slowed down. In fact, the use of email marketing is increasing at a faster rate than ever before.

What’s the difference between legitimate, useful email marketing and spam? The challenge marketers face is creating a campaign that won’t get them labeled as spam. It’s difficult and a lot of work, but it is possible — and the benefits are huge.

Know the Rules

If you’re going to sell in the online market, you need to know the rules. And like regular laws, different regions of the world have different ways of handling—or even defining—spam.

The challenge to website owners is that a successful online business often has global reach. If your customer is in a region with strong anti-spam laws, then you might be subject to them. Ignorance isn’t an excuse for breaking the law (and it’s certainly no protection when your email address gets blacklisted!), so the best thing you can do for your business is to read up on anti-spam laws before you start your email marketing campaign in earnest.

United States: CAN-SPAM ACT

Enacted in 2003, the CAN-SPAM act attempts to protect users in the United States from unsolicited emails, specifically those whose primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.

While the law doesn’t actually prohibit marketers from sending unsolicited commercial email, it does require emails to have three key elements:

  • Unsubscribe – Visible and functional unsubscribe procedures must be laid out in all emails, and must be acted upon within 10 days.
  • Clear content – Commercial emails must be clearly marked as such. Vague, misleading subject lines and “From” labels are not allowed, and the email must contain the actual physical address of the sender.
  • Responsible sending – Messages can’t be sent via an open relay, nor can they be sent to harvested email addresses.

If you want to read more, the full text of the CAN-SPAM Act is available online.

European Union: Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive

Known shorthand as the “E-Privacy Directive”, this European Union law focuses on data protection as well as privacy. It has a wider scope than the CAN-SPAM act, but the main difference can be boiled down to:

  • Opt-in – Unlike the CAN-SPAM law, the EU law only allows messages to be sent with the recipient’s prior approval. Any business collecting email addresses for marketing purposes needs to get the customer’s permission before anything can be sent.
  • Cookies – Websites need to ask permission before installing cookies on their visitor’s computers, and need to explicitly mention the purpose of those cookies, and whether they’re going to be used to create a mailing list for commercial emails. You might have noticed european websites explicitly stating their cookies policy on their websites in the last year: this is why.

Although this EU law sets a blanket standard for anti-spam laws in the region, the actual implementation is left to each individual country, and has to be taken on a case to case basis.

Canada: Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL)

Also known as Bill C-28, CASL is one of the strictest anti-spam laws in the world. Canadians: tougher than you expected!

It takes the basic elements of the CAN-SPAM law and expands the coverage, restrictions, and penalties to much higher and stricter levels. Notable provisions include:

  • Prior relationship – Any sender must have a prior business or non-business relationship with a recipient before sending over a commercial message. If there is no relationship, the sender needs to send a consent request clearly expressing the purpose of the message, and the recipient needs to actively reply.
  • Expanded coverage – The law covers any and all forms of electronic communication that are used to convey a commercial message, which may include instant messaging, mobile text messaging, and social media.
  • Location specific – Any message sent from or accessed in Canada is subject to CASL, even if it’s a foreign citizen who sent a spam message from within Canadian borders. Senders are expected to check for Canadian accounts in their contact lists and obtain consent prior to sending any messages.

These are a lot of practices to adopt at once, but don’t panic! This doesn’t mean the end of email marketing—in fact, many of these laws have already been out for years, and commercial emails are still a key marketing strategy for many businesses. In general, if your list is only made up of people who have specifically opted in to receive your emails, you’re good to go.

Familiarity with the rules is going to protect your business from litigation and, more importantly, guide you to creating emails that will sell, and not annoy.

Due Diligence

Even if your list is home-grown (and it should be) you have to do your due diligence and scan the list for anything that might get you in trouble:

  • Duplicate email addresses – You definitely need to watch out for this, because let’s face it: who wants to receive the same email twice or thrice in a row? If you’re sending via an email service like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor, you’re covered: they automatically suppress duplicates.
  • Sensitive locations – You might want to remove emails from certain locations (e.g. Canada) or from a particular group (if you’re only selling to certain types of companies, for example) if you have any doubt about their opt-in status.
  • Blocked addresses – Don’t forget to remove blocked or old addresses from previous campaigns. It’ll clean up your list and make sending faster.
  • Opt-outs – Compare your mailing lists to your list of customers who’ve opted out. You need to make sure nobody’s slipped through the cracks.

Let Customers Say No

Email marketing is not a one-way conversation. You want customers to respond, even if the response is to say “thanks, but no thanks.”

Why? Well, compliance aside, you can get some valuable information from them. By tracking the amount of negative feedback, you might be able to learn what works for your market and what doesn’t. With “unresponsive” responses, you’re not even sure if the customer ever saw the email or not. Here’s a secret: at Flippa, every reply to our newsletter goes straight into my inbox — and I make sure to reply to every email.

Make it easy for your customers to opt out by making the instructions simple and prominent. If you want to go above and beyond, you can even add an optional suggestion box: “What about this email didn’t you like?”

Target Your Email Blasts

The most obvious and annoying spam emails are those that have totally nothing to do with the customer. I myself have received emails touting, ah, enhancement creams, even though I’m a woman. Shotgun email blasts are wasteful, expensive (because you probably paid to send those emails!), and bad for your business’ reputation.

If you want to avoid being summarily deleted as spam, you need to make sure you’re sending your emails to the right people. Not only is this responsible email marketing, it’s also the strategy that will get you the most customers.

Think about it: the only people who will buy your lawn mowers are people who have actual lawns. So don’t waste your time selling to people who live in apartments.

Class, Not Crass

All this talk about spam really boils down to one thing: bringing your customers value.

Spam is a symptom of lazy and apathetic marketing. Spammers don’t really care about the individual customer; they just want to make as much money as they can for the least amount of effort.

You, on the other hand, do care. Right? So you make sure your email benefits the customer in some way. An exclusive sale. An innovative new product. An informative newsletter. Stuff that a specific customer will actually see and find interesting, presented in a way that shows you really had them in mind when you put it together—even if it was created from a template.

If everyone sent messages like these, then we wouldn’t have a spam problem at all.

How important is email marketing to your web business? Did any of the above laws surprise you? Which kind of spam irritates you the most? Let’s chat about it in the comments!

Thanks to Gary for the photo!

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