Email Marketing And CAN-SPAM Compliance

CAN-SPAMThis December will mark the twelfth anniversary of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003.  Better known to most as the CAN-SPAM act and signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 16 of 2003, it is one of the more misunderstood regulations under which we marketers conduct our business.  Let’s take a look at some of those misunderstandings about who and what are affected by CAN-SPAM, and show you how to be sure your email marketing campaign is in compliance.

Clearing Up Some Misunderstandings

Misunderstanding:  CAN-SPAM is after those big bulk-email sending marketing houses. I’m one person sending out emails manually, so it doesn’t pertain to me.

Clarification: The CAN-SPAM act was originally created in response to public outrage over the amount of junk mail clogging their inboxes.  In an effort to stem the tide of these annoying intrusions, the act leveled its aim at commercial email, defined in the bill as “any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose).”  That casts a pretty wide net that not only includes bulk-email blasts sent out by large marketing houses, but technically also includes the email you send to your co-workers promoting your child’s charity sub sale.  No differentiation is made based on size of the entity sending the emails or amount of emails sent.

Misunderstanding: CAN-SPAM makes unsolicited emails illegal.

Clarification: There is no language anywhere in the CAN-SPAM act that explicitly forbids sending unsolicited emails.  What CAN-SPAM does do it make it much easier to identify marketing emails for what they are.  You can, in theory, be completely in compliance with CAN-SPAM and still be sending thousands of unwanted emails to people who never asked for them.  A side-effect of CAN-SPAM has been a shift in email marketing “etiquette,” whereby most marketers take great pains to ensure they are sending their emails to a list of folks who have “opted in” or made it clear they are willing to accept such emails, but surprisingly that is not something that is dictated by CAN-SPAM.

Misunderstanding:  Being CAN-SPAM compliant guarantees my emails will be delivered to the people I send them to, and not stopped by spam filters.

Clarification:  Being CAN-SPAM compliant only guarantees that you will not be penalized for violation of the CAN-SPAM act.  Nowadays, nearly all email clients employ some sort of spam filter; some are fairly lax while others are so strict they will only allow email through if the sender’s address is on the recipient’s trusted contact list.  Beyond that, many email systems also allow the user to choose to report a specific email as spam with the click of a button.  If you want your emails to be delivered, you need to deliver a message that people want to hear in a way they want to receive it.

Misunderstanding: If I hire a third-party company to send my email blast, they are responsible for seeing to all of the compliance.

Clarification: Whether you send the emails yourself or hire a vendor to do it, you as the originator of the email are the responsible party.  It is wise to be sure you are dealing with a reputable company, or you could find yourself in hot water without realizing it.

What If I’m Not CAN-SPAM Compliant?

While there are many critics who complain that CAN-SPAM is a relatively toothless beast, it does clearly lay out some regulations as to what information a commercial email piece must contain and the mechanics by which it is sent.  Failing to comply with those regulations can result in fines of up to $300 per email, which can add up pretty fast: the largest settlement to date occurred in 2006 and totaled $900,000! Jail time is also possible under the act, and sentences of five years or more have been handed out since the act became law.

What Must I Do to Comply?

To be in compliance with the CAN-SPAM act, a commercial email piece must contain the following pieces of information:

  • A clearly indicated method of unsubscribing from future emails (such requests must be met within ten business days).
  • An accurate “From” field.
  • A non-deceptive subject line.
  • The proper physical address or PO Box for the business whose products or services are being marketed.
  • Clear labelling if the content of the email is adult in nature.

Further, these standards describe the mechanics of sending a compliant email:

  • Email may not be sent through an open relay which allows anyone with Internet access the ability to send mail.
  • Email may not contain false information in the header in an attempt to obscure or hide the sender.
  • Content must contain a minimum of one sentence.

Again, you’ll notice that none of these standards address permission from the recipient beyond an unsubscribe option.  Still, it is strongly recommended to only use lists where the recipients have given permission to be sent marketing emails, or you limit your email marketing to existing customers or prospects who have inquired about your products or services within the past 90 days (this is often referred to as an “existing business relationship,” and is an exemption from CAN-SPAM).

If you’re planning an email marketing campaign and want to be sure you’re in compliance with CAN-SPAM, start a conversation with the experts here at Synapse.  We’ll help you craft a vibrant, attention-grabbing campaign that falls well within CAN-SPAM standards.

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