man checking email in cafe
269 billion emails go out daily, and nearly 60% of those are spam. Spam emails are more than just annoying—they’re illegal.

Email is a big part of marketing, which means that marketers should be educated on the laws surrounding email, and how to keep both customers and governments happy with the emails they’re sending out.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions: greymail vs. spam.

Greymail is not spam

Greymail is marketing emails that contacts have subscribed to at one time or another, but they don’t particularly want in their inboxes. For example, when a checkout clerk at a store asks for an email address as a part of the checkout process, a customer may give it to them because they don’t want to say no. Then, they receive 2-3 emails per week from the organization, but they may not be engaged with the emails at all.

Greymail isn’t illegal (assuming your emails provide an option to unsubscribe from the list), but it can get filtered, which makes your email marketing less effective. For example, emails identified as commercial in Gmail often automatically end up in the “Promotions” folder, and not in the main inbox. From a marketing perspective, greymail affects open rates and metrics. If your email list is mostly customers who are apathetic to your messages, your metrics will be lower. To prevent this from happening, CRM tools often have an option to exclude customers with low engagement from sends, or you can clean up your lists regularly to include only engaged customers.

Spam is spam

Technically, spam emails meet one or more of the following criteria:
  1. Unsolicited
  2. Sent to many people
  3. Unknown or concealed sender
Did you know that spam email’s name comes from Spam, the canned meat product and a sketch from a skit in Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
Spam typically has malicious intent (we’ve all seen the questionable emails requesting money or promising unbelievable things), but it doesn’t always take that form. In fact, an entirely acceptable email sent from a reputable company can be spam, if it doesn’t comply with anti-spam laws. And if you accidentally send spam as a marketer, it can cost you.

Spam is illegal

The primary law governing commercial email in the United States is CAN-SPAM. It was put in place in 2003, to protect consumers from unwanted or malicious emails. Violation of the law can cost organizations up to $40,654 per separate email. Take a minute to imagine that your organization sends an email that accidentally violates CAN-SPAM to 100 people. You could be subject to penalties of more than $4 million. For one email, sent to only 100 people. As a marketer, it’s critical to make sure your emails comply. The good news is, once you know, it’s not hard to follow the law.

So what are the guidelines, and how can you make sure your emails are compliant?
  1. Don’t buy email lists. Good things rarely come from purchased email lists. Lead quality is usually weak, and there’s no way to know if members of the list have already opted-out of emails from you, or if the list was created using illegal means.
  2. Make sure the subscribers on your lists have actually subscribed. Many email clients require you to check a box acknowledging that your subscribers have opted-in, but even if yours doesn’t you still need to be confident that everyone you’re sending emails to has told you they want them.
  3. Include unsubscribe information. Make it easy for people to opt-out if they don’t want to continue getting your emails.
  4. Honor unsubscribe requests promptly. By law, you have ten days to honor opt-out requests. And, don’t be one of those people that sends another email acknowledging that someone has unsubscribed. They took the time to unsubscribe because they were tired of your emails, so the last thing they want to see is more emails from you! Let them be free.
  5. Ensure subject line (as well as the “To,” “From,” and “Reply to” fields) are accurate. Don’t mislead your recipients in an attempt to get higher click-through rates with inaccurate subject lines or by falsifying header information.
  6. Include a physical address. You must have a valid mailing address, as this adds credibility to your email and organization as a whole, and provides another way for recipients to unsubscribe if they need one.
  7. Monitor any third party organizations sending email on your behalf. If another organization is handling your email marketing, you are still responsible for the legality of your emails.
When do these rules not apply? Only when the email you’re sending is transactional (and not commercial). If the primary purpose of the email is transactional, it must not contain false routing information, but it is otherwise exempt from CAN-SPAM rules. For example, if you send emails to customers thanking them for their online purchase, and include order details and shipping information, this is a transactional email that does not have the same requirements as an email promoting your products.

If you’re new to email marketing, and now you’re a little uneasy about the dark side of email, MailChimp has a helpful guide on common email mistakes and how to avoid them.

Even marketers receive spam

If you’re getting spam from another organization, or you subscribed to an email list that does not provide a way for you to unsubscribe, there’s hope. Forward the messages to the FTC at [email protected] and include:
  1. Your email provider
  2. , and
  3. The sender’s email provider, if you can find it.
If you have unsubscribed from an email list, and you’re still getting the emails, you can file a complaint with the FTC.

The bright side

Not following the provisions of CAN-SPAM can mean problems for your marketing emails, and your business. But compliance has many benefits. Not only is your risk of being sued reduced, but your open rates and engagement metrics are likely higher. Sending an email to people who are actively interested in your content means they will be more likely to engage with the emails and with your business. Plus, sending high-quality emails to high-quality lists of leads and customers builds trust in your brand.
Need help with your email marketing? Contact us

You might also like: