If you didn’t already have enough considerations as an email marketer, anti-spam laws such as CAN-SPAM—though certainly not limited to this one, US-specific law—can have a major effect on your email marketing. Along with deliverability, email reputation, and avoiding spam filters, you also need to consider how anti-spam laws affect you.
While data privacy laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation have made headlines, anti-spam laws still set the tone for how we use email and text messages to interact with our customers.
In fact, there are plenty of global anti-spam laws in place that you need to comply with that we won’t dig into in this article, but in the US, the major email law is the CAN-SPAM Act, and it comes with fines up to $42,530 if you’re not careful.
To help you understand the CAN-SPAM Act and how it applies to email marketers, here’s an overview of the law, its effects, and how you can apply its principles to your marketing program.
What is the CAN-SPAM Act?
The CAN-SPAM act is a law that was passed back in 2003. The acronym stands for “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing.”
As you might have guessed, this means marketers should not be deceptive when sending commercial electronic messages. It also requires that you provide a way to opt out and act on those requests within ten days. This applies to email marketing, as well as to any other form of digital communication.
The CAN-SPAM Act is meant to clear the digital streets for consumers to move freely, without having to worry about finding their actual emails under the pile of commercial emails they have no interest in.
If you’re wondering, there aren’t any exceptions for B2B marketing.
A summary of CAN-SPAM requirements
Thanks to the extensive efforts of email marketers, we now have longstanding best practices that encompass not only the requirements of CAN-SPAM, but those of other spam laws, such as CASL and The Spam Act. One of these is the focus on creating engaged relationships with subscribers, driving far superior results and value for the marketer. In email marketing, quality over quantity is key.
Here’s a rundown of CAN-SPAM’s requirements.
1. Avoid phony header information
All of the information surrounding the header of your email should properly identify you as the sender, with no exceptions. This includes the “from,” “to,” and “reply-to” sections. In other words, you can’t pretend an email is from a person’s friend and make it sound like the friend is pitching your service.
All in all, you aren’t allowed to misrepresent yourself to the recipient.
That would obviously unethical, and it’s illegal, too.
2. Don’t get duplicitous with your subject line
In the same vein as misrepresenting your header information, your subject line shouldn’t be duplicitous.
This means you can’t put in your subject line, “Act Now for a Free iPhone,” then fail to have anything in your email related to a free iPhone. That’s basically cheating in order to get higher open rates.
This doesn’t mean you can’t create a cheeky subject line, just make sure it’s related to the contents of the email. For instance, a subject line that says, “You’re Not Going to Want to Miss This,” is vague enough that it could work for most situations.
But if you make a specific claim in your subject line, you need to back it up.
3. Be transparent
You must tell the recipient of your email that it’s an ad, a stipulation we’re starting to see implemented in other realms of digital marketing as well.
This requirement guards against companies sending out emails as if they were from a third-party—or actually contracting a third-party as is the case in influencer marketing—who recommends a company’s products or services without receiving something in return.
Having the correct header information, using the POV of your company, and having a footer with your logo/company info should be enough to let your readers know your email is an add and will have you CAN-SPAM compliant.
4. Include your company’s address
At some point in your email, you need to include your company’s mailing address. While you can include this anywhere, it’s generally put at the bottom with your logo and the rest of your footer.
Depending on the nature of your company, this could be a street address or a private mailbox with a commercial mail agency.
This guideline fits in with the general theme of the CAN-SPAM act, as it’s about being frank with your mailing list. Veiling your identity when trying to sell a product online is a big no-no.
As you can see in the email below, the address is added at the bottom in a discreet way that doesn’t conflict with the overall design of the email.
Source: Really Good Emails
5. Add an unsubscribe option to your emails
According to the CAN-SPAM Act, your emails must include a description of how the recipient can opt out. This can be a button or link or, at a minimum, an email address to which the recipient can send their opt-out request. In addition, you must give the user a clear indicator of how he or she can opt-out of any future messages.
If you’d like, you can manufacture your unsubscribe process to include specifics, meaning the user can unsubscribe from a certain type of email, but stay subscribed for another. Even if you do that, a master unsubscribe option must still be available.
You may not like having to add an unsubscribe option to your emails, but doing so can be beneficial to your email marketing program (in addition to keeping you CAN-SPAM compliant, that is).
If people who aren’t interested in your content are unsubscribing, it means you’re mailing list engagement can actually go up. It’s better to have a smaller, more active mailing list, then a larger, less active one.
6. Stop sending emails after a customer unsubscribes
As a companion to the preceding practice of adding an unsubscribe button to emails, you must also ensure that you honor the customer’s subscription request within 10 days.
It’s also illegal to attach a fee to an unsubscribe button or to require the user’s personal information before unsubscribing them. In addition, you can’t make the user go through a series of hoops in order to unsubscribe.
It must be a simple, intuitive process, such as clicking a link. But, like most aspects of the CAN-SPAM Act, obeying the regulations not only keep you compliant but strengthen your email marketing program and your brand’s relationship with consumers.
If someone doesn’t want to be on your email list anymore and unsubscribes, keeping them on your list is disrespectful and probably motivated by greed. No one wants to do business with a company like that.
7. Keep your eye on your email marketing service
If you’ve hired an outside email marketing service that sends out emails for you, you’re still responsible for their behavior. That means that if they go against the CAN-SPAM act in any way, you are still responsible and can be fined.
If you want to make sure you’re aboveboard, keep an eye on any third party email services and make sure they’re following the CAN-SPAM act best practices.
What are CAN-SPAM text messages?
In case you’re wondering, the CAN-SPAM act applies to text messages in the same way it applies to email marketing.
When using SMS marketing, you must always be transparent, include an unsubscribe option, and never send messages to people who haven’t opted in.
The only difference is that CAN-SPAM doesn’t apply to messages that come from other mobile phones. For instance, if you’ve ever received a text from a politician’s campaign during elections, you’re receiving a text from a volunteer, not a business number, so CAN-SPAM doesn’t apply.
The only messages that fall under CAN-SPAM scrutiny are those that are attached to an internet domain.
Is the CAN-SPAM Act different in 2019?
While the act remains largely unchanged 16 years later, there have been changes in the way people communicate online and in the email marketing field.
However, with data privacy coming to the forefront globally, you can expect to see people’s concern for their privacy continue to grow in the future.
The honesty and transparency required by CAN-SPAM have a place in every interaction with your customers or email subscribers. If you take these concepts and apply them to your customer relationships, you may build trust and gain the lifelong attention of your brand advocates.
Email marketing is all about bringing in revenue for your brand, not losing it. Therefore, you’ll want to avoid breaking any of the CAN-SPAM guidelines, as they bring with them a five-figure fine that will counteract months of hard work.
To adhere to the CAN-SPAM best practices, this is what you need to know:
- Don’t lie in your email’s header.
- Keep your subject line consistent with your email’s content
- Make sure your clear that your email is an ad
- Include your company’s address with every email
- Every email needs to have an unsubscribe option
- Customers need to be unsubscribed within 10 days of their request
- Any emails sent under your brand are your responsibility
All of these directives don’t just apply to emails, but to text messages, as well. Any kind of digital communication falls under the CAN-SPAM guidelines.
Complying with CAN-SPAM guidelines and the other global email regulations will ensure you send out email marketing that builds trust with your audience.
Violating the CAN-SPAM act is only one of the ways that email marketers can get in trouble. Here are some other behaviors you’ll want to avoid.