Understanding Permission

Chapter 2

Spam: It’s Not Just Viagra

My first rule of spam is that any email that contains the phrase “this is not spam” is almost always spam. My second rule of spam is that nobody thinks that what they’re sending is spam.

Of course, this is a massive oversimplification. Obviously some people really are unrepentant spammers who know exactly what they’re doing, but many more senders are convinced that what they’re doing is not spam, while their recipients think otherwise.

As designers, we obviously need to avoid sending emails that are considered spam by the law. But it’s an often-ignored fact that we should also avoid sending emails that are perceived as spam. We’ll look into that in a moment, but first we’ll start with the broadest and most widely accepted definitions of what constitutes spam: the legal definitions. In fact, there’s a whole slew of legal definitions, depending on where you’re based. The most well-known of these laws, which we touched on in the section called “Legal Compliance” in Chapter 3, is the US CAN-SPAM Act.

Spam According to the Law

If you’re sending email as a US company (or for a US company), you’re legally bound to comply with the CAN-SPAM laws. For the full details on your obligations, see http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/ecommerce/bus61.shtm.

Here are the core requirements, directly from the Federal Trade Commission, the principal US consumer protection agency:

Don’t use false or misleading header information

The From, Reply To, and other address details should all be valid and accurate for the sender and recipient.

Don’t use deceptive subject lines

The subject line should accurately reflect the content of the email.

Identify the message as an advertisement

Don’t try to disguise it as a personal email, for example. This law indicates why you sometimes see [ADV] in subject lines.

Tell recipients where you’re located

Include a valid, physical postal address for the sender.

Provide a way to opt out

You must include a clear, prominent way to opt out of future email (which can be automated or manual).

Honor opt-out requests promptly

You must give people a way to opt out that’s available for at least 30 days after you send them the email, and you must act on a request to opt out within ten business days, for free. An online opt-out must only require sending a single email, or visiting a single page.

Clients are unable give us as designers the sole legal burden of complying with these laws; instead, we’re jointly responsible for meeting them.

These are the guidelines as of February 2010, but keep in mind that the FTC has made additional rulings since first issuing the laws, so you need to keep an eye out for any future updates.

Many countries have published their own laws regarding spam and commercial email. For a list of relevant laws, see http://www.email-marketing-reports.com/canspam/.

Wherever you live, you need to know the legal issues for you and your clients or company. However, complying with the law is just part of the equation; there are other issues with which to contend.

Permission versus Spam

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