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Article first published March 2016, updated April 2019

Email is one of the most effective marketing channels available today.

It’s incredibly quick and easy to get started, and today’s email marketing tools make it simple for marketers of all levels to create a campaign, upload a list, and send it out.

However, before you begin sending out campaigns, it’s worthwhile to have a basic understanding of the laws around email marketing to ensure your campaigns aren’t breaking any.

Read on to learn about the laws surrounding email marketing and the things you need to do to ensure your email marketing initiatives are following them.

Chapter 1

What are the laws around email marketing?

There are number of different laws that guide the use of email marketing for commercial purposes. It’s the CAN-SPAM act in the US, the CASL laws in Canada, and, in the UK, it’s a set of laws known as the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations of 2003.

All of these laws dictate a number of conditions that email marketers need to follow to avoid significant fines.

While this may sound intimidating, if you’re a legitimate business using a proper email marketing tool to send legitimate email campaigns, you are likely already complying with the rules.

These laws are largely targeted at spammers and are designed to prevent them from acquiring people’s email addresses without their permission and spamming them with unsolicited emails.

However, there are a few nuances in the laws that even marketers with the best intentions can accidentally violate, so it’s important to be informed on how to be compliant.

Chapter 2

What do I need to do to comply?

The following is a simple list of things marketers like you can do to ensure your campaigns are compliant with all the laws across the globe.

1. Ensure you have permission to email the people on your list

Most country’s email marketing laws stipulate that people need to give you permission to email them in order for you to send them campaigns.

The definition of permission varies between each country’s laws, but there are generally two types of permission: implied permission and express permission.

Implied permission describes those with whom you have an existing business relationship. This could be because they are a current customer, donate to your charity, or are an active member of your website, club, or community.

If you don’t have implied permission to email a person, then you’ll need express permission. Express permission is granted when someone specifically gives you permission to send them email campaigns, potentially by entering their email address in a subscribe form on your website or entering their details into your in-store newsletter subscribe form.

Freshbooks’ approach is a great example of how to get express permission to email people.

Freshbooks - Ensure Permission to Email

When people visit their blog, Freshbooks presents them with a pop-up encouraging them to subscribe to their email list in order to get instant access to an eBook on business growth.

By entering their email address in the box, people are giving Freshbooks express permission to email them, and Freshbooks is able to build a large email list that complies with global anti-spam laws.

2. Don’t use misleading header information

“Header information” refers to the extra information sent along with your email campaign, such as the “from” name, subject line, and reply-to address.

Email marketing laws stipulate that you must not include incorrect or misleading information in these fields to try to trick people into opening your email campaigns.

Converse does a good job of staying within the laws. They include their company name in the “from” field to make it clear who the email is from, and use a subject line that reflects the content of the email to ensure there’s no confusion.

Converse - No Misleading Header Information

The key is not to purposely deceive your recipients. Arousing curiosity or getting creative with your subject line is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don’t purposely try to deceive recipients.

3. Identify your email as an advertisement

CAN-SPAM laws stipulate that you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that your message is an advertisement.

The law gives a lot of leeway in how you do this, and you don’t need to specifically state “This email is an advertisement” every time you send a campaign. It’s more about not purposely deceiving your recipients into thinking this is a personal email.

Sephora does an excellent job of this in their email campaigns.

Sephora - Identify Email as an Advertisement

They don’t specifically state this campaign is an advertisement, but, by using their company name as the “from” name and having “Get 20% Off All Eye Shadow” as the subject line, they make it clear to recipients that this is a promotional message and not a personal email from a friend.

4. Include your address

Most countries’ email marketing laws stipulate that you must clearly include a valid postal address for your business in your email campaigns. This can be your current street address, a postbox address, or an address with a registered commercial mail-receiving company.

BuzzFeed complies with this law in all of their campaigns by including the address of their New York headquarters at the bottom of every campaign.

Buzzfeed - Include your AddressIf you’re a Campaign Monitor customer, including your physical address in your email campaigns is easy. Every template in our library includes a space in the email footer to add the information, and you simply click and edit the information right there in the email before sending.

Campaign Monitor - Include your Address


5. Include a way to opt-out of receiving future emails from you

Most countries’ email marketing laws stipulate that your email campaigns include a clear and conspicuous mechanism for opting out of receiving emails from you in the future, and that this mechanism is easy for an ordinary person to recognize and understand.

Campaign Monitor - Unsubscribe Button


6. Honor opt-out requests promptly

The CAN-SPAM laws stipulate that you must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days, and that you cannot charge a fee to opt them out, require the recipient to give you any personally identifying information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website to opt out.

Rip Curl goes above and beyond this law in all of their campaigns. They include an unsubscribe link in the footer of every campaign that instantly removes a subscriber from the list before directing them to a confirmation page that lets the recipient know they have been unsubscribed.

Rip Curl - Instantly Honor Opt-out Request

Chapter 3

Other things email marketers need to know

By following the 6 tips mentioned above, most marketers can ensure their emails are compliant with global anti-spam laws.

However, not every situation is the same, and there are a number of technicalities in these laws that are worth mentioning in case they apply to your specific situation. These include:

You’re responsible even if you’re not sending campaigns yourself

According to the law, even if you are outsourcing your email marketing efforts to a third party (i.e., a web design or marketing agency or a freelance contractor), you are still responsible for ensuring the campaigns being sent on behalf of your business are compliant.

So, if you do outsource the creation and sending of your campaigns, make sure that you review them before sending to be certain the above tips have been followed.

Similarly, if you are an agency creating campaigns on behalf of your clients, make sure you’re following the tips mentioned above to prevent getting your clients in trouble and losing their business.

Email laws are looser for transactional emails

A majority of the anti-spam laws around the world are designed to guide the sending of commercial email marketing messages, and they apply to any sort of newsletters, marketing announcements, or promotional campaigns your business might be sending.

An area that is largely exempt from these laws, however, is transactional emails. So, if you’re sending order confirmations, shipping confirmations, password reset emails, etc. (which are designed to provide information about an existing purchase or membership), then these specific emails are exempt from the anti-spam rules mentioned above.

A lot of the tips presented in this guide are also general best practices that help prevent your recipients from perceiving your emails as suspicious, so it’s best to incorporate them into your transactional emails anyway.

Chapter 4

Email marketing under GDPR: antispam, regulations, and more

As the internet has grown in popularity, regulations have been enacted to control data transmissions and privacy guidelines. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is touted as the biggest measure of its kind thus far.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is touted as the biggest measure of its kind thus far.

Source EU GDPR

These measures were approved on April 14, 2016, and marked the beginning of an effort to change how data integrity was viewed. With more information floating around cyberspace than ever before, it was necessary to create guidelines for respecting the privacy of users’ sensitive information.

These regulations could be considered along the same lines as email spam laws. Knowing the email marketing laws and regulations helps marketers ensure their activity is compliant with the law. But just how big of an effect will GDPR have on email marketing?

These are some of the most important things to remember regarding email laws and guidelines.

The first thing to consider is what constitutes personal data. The GDPR website says this could be anything from names and photos to personal medical information or the user’s IP address. Yet most of the emails people receive are promotional rather than personal.

The first thing to consider is what constitutes personal data.

Source SuperOffice

One of the most important things to remember with your email marketing, even for promotional efforts, is permission. You need to make sure you have permission from subscribers for opt-in offers and other similar strategies. In some cases, you may even need to get permission twice.

A common way email marketers used to get people involved in their mailing list was by automatically checking opt-in boxes on offers they extended. A user may have been consenting to receive only one specific email or complete one transaction, yet they were automatically signed up for offers they may not have wanted.

This is a popular anti-spam measure, because it ensures people don’t get bombarded by emails they didn’t want. If you’re not sure whether your subscribers want to receive emails, simply ask.

Chapter 5

Are unsolicited emails illegal?

If you’re putting out emails and you aren’t sure whether you’re in line with all regulations, there is one simple step you can take. GDPR isn’t the only measure out there that impacts email usage. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (enacted in 2004) requires you to include contact information for your business in any unsolicited email. You must also include an option to opt out of receiving further emails.

Chapter 6

Wrap up

Before you begin sending campaigns for your business, it’s important to understand the laws around email marketing and how to comply with them.

  • Every marketer should be aware of anti-spam measures
  • Research GDPR and the CAN-SPAM Act before sending out emails
  • If you aren’t sure if your subscribers want to stay subscribed, ask

Using email marketing software like Campaign Monitor makes complying with these rules easy. You get the tools you need to build your email list in the right way, and the software automatically handles the unsubscribe process and backend list management to ensure you meet the requirements around unsubscribing from campaigns.

By combining a professional email marketing tool with some basic common sense around the use of the subject line and “from” name, legitimate marketers like you can easily send campaigns that meet the legal requirements and drive results for your business.

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