I once wrote a blog post that covered what some important, yet confusing and probably overlooked, piece of legislation passed by the United States Congress several years ago. After writing that blog post, I was looking at what the theme of it was. Originally it was supposed to cover just what the piece of legislation was and what it meant to businesses, but the more I look back on it, the more I’m thinking that it’s not an issue about understanding the legislation. Rather, it’s an issue about being educated about what the basics about email marketing are so that people understand how it flows together and things are not operating separately in the proverbial “silos”.
First of all, let’s look at the piece of legislation that got this whole ball rolling: the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.
Also known as Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, this law offers specific protection to consumers and also sets specific requirements for those who send commercial email and what penalties await them for violating these rules. So what are these rules?
- Bans false or misleading header information.
- Prohibits deceptive subject lines.
- Requires that your email give recipients an opt-out method.
- Requires that commercial email be identified as an advertisement and include the sender’s valid physical postal address.
Seems pretty straight-forward, yes? So what do these rules exactly mean?
The first rule: Bans false or misleading header information means that your email address and the name associated with that email address must match up or at least be as closely similar as possible. So if you are sending an email from email@example.com then the name associated with that email address that is displayed should read something like Yahoo Customer Service or John Doe, Customer Service Guy. Don’t lie about who you are because that doesn’t build any trust and you’re likely to be looked down upon – not to mention blocked or receive a lot of unsubscribes.
Don’t put deceptive subject lines in your emails when you reach out to your audience. I’m betting that 100% of you receive emails from companies because you want to receive interesting information – heck, you probably get an email from either Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia or Priceline.com about travel deals, right? Well imagine getting an email from Travelocity with the subject line “Save 25% on your next travel package by booking on Travelocity today.” and when you click to open that email, you don’t see any information about the travel package saving or even any information about Travelocity. Rather, it’s an advertisement for Pantene Shampoo complete with a coupon for 25% off your next shampoo purchase. Would that piss you off? Then don’t do it because if you happen to falsify your emails in this manner because of a deceptive subject line, you will piss off your audience. This is exactly one way how your emails get left in the spam folder of your email program.
Opt-out! Let me opt-out, dammit! There are times when your customers may just get tired of receiving your email for several reasons – whether it be that they’re tired of receiving it, never signed up, don’t find any value, etc. Don’t make the mistake of allowing any of your emails to go out without complying with this pretty important rule. Always have a way for people to unsubscribe – whether it’s by emailing you directly, clicking on an unsubscribe line, or going on your website to unsubscribe…but do something! I receive several emails from people who find it pleasant to contact me but don’t allow me to unsubscribe. To put it mildly, it’s like inviting a neighbor to come on over once and they never leave even with constant prodding. Eventually you get fed up and file a restraining order with the courts. In the case of email marketing, it’s with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. Then you tell all your friends and avoid saying anything good about the offender. Don’t let that be you.
Oh, and don’t be offended if people do start unsubscribing from your emails. It can be for a variety of reasons – and they could be still visiting your website for more information rather than wanting to receive it via emails.
Is this an advertisement and how do I contact you to stop this? If you’re going to send out an email to your database as an advertisement instead of just talking to them about the latest stuff going on or whatever they might be interested in, then by all means TELL them that it is upfront without them trying to figure it out. Also, to avoid all this anonymity when it comes to getting spammed with unwanted mail, to make sure that your emails are legit, the CAN-SPAM Act states that all email marketers must list their physical postal address so that people can get in touch with your company. The FTC doesn’t want businesses to think that they can avoid acknowledging the wishes of the customer by just email. Multiple touch points are required. That means sending traditional “snail mail” using a stamp and envelope.
Now let’s get a better understanding of what email marketing is. One of the things that people might not know are some of the definitions behind email marketing and I’d like to list some of them here to help get a better understanding.
- Above the Fold: The top part of an email or web page that can be seen without scrolling. This is generally more desirable placement because of its visibility.
- Below-the-fold: Refers to the area of a web page or email that is not visible until the mouse or arrow keys are used to scroll father down the page.
- Blacklist: List of IP addresses that are being used by or belong to organizations or individuals that have been identified as sending SPAM. Blacklists are often used by organizations and Internet Service Providers as part of their filtering process to block all incoming mail from a particular IP address (or block of addresses).
- Click-through: When a reader takes action and clicks on a link.
- Conversion Rate: The number of recipients that completed a desired action as a result of an email message compared to the total list size, represented as a percentage. To determine the conversion rate, divide the number of recipients who completed the desired action by the number of emails sent (multiply this number by 100 to express the result as a percentage).
- Double Opt-in Email Marketing: The process of collecting permission to email users whereby a submitted email address is not immediately added to a mailing list. Instead, an email is sent to the submitted address asking the user to take additional action to confirm that they do want to receive email communications from the marketer. If the user does nothing, the submitted address is not sent email communications. The user will only be sent email communications if they respond to the confirmation email.
- Email Service Provider (ESP): Service that provides clients with platform from which to create and deploy email messages, as well as the ability to access reporting tools. Depth of service and sophistication of systems vary depending on the ESP.
- Hard Bounce: An email address that is rejected by the receiving server for a permanant reason (example: “email address does not exist”). Hard bounces are not vaild email addresses and should be removed from lists.
- Multivariate Testing: A form of email testing where testing software is used to display emails containing variations to several different elements. These emails are displayed with different combinations of the elements to different users. The data can then be viewed to see which combinations and elements had the greatest impact on performance.
- Open Rate: The percentage of total recipients who open a given email. An open is only counted when an invisible tracking image placed within an email by an Email Service Provider is viewed. This tracking image is not considered as having been viewed when an email is seen using an email client with images blocked, which makes Open Rates a less reliable metric than many realize.
- Preview Pane: Available in some email clients, preview panes display a portion of a selected email message without the recipient actually having to open the full message. In some clients, the size of the preview pane can be adjusted to display all or most of an email.
- Reply-to Address: The email address to which a recipient can reply to from your email message. This address must be a working email address and must be live for at least 30 days after your email is sent.
- Soft Bounce: An email that makes it to a recipient’s email server but is bounced back. This can be due to a recipient’s inbox being filled to capacity. A soft bounce email may be deliverable at a later time if re-sent after the initial bounce.
- Web version: Most email marketing messages contain a link which points to a Web Version of the message. This is usually displayed at the top of the message so it is the first thing recipients will see if they have images suppressed. Web versions of emails contain the same content, but are viewed as standalone web pages instead of through an email client.
- Whitelist: A list of email addresses that a user designates as safe to receive email from. Inclusion on a whitelist means that no email from those particular senders will ever end up in the user’s junk mail folder unless express action is taken by the user to remove an address from the whitelist.
More information can be found about best practices from other email service providers and even when you use their publisher tool, these requirements for the CAN-SPAM Act are typically accounted for. However, it’s really important that prudent planning and adherence to these standards be met at the very least to avoid any pitfalls and disasters with your email marketing campaigns.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer and this is not advice on what you should do. Rather these are insights that I have picked up over the course of my career that I believe are good things to know. If you are seeking legal advice as it relates to email marketing, please consult a qualified attorney or general counsel.