(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Southwest Graphics, Summer 2007)

It’s safe to say we all hate spam (the junk mail, not the snack meat). Yet you and I understand that marketing by email is an effective and affordable way to reach potential and current customers. So how do we write, design, and send tasty and effective email newsletters and advertising without clogging up our customers’ email arteries?

To do it right requires knowledge of the law, a good measure of common sense, and, above all, respect for the intended recipients of our email communications.

CAN-SPAM is the acronym for the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003. Although common sense and respect can’t be legislated, here’s what the law has to say about the specifics of email marketing:

  1. Don’t be sneaky about who you are. Include accurate header information that indicates from whom the email was sent.
  2. Don’t be sneaky about what you’re saying. Use a subject line that is clear, accurate, and related to the body of the email. You can’t put “Cute Puppies” in the Subject Line, then promote a “hot” stock or a performance-enhancing drug in the body of the email.
  3. Ask permission. All recipients on your e-mail list should be “opt-in” only. Although this is not expressly required by the law, it is highly recommended as a best practice by the FTC (this is where the respect for your audience comes into play).
  4. Make it easy to get off your list. A functioning opt-out message must be displayed clearly on every commercial email communication. Opt-out requests must be honored within 10 business days after receipt of the request.
  5. All email must include a valid postal address. There is some gray area in the law regarding the use of PO Boxes, but the FTC suggests, as a best practice, that you include your physical street address on all email communications.
  6. Get your addresses by ethical means. No “harvesting,” “dictionary attacks,” or randomly generated emails. In other words, if an email address wasn’t provided to you by its owner, don’t use it (see #3). If you suspect that any of the email addresses on your list were improperly acquired, review your list carefully.
  7. Take responsibility. Actually, the law gives you the responsibility, so you may as well accept it. Anyone who has crafted, adjusted, or physically been involved in the creation or sending process is liable for the email.
  8. Maintain and use a company-wide opt-out list. All emails should be crosschecked against this list before you send them out.

That’s the recipe for legally compliant email marketing. Throw in a little respect for the audience, a dash of common sense, a compelling marketing message, and your email marketing will be a lot more palatable to its recipients.

By the way, there are plenty of good web-based email marketing solutions that will automatically take care of most of the issues on that list. Search for them under “email marketing software” or contact your local interactive marketing firm to find out who they use.

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