The Rules of Permission-Based Email Marketing

EAG, September 19, 2019

There won’t be a test, but there are consequences for not following them.

Anyone who has an email address (that’s everyone) knows the frustration of receiving emails from small businesses that haven’t followed the rules of permission-based email marketing. Spam emails can come from all kinds of sources—both legit companies and shady ones. Even inboxes with fairly good spam protection can still be invaded by unwanted emails.

The problem is that spam email ruins everything for small business marketers who actually follow the rules of permission-based email marketing. These rule-following marketing companies can’t get their messages through if spam emails are causing users to mass-delete their inbox messages out of annoyance. Think about it. How many times have you simply deleted batches of emails in frustration? This writer is certainly guilty of deleting questionable emails by association.

In this day and age of spam protection, where are these emails still coming from? How are companies skirting the rules? Are there any consequences for the companies sending them?

Many businesses simply purchase email lists from other companies in order to market to the owners of those email addresses. This is how spam was born. The longer you’ve had your email address, the more times someone could have purchased your email address as part of a list.

While it is legal to send unsolicited emails in the U.S., there are strict rules that must be followed that were put into effect by the CAN-SPAM law, which has been around since 2003 and was updated in 2008.

CAN-SPAM policies must be obeyed by email marketing agencies. They are as follows:

  • Header information must be honest.

    This refers to the area that says “To” and “From.” The originating email address has to be accurate and must honestly identify the company or individual who sent the email.

  • Subject line must be honest.

    The subject line has to reflect the information contained in the email. Bait or false promises aren’t tolerated, and the email message has to reflect what the subject line is.

  • Every email must have an unsubscribe option.

    If the people who are getting these spam emails don’t want them, the law says that the emails must include a link to unsubscribe from them that is easy to find and clearly written.

  • Unsubscribes must be honored quickly.

    Once those unsubscribe links are clicked, the sender has 10 days to remove that person’s email from their list.

  • Emails must contain a physical postal address.

    Every unsolicited email must include the sender’s physical address. The idea here is that it will give credibility to the company that’s sending the emails.

  • Emails must state that they are ads.

    There’s a lot of wiggle room in this rule, but unsolicited emails must let the reader know that the message is an advertisement in “a clear and conspicuous” way.

What happens when a business violates any of these rules? The penalty can be quite hefty. Each separate email that goes against the rules of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $42,530. Each.

Besides this, a business that emails users without permission and violates rules risks ruining their reputation with the public. There’s also always the risk that the purchased email list was put together illegally, using methods such as address harvesting.

Any reputable email marketing agency will tell you that permission-based email marketing is a very powerful tool. It’s targeted, personal, measurable, and highly effective. But with email users becoming weary of and fed up with the proliferation of unsolicited emails, many rule-following businesses are getting lost in the shuffle. Again, guilt by association.

What’s a rule-following company that uses permission-based email marketing to do?

A well-defined email marketing strategy is the best defense against the battle of spam. Partner with an email marketing agency that knows the best practices to still get users’ attention without breaking the permission-based email rules.


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