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Do you use or are you thinking of using email to connect with your prospects and customers?

If so, then the payoffs can be fruitful. For every $1 spent on email marketing in 2011, the estimated return on investment was an astonishing $44.25 (source: Pingdom).

But did you know that every email you send to your customers, whether it’s your monthly e-newsletter or a one-to-one email sent to promote your products or services, must comply with the law? Here’s what you need to know:

The CAN-SPAM Act – What It Means to Your Commercial Email Efforts

The CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act became a must-read for all email marketers when it was enacted in 2003. More than just a regulation to prevent and discourage junk mail, the CAN-SPAM Act regulates all commercial email messages. In the eyes of the law, “commercial messages” include “any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service,” including email promoting content on commercial websites. 

The requirements of the Act are fairly straightforward, yet easily overlooked. For example, did you know that if you fail to include your postal address on a commercial email, then the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could fine you? In fact, each separate email that violates the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $16,000. There are no exceptions for business-to-business email. All email – even messages to former customers announcing a new product line – must comply with the law.

Non-compliance is clearly costly, but the good news is that the CAN-SPAM Act is one of the simplest forms of government regulation to comply with quickly and easily.

How to Determine if the CAN-SPAM Act Applies to your Business Email

According to the FTC, the deciding factor is the “primary purpose” of the email. The government defines emails as containing three different types of information:

  • Commercial content – Anything that advertises or promotes a commercial product/service.  These messages must comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.
  • Transactional or relationship content – These are usually receipts of payment, shipping notifications and so on and facilitate or provide updates about an already agreed-upon transaction. These are exempt from most of the requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act, although they cannot contain any misleading or inaccurate routing information (i.e. the “To” and “From” fields, plus the email address and domain name must clearly show who the email is from.)
  • Other content – Considered as any other email that is neither commercial nor transactional (such as a response to a customer query) need not comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.

Steps You Can Take to Ensure Your Email Marketing Complies

If you’ve determined that you must comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, then there are a few simple steps that you can take to comply with the law. For example:

  • Email headers, domain names, and subject lines must be accurate and not deceptive.
  • You must disclose if your message is an advertisement.
  • You must include a valid postal address in the mail body.
  • Disclose and clearly state how recipients can opt-out or unsubscribe from your message.
  • Honor unsubscribe requests within 10 business days. Any unsubscribe mechanism must be able to process these requests for at least 30 days after the email was sent.
  • If you use a third-party email marketing service, make sure they follow the requirements of the law – for example, are opt-outs being handled correctly? The law doesn’t differentiate from the company that sends the email and the company whose product is being promoted. 

To read more about the requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act and get answers to FAQs, check out this brief (and plain English) guide from the FTC: The CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business.

Don’t Be a Spammer – Build Your Own In-House Email Marketing List

To ensure your email doesn’t get flagged as SPAM or junk by readers, consider implementing a permission-based approach. Permission marketing is essentially when a recipients have provided explicit consent that they want to receive your email communications – whether by sign-up or other opt-in mechanism. There are a number of things you can do to build an organic, opt-in marketing list. Read about these in my earlier blogs:

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Resource: US SBA –