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 jump straight in and start sending campaigns, it’s worth getting a basic understanding of the laws around email marketing to ensure your campaigns aren’t breaking any.

In this guide, we’ll teach you the laws around email marketing and outline the things you need to do to ensure your email marketing initiatives remain on the right side of the law.

What counts as permission to send

There is a big difference between having access to an email list, and having permission to send email to that list.

By using this software you agree to follow our permission policy for sending emails. If you do not have proven permission to email the addresses on your mailing lists, you are sending spam.

Ultimately it comes down to being clear and up-front with anyone whose email address you collect for mailing list purposes, and then meeting the expectations you have set for those subscribers.

Questions to ask yourself before adding somebody to your email list:

  • Does the person receiving the email know who I am? If no, do not send
  • Will the person receiving the email be confused as to why I emailed them? If yes, do not send. 
  • Does the email I'm sending provide value to the customer? If no, do not send
  • Will the person that receives the email be likely to unsubscribe? If yes, do not sent

Why this is so important:

  • Because if you have a high unsubscribe rate or are reported as span at a high rate your account will be suspended and you'll no longer be able to send email
  • Because if you do not follow the rules & guidelines with regards to email marketing you're breaking the law

The following list aims to explain what counts as "permission to send" by addressing some of the most common ways that email addresses are obtained and collected:

  • I bought / rented a 100% opt-in list from a reputable list broker
    NO: No matter what the list broker claims, you cannot use any kind of third party list with this software. There is no situation where it would be allowed, and it does not matter if you didn't have to pay for it – it still does not count as permission in this context.

  • Everyone signed up through a mailing in my business or via my website
    YES: Perfect! That's clear, direct permission. Just make sure you: only send them what you promised you would; don't wait months to email people for the first time; don't wait months between sending emails. It is very common for people to forget about mailing lists they joined. That's why it's important to stay on target with the content you're sending and be consistent with the regularity of your emails.

  • We sponsored a trade show and got a list of everyone who attended
    NO: This is very common, but it does not count as permission. The people on those lists may have agreed to hear from every vendor as part of their entry, but it is not explicit, direct permission for your company to start emailing them. Trade show and conference attendee lists are not allowed to be used with this software, even if the event organizer tells you it is fine.

  • We sponsored a trade show and people signed up at our booth to get our information
    YES: Much better! Those people know who you are, and have specifically shown their interest in hearing from you. Don't wait too long after the event to email them, and make sure to mention their visit to your booth in the first email.

  • This mailing list is a few years old, everyone signed up through my website / at my booth / in my store
    MAYBE: Permission is like bread, it starts out great but goes stale quickly. If you haven't emailed these people in the last year or so, they have probably forgotten about you, or may not be interested anymore. TIP: If it's been between six months and a year since you last contacted them, you should start with a simple reminder email, asking them to unsubscribe if they are no longer interested.

  • These are all paying customers from my business / store / website
    MAYBE: That's a good start. If they are current or recent customers, meaning they have purchased within the last two years, you are safe to assume an existing relationship. If it's been longer than two years, and you have not been emailing them regularly, then it is a no go zone. Permission does not last forever – use it or lose it.

  • These are all paying customers from my poker site / adult site / pharmaceutical site
    NO: Unfortunately you cannot. Our deliverability and sender reputation are maintained, in part, by not allowing the sending of gambling, adult or pharmaceutical emails at all – even from totally legitimate businesses.

  • They visited my site and agreed to the privacy policy / terms of use
    MAYBE: That's good, but it isn't explicit opt-in. If they ticked an empty checkbox explicitly stating that they agree to receive your newsletter, then go for it. However, hiding a line in your terms and conditions or privacy policy about receiving email, and making people agree to that is not considered opting-in. In our experience, doing things this way results in spam complaints and encourages people to sign up with fake email addresses, stopping your message reaching inboxes.

  • They are in the member directory of my local business chamber / real estate organization / sports association
    MAYBE: Even when the organization itself says that people listed in the directory can be emailed, this does not qualify as a direct opt-in and the email addresses should not be used in this software. However, if you have talked to individuals in the member directory, and they have given you their direct permission, then you can add them to a mailing list.

  • We ran a competition and these are all the people who entered
    MAYBE: Be very careful with this one. Competition lists like this often cause spam complaints. If people give you their email address just to win a prize, the only thing you can email them about is the competition, to let them know who won the prize. You don't have permission to send marketing content to them on any other topic. Hiding a sentence along the lines of "you agree to be emailed forever" in 8pt font in the terms and conditions does not count as permission. It is different if you promote the opportunity to win a prize by signing up to the newsletter. Then people know they will be emailed – and will be expecting to be able to unsubscribe easily if they don't like what you're sending them.

  • These people all contacted me through my website
    MAYBE: Sending in a question or comment isn't the same thing as opt-in permission. Even if your website form says "send me more information" it does not mean you can add them to a mailing list. It means you can send them specific information as requested. However, if your contact form clearly displays the option to opt-in for a mailing list, and people do opt-in, you have permission.

  • These are all my friends / colleagues / family members
    MAYBE: That's nice, but unfortunately it doesn't give you permission to email them without an agreed opt-in from them. This could be as simple as asking them if it's okay to add them to your list.

  • They are all group members / followers / fans from LinkedIn / Facebook
    NO: That's an indication of interest, for sure, but it is not direct opt-in. They might want to have some connection to you but you cannot assume they want to be on your email list unless they actually ask.

What are the laws around email marketing?

There are number of different laws that guide the use of email marketing for commercial purposes. In the USA it’s the CAN-SPAM act, in Canada it’s the CASL laws, while 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 it all may sound a little scary, 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.

That’s because the 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.

That being said, there are a few little nuances in the laws that even marketers with the best intentions can accidentally violate, so it’s worth reading on to learn how you can be compliant.

What do I need to do to comply?

Rather than go into the details of each country’s laws, we reviewed them all and compiled 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 is a little loose and varies between each country’s laws, but generally there are two types of permission; implied permission and express permission. Implied permission covers anybody who you have an existing business relationship with. 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 somebody 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.

  2. Don’t use misleading header information
    For those that may not be familiar with the term ‘header information’, it 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.

  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 certainly 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.

  4. Include your address
    Most country’s 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. 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.

  5. Include a way to opt-out of receiving future emails from you
    Most country’s email marketing laws stipulate that your email campaigns must include a clear and conspicuous mechanism for opting-out of receiving email from you in the future, and that this mechanism must be easy for an ordinary person to recognize and understand. Every template in our library includes an unsubscribe link in the footer that complies with this law and enables you to create and send your campaigns without worrying whether your emails comply with this particular part of the CAN-SPAM laws. Do not remove this functionality from your emails.

  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.
    When a recipient clicks an unsubscribe link in your campaigns they are instantly redirected to a page where they can update their preferences (I.e. unsubscribe from particular lists) or unsubscribe from all emails completely. Once they’ve made their selection, their opt-out request is instantly honored and the recipient is removed from all your existing email lists. Furthermore, any recipient who opts-out is automatically added to a suppression list in your account which helps prevent you from accidentally uploading their email address as part of a new list and sending them campaigns even after they had opted-out.

Other things email marketers need to know

By following the 6 tips mentioned above, majority of marketers can ensure their emails are compliant with global anti-spam laws. That said, 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 3rd 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 when you review them before sending you check the above tips have been followed.

  • Email laws are looser for transactional emails
    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. All that being said, a lot of the tips presented in this guide (like not using deceptive From names and subject lines) are also just 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.

In conclusion

Email is one of the most effective marketing channels available today, but before you jump in and start sending campaigns for your business it’s important to understand the laws around email marketing and how to comply with them.

Fortunately for you, using email marketing software like Email Marketing 360® 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.

So 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.