What’s the best way to get in front of customers?

You could put up billboards. Put your face on a city bench. Maybe run advertisements on the FM radio?

Surely some customers will see it. But you’re probably paying to get in front of a lot of non-customers too.

What if you could, with just a few keystrokes, send a message directly to known customers, leads, and referral partners? Well you can, of course, through the magic of email!

(Like this one right here! How’s that for recursive marketing!?)

With targeted email you can keep your customers up to date on your latest offerings, educate them on your industry, and help them buy. For most businesses, email is a lot more efficient than sponsoring Car Talk.

But you’re not the only one in on this email thing. People are getting a lot of emails. Remember, that there’s a real, living inbox on the other end of your disarmingly witty yet richly educational email campaign.

Think of the inboxes!

Our friends in Congress and at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) certainly have. Way back in 2003, Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act to cut down on unsolicited emails—no matter how delightful—after recognizing that rampant SPAM was a threat to adoption of the early internet. And now people are using the internet. So it must have worked.

Here’s how it worked: penalties. Harsh penalties. Massive, harsh penalties along the lines of $46,517 for each individual email sent in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act.

That’ll make you reconsider the city bench (where, we must say, you can find the faces of many of our industry’s finest!)

But like the guy on TV says, not so fast my friends!

First, for an email to be subject to CAN-SPAM, it must be commercial in nature. A “commercial email” is one with the primary purpose of advertising or promoting a commercial product or service. In contrast, transactional emails are not covered by CAN-SPAM. A “transactional email” is one that facilitates an already agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer about an ongoing transaction.

So if an email only relates to account setup, a password reset, a purchase receipt, or anything like that, compliance with the regulations isn’t needed. However, if a transactional email also includes marketing content then it could be construed as a commercial email. And that would require compliance with CAN-SPAM. So if your email contains both commercial aspects and transactional aspects, it’s safest to assume that you need to comply with CAN-SPAM.

If an email does need to comply with CAN-SPAM, it turns out that compliance—at least if you’re paying attention—is not too difficult. The FTC provides a very helpful compliance guide for companies sending emails with commercial content. The primary points are straightforward:

  1. Do not use false or misleading header information.
  2. Do use a subject line that accurately reflects the content of your email.
  3. Do clearly and conspicuously identify the message as an ad.
  4. Do include your mailing address in every email.
  5. Do tell recipients how to opt-out of future emails.
  6. Do honor those opt-out requests within 10 days.

In other words, don’t be obnoxious. Do provide transparency. And do allow people to opt out of future emails, even if you’re absolutely certain that they’d come to regret the decision for the rest of their lives. (The rest of their lives, dear readers.)

By the way! Make sure to monitor any contractors you hire to send marketing emails. There are plenty of companies that will help you with email marketing. Most of them are highly reputable. But if you find one that isn’t, both you and the contractor sending the message may be held liable for CAN-SPAM violations. So vet your contractors well, keep an eye on what they’re doing, and you should be just fine.