The CAN-SPAM Act in Plain English

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Email marketing and digital marketing are fantastic ways for businesses to boost their sales and keep their customers up to date on what they’re doing. It’s fast, it’s relatively simple to set up, and it’s one of the most cost-effective ways to market your business and drive customers to your website. That is if it’s done properly.

Email marketing is also one of the quickest ways to irritate your customers and make them stop buying your products. And it’s an easy way to break the law. Did you know that email marketing is regulated by Federal law? In 2003, the United States Congress passed legislation regulating how and when a business can send emails to customers or potential customers. Though as with most laws, it has an inherent flaw: it’s in legalese, so most business people really don’t understand it. As marketers, this makes our job more difficult, but nonetheless, it affects us, so we’ve got to pay attention.

Here’s a quick Q&A that gives a breakdown of the act, and it focuses on the main parts you need to be concerned with. Ready? Here goes:

What does “CAN-SPAM” mean?

The legislation passed by Congress that regulates commercial email is called the “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003,” or the CAN-SPAM Act for short. It’s got a nice ring to it, eh?

What is “spam,” and what isn’t?

This is the most complicated part of the legislation. Technically, spam is “Unsolicited Commercial Email.” In plain English, spam is “annoying emails you didn’t ask for from companies you don’t know, selling products you don’t want.”

Do I have to pay attention to the act? I’m just a small business.

Well, if you’re OK with breaking Federal law, then go for it. Otherwise, you’ve got to pay attention. And the size of your business has nothing to do with it. The penalties can be severe: you can be fined up to $300 per email if you’re convicted of breaking the law. Not only can it be expensive, but it can also land you in jail, as the act has criminal penalties for violators.

What if I hire someone else to run my email campaigns?

You’ve got to be especially careful in this case. Unfortunately, you are still liable whether you’re the one sending the emails or you’ve hired an outside marketing firm to send them. So ask! Ask if your vendor will send your email in a way that’s sure to comply with CAN-SPAM. If you get a blank stare, run away! And hire someone else who knows what they’re doing, and how to keep your company out of trouble.

How can I make sure all my marketing emails are CAN-SPAM compliant?

Wow. That’s a toughie. It’s probably too hard for us to explain. Obvious disclaimer: we’re not lawyers, and you should consult one. Having said that, what we can do is offer a few tips on what good email looks like. Generally speaking, here are some simple rules for email that is compliant.

First, only send email to people that “want” it. People can tell you they want your emails through several methods:

  • subscribing to your email list via a form on your website
  • putting their business card into a goldfish bowl that says “join our email list” at a trade show, or signing up on a list at your booth
  • giving you verbal permission
  • becoming a customer of yours (where they actually buy something from you)

All the above-mentioned methods pass the test for determining that someone wants your email.

After you’ve collected email addresses and you start sending a campaign, make sure all your emails have an “unsubscribe” link on them. It doesn’t matter where. It can be on the top, the side, or the bottom. But it has to be there. It’s the law. Also, you can’t purposefully make it difficult or confusing for people to try to opt-out, and you can’t charge them any money to do so.

Put your business address somewhere in the email. While you may know that emails sent out from [email protected] come from your office at 123 Main Street, New York, NY,  12345, your recipient may not. And aside from the fact that it’s downright unnerving when customers are solicited to buy products from a company that doesn’t give out their address, it’s also illegal. Make sure you’ve got a valid mailing address in there (either a street address or PO Box are acceptable). Even better? Put your phone number in there too.

If they unsubscribe, don’t email them again. Ever. OK, there’s one exception: if they buy products from you again or ask to be put back on the list, it’s alright to email them again. But until that happens, if a recipient has made it known that he or she wants to be taken off your list, you’ve got to do it. And don’t send them any more email. The law says you have ten business days to comply, but if you’re smart, you’ll move even faster than that.

Don’t buy or sell email lists. With very few exceptions, there’s only one kind of email list you should ever send emails to: your own. Unless you have an explicit agreement with another company to co-market your services in their newsletter or you have access to a legitimate opt-in list from an affiliate, DO NOT send email to recipients you don’t know. That is not what email marketing is. Unlike direct mail, where you can purchase lists from people who never signed up for anything, you can’t send email to people who don’t know you. And you don’t want to anyway. Truly effective email marketing sends helpful email to existing customers (or potential customers who have expressed interest). It doesn’t blast the same boring email to gobs of people hoping for a bite. Do it the right way.

Obviously, we’re not a law firm, and we can’t offer legal advice. So if you’re nervous about the emails you’re sending out, you should probably have an attorney take a look. But in our opinion, if you’re having a hard time deciding whether your emails are spam or not, they probably are.

If you want to learn more about the entire act and all its consequences, check out the FTC’s Compliance Guide for Business. Also, don’t forget that the laws regarding this matter are subject to change, so if Congress passes another act, or if the FTC (the regulating body in charge of enforcing the law) changes or strengthens the rules like they did in 2008, you’ve got to keep up. Oh yeah, if you’re a consumer that’s battling spam and you want to do something about it, you can report it here.

One final note: this legislation only applies within the USA. Other countries (Europe, especially) have far more stringent anti-spam laws that go much further and impose higher penalties for infractions. So if you’re based outside of the USA or are sending emails all over the world, you may want to check out the laws in other countries. We suggest you start by visiting Good luck, happy emailing, and stay away from the spam!

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