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The CAN-SPAM Act and Beyond: Improving Email Compliance, Deliverability, and Readability

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The CAN-SPAM Act and Beyond: Improving Email Compliance, Deliverability, and Readability

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: May 5, 2009

The CAN-SPAM Act is possibly one of the simplest forms of government regulation with which businesses of all sizes can achieve quick compliance.

While we all know that SPAM laws are deliberately broken each day - you only have to look at the volume of SPAM in your Inbox (currently increasing at an average of 1.2% per day according to a Google report) - it is actually the act of non-deliberate spamming that is putting many a small business at risk of non-compliance and hefty fines.

The CAN-SPAM Act - More than Just Preventing Junk Mail

The CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act of 2003 regulates more than just what we typically consider electronic junk mail. For example, did you know that if you fail to include your postal address on a commercial email (HTML or text) then you could be fined up to $11,000?

If your small business sends out email 'whose primary purpose is advertising or promoting a commercial product or service, including content on a Web site', you will need to familiarize yourself with online advertising law and the CAN-SPAM Act.

Many commercial email broadcast software and tools can help small business owners ease the process of compliance with handy features such as built-in opt-out tools, list management services, guidance on email content, etc.

Once you understand the fundamentals, the habit of applying it to your email marketing will quickly become so ingrained into your psyche that when email crosses your path that doesn’t comply - it will stand out like a sore thumb.

Complying with the CAN-SPAM Act

Whether you thought that CAN-SPAM was a tinned meat product, or you have some awareness of the legalities that govern online marketing practices and just need a refresher, here are a few simple steps that you can take to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act:

1. Keep your Email Header Information Honest - All email marketing headers, i.e. the 'From', 'To' and routing information (including the originating domain name and email address) must accurately identify the person or entity sending the email.

2. Don’t Mislead with Your Subject Lines - Keeping subject lines honest and to the point will also help target your specific customers pain points and needs. If you put copy in the 'Subject' field that contains misleading information about the contents of the message, you could be breaking the law.

3. Provide an Unsubscribe or Opt-Out Method - You must provide a 'clear and conspicuous' return email address or another online response mechanism that lets the recipient 'opt-out' of your future mailings.

4. Honor and Manage all Unsubscribe Requests - Simply providing an opt-out method is not enough. You be able to process all opt-out requests within 30 days of the original email being sent, and stop sending email to the requestor’s email address within 10 days of the original request. You are then prohibited from using other avenues to reach these opt-outs, such as a have another send email on your behalf.

5. List Privacy - It’s illegal to sell or distribute the email addresses of people who have chosen to unsubscribe from your emails to another entity seeking to send email to that party.

6. Include a Physical Mailing Address - All commercial email must contain your business’ full physical mailing address.

Non-Compliance and Blacklists

The CAN-SPAM Act is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission; the Act gives the Department of Justice the authority to enforce its criminal sanctions. Other federal and state agencies can enforce the law against organizations under their jurisdiction.

One of the most common consequences of suspected SPAM violations is the 'blacklisting' of your email domain by Internet service providers at the request of your customers or recipients.

Blacklisting occurs when a customer or prospect determines that your email is or has the appearance of being unsolicited SPAM, they can choose to 'Block Sender' or 'Report SPAM' at the click of a button.

Being blacklisted is a big problem for small business that often rely on email as their primary marketing tactic. First you have to deal with a perception problem among your 'customer' base and second your email, once blacklisted, won’t reach those who actually want to read it.

Going Beyond Compliance with Permission-Based Marketing

At the end of the day, your best strategy for improving deliverability and readability of your email marketing is to go one step beyond CAN-SPAM compliance and implement a 'permission-based' approach. Permission marketing is essentially when a recipient has provided explicit consent that they want to receive your email communications - whether by a sign-up or other opt-in mechanism. Read more about 'The Fundamentals of Permission-Based Email Marketing' (from MarketingProfs.com).

Other Resources

  • Online Advertising Law: A Guide for Small Businesses - Business.gov has put together a comprehensive guide for small businesses who plan to advertise online. Whether you're buying ads on search engines or direct marketing through e-mail, you'll need to understand some basic rules.
  • The Federal Trade Commission’s SPAM Web Site - Advice and resources for businesses to achieve compliance, plus reports and insights into all things SPAM.
  • Avoid Email Blacklists - Understanding email blacklists and immediate steps you should take to reduce complaints, build customer trust, and increase delivery (from iMedia Connection).
  • Tools to Check if You’re on a Blacklist - Links to free or free trial-based online services where you enter your mail server IP address and/or domain name and check it against various lists of blocked senders.

About the Author:

Caron Beesley


Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley


Wow! There is a lot to adhere to here and the last thing any small business owners wants is to face expensive litigation. Thanks for drawing attention to this.
I had no idea that a small business could be fined so much for not lising their postal address on a commercial email. No business owner should over look this.
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thanks 4 information, and fully agree with DavidP, its too easy to make a rule, when important letters can be moved to SPAM-follder __________________best term paperMessage Edited by NicoleD on 09-30-2009 11:26 AM
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