A lot of questions I receive about email relate to the CAN-SPAM Act, so I wanted to write a post about how to keep your email list legal. Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, can we first talk about the ridiculous fact that a bill about NOT spamming is call the CAN-SPAM Act? Seriously.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, if you want to see the full thing, you can read all the details on the FTC’s website. In this post I’m going to share what you really need to know in order to stay legal.
Note: This post deals primarily with how you stay legal with email in the United States. For a full look at these laws around the world (which matters if you have subscribers from other countries!), you can check out this fabulous infographic!
I’ll also suggest a few extra things that are technically legal, but I recommend avoiding anyway. Because if you’re like me, your biggest concern isn’t staying clear of the law. That’s pretty easy, as you’ll see. What I’m most concerned about is growing an engaged list of superfans. I’ll share some email tips or examples that wouldn’t incur a fine, but may hurt your relationships with your email list.
Why Does This Matter?
I see people talking in Facebook groups about how they don’t abide fully by some of these (especially using a physical address!). While I doubt many of us are going to find the FTC cracking down, if you DO incur fines, they are up to $40,000 PER EMAIL YOU SEND. Chew on that.
The other thing is that these laws have the best interest of your users in mind. We should want to be above board and treat our subscribers like VIPs, so none of these should feel super burdensome.
The BEST Way to Keep Legal
If you are still sending out mass emails through Outlook or Gmail or AOL or Juno (raise your hand if your first email was a Juno address??), then you need to stop. That ISN’T legal.
When you use an email service provider like Mailchimp or Convertkit (read why I prefer Convertkit HERE), they take care of a lot of the legal things for you, or at least remind you of those things. So that is the best first step you can take!
HOW TO KEEP YOUR EMAIL LIST LEGAL
Don’t be deceptive.
This covers parts 1 & 2 of the CAN-SPAM Act, where you are required to avoid deceptive headlines and also sender email addresses. I haven’t really EVER seen this in my inbox and feel like for most people, this is a no-brainer. I would imagine the people and companies using this are not the ones who would be reading this blog.
However, here are some areas where I feel like people toe the line on being deceptive, or just kind of smarmy.
- Using a first-name only.
I can’t stand it when I get an email from Sally and think that it’s my friend Sally, but it’s really salesperson Sally. When you only use a first-name on your email send or IN the email, you run the risk of people reporting you for spam.
Marketers started doing this a few years ago to give the appearance that the email is from a friend. While I think we should develop relationships with our people, we should always give context and not pretend to be their friends by using just a first name. If you use just your first name, you could say something like Kirsten // Create If Writing to show the context of your site or brand.
- Using Re: in subject lines.
This may be a point for contention with people, but I’ve seen marketers use this tactic a lot. Have you seen this in your inbox? I got one this week. I opened, thinking that it was actually a reply to a conversation that I needed to address. AND THAT’S EXACTLY THE POINT.
People use this to get people clicking more, since it looks like a conversation. Again, just another way that marketers sometimes try to be tricksy to up open rates. Not a fan. UNLESS you mean this as “regarding,” not as a way to fake the “reply” notification in email. Sometimes that RE can be appropriate. But I almost never see it used this way (except in actual, personal emails) and typically see this used as a tactic.
- Click-bait subject lines.
Are we still using click-bait in 2017? STILL?? Yes. Despite Facebook’s plan to put these to death on their platform, I still see them popping up everywhere in links and sometimes (but less frequently) in email as well. While the CAN-SPAM Act probably wouldn’t get you for click-bait subject lines, this is a way to break trust with your readers.
This doesn’t mean you can’t write a great subject line that gets people clicking! The difference between CLICKABLE and CLICK BAIT is that a clickable headline has content that matches the headline. You feel like you HAVE to click, but what you read is satisfying. Click bait has a headline you click, but the content doesn’t match up and leaves you disappointed.
Be clear. Give context. Don’t try to trick people. Pretty easy, right?? Let’s move on.
Use Proper Disclosure.
The third point in the CAN-SPAM Act is that you must identify your email as an ad. For many writers and bloggers, we send out a newsletter or more personal email that doesn’t feel like an AD. It may have ads IN it (or affiliate links or links to our products), but it isn’t the same thing as an email you’d get from Old Navy. So how might this apply to us?
- Use an email service provider.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, one of the first ways that you can make sure you are legal is using something like ConvertKit, Mailchimp, Mad Mimi, or MailerLite to send emails. When people open an email and it’s from one of these providers, it’s clear pretty quickly that it’s not just an email from a buddy.
A lot of people have moved away from pretty, image-heavy emails because text-based emails perform better. I have literally heard people say that this is because they seem like emails from friends. I’ve seen this in my own emails, but as I mentioned with not being deceptive, people shouldn’t REALLY think that you’re a friend.
If they can’t tell that the email isn’t from their buddy, you are doing it wrong. Again, most email service providers cover this for you, even the ones that allow you to have a text-based email.
- Disclose affiliate links.
This is related, but not directly under the CAN-SPAM Act. If you use affiliate links (where you get a commission if someone makes a purchase), you MUST DISCLOSE. It should be a clear disclosure and before the first outbound link. (To be honest? Sometimes mine is right after, in parenthesis like this. For me this is about readability and I’m willing to take the risk that my disclosure is still clear.)
I get tons of emails without proper disclosures and nothing makes me unsubscribe faster. Why? I don’t mind supporting people I like by purchasing through their link. I simply want to KNOW that they are recommending a product because they like it AND because they get paid. That matters. So does the FTC. (Read more on disclosure here!)
Use a physical address.
Here is where many people get tripped up. Do you have to use a REAL address in your emails? YES. Do you HAVE to include it? YES. Does it need to have a street number and everything? YES.
So…we’re supposed to email potentially thousands of people we don’t really know with our actual address? YES.
If that makes you feel uncomfortable, there are other options! You could get a local P.O. Box or use something like ViaBox, where you can get a forever free forwarding address. Amy Lynn Andrews has a great post if you need more on the address bit. In essence: you need to use an actual, physical address.
Don’t use something like 45 Writer Way Writerland, USA or a Cabin in the Woods Somewhere. I’ve seen people do this! While you mostly likely aren’t going to get noticed by the FTC as a smaller entity, WHAT IF YOU DID? Could you afford those fines?? Not worth it.
Let people opt out.
This deals with #5 & #6 in the CAN-SPAM Act and is mostly handled by your email service provider. YAY! One less thing to worry about, right? Right.
If you want to do this better, you can utilize a CUSTOM unsubscribe. You can’t do this with every email service provider. With one like ConvertKit, you can create options where people don’t have to get off your whole list.
An example would be if you are running some kind of sales launch. A great idea is let people opt out of the 7-10 emails you’ll send in the launch. You can create a link in ConvertKit that you could use in the bottom of an email to say something like:
Not interested in my course? Click here to stay subscribed, but stop getting course emails!
This takes the CAN-SPAM a few steps further and allows you to better target your subscribers. Check with your email service provider to see if you can use a form of tagging to handle custom unsubscribes.
Still with me? Clearly, there are a LOT of things you need to be aware of to stay legal with the FTC! (Don’t forget to check out the link that shares what’s legal around the world!)
To sum up, if you want to know how to keep your email list legal, use a reputable email service provider! That takes care so much. If you don’t have one that you love, I would highly recommend ConvertKit!
You can check out WHY in my post, or get a free month to try them with my affiliate link.Still have questions? Leave them in the comments! You can also join my Facebook group and ask me there.
Cortney Harris says
Great post. This has a lot of useful information on E-mail Marketing.
Thanks, Cortney! Glad it was helpful. 🙂
Emily - Uno Dos Trae says
Thanks so much for this! As someone who’s just starting out with email marketing, this info was so useful.
I’m so glad, Emily! Thank you for taking the time to read and hope it helps you get your list off the ground…legally and otherwise!
Thanks for sharing this! Super helpful!
No problem, Anca! Thanks for reading!
Natasha Botkin says
Mega great tips! Thanks for helping so many. Xoxo
Thanks, Natasha! I really like writing about nerdy email stuff, so…win win! 😉
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