CAN-SPAM for Bloggers Explained
Email marketing is an exciting world to jump into for a blogger. We all love to talk about it! We spend our time strategizing and discussing lead magnets, landing pages, automated sequences, welcome series, sales funnels, and more. You've probably heard of at least one of these, right? But have you heard of CAN-SPAM yet?
"Why do I care about CAN-SPAM?"
CAN-SPAM is a U.S. law that sets the groundrules for commercial email. Essentially, this law has created the United States' first national standards for emailing, and is designed to combat spam.
Enforced by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), this government agency has the power to sue you on behalf of an individual if you violate their laws. The fines can be up to $16,000 per non-compliant email.
- "No one will actually sue me for $16k, though."
While it's true, CAN-SPAM's enforcement has been relatively lacking, businesses are being sued for massive fines for violation of the law. As a solopreneur blogger, yes, you're not likely to get fined $16k for your email list, but you could still face smaller legal ramifications that could really hurt your reputation.
And reputation doesn't just mean what your customers think of you. Spam reports against your sender address can hurt the deliverability rates of your emails. If people are reporting you for spam, Google is less likely to let your emails past their filters, meaning your subscribers might never even see your name in their inbox anymore.
- "I'm not monetizing my blog, so I'm not a commercial sender."
First, yes, "commercial" includes bloggers who generate an income from their websites. If you have a profit-generating brand, you've become a commercial email sender.
Even if you're not monetizing your blog, the formal channels of maintaining an email list can easily be turned into a profit-generating mechanism.
As such, I would personally err on the side of caution and follow CAN-SPAM regardless. It is generally acknowledged that emails simply promoting website content, even if not for the exchange of currency, still fall under the commercial category.
- "I'm not American, so U.S. spam law doesn't apply to me."
Wrong! You, as the sender, are responsible for the spam laws of the country your emails are being delivered to. So if you have a single subscriber on your list that is in the U.S., CAN-SPAM applies to you.
And yes, this means that emails going to countries outside the U.S. have to follow the spam laws of those respective countries as well. But don't worry, I have a link at the bottom of this post that offers a synopsis of spam laws around the globe!
So, in summary, you should care about CAN-SPAM.
A brief understanding of CAN-SPAM.
When it comes to interpreting law, everything really boils down to the word intent. Legal matters are confusing and overwhelming, but if you can understand the intent of the law you're looking at, you can clear up a lot of issues.
People who search for loopholes in the law are generally skirting around intent. Don't look for loopholes. Just understand why the law is in place, and do your best to follow the intent that the lawmakers had when they created it! Following rules doesn't have to be hard.
- So, what is CAN-SPAM?
CAN-SPAM stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December of 2003, and was the country's first set of standards for e-mail, since e-mail was still relatively new at that point.
The intent is to combat spammers, and to make sure that people are receiving emails they want to receive in their inbox. Have you ever gone and looked at your spam folder for your emails? Isn't it amazing the kinds of emails that show up? Now imagine all of those showing up in your inbox. If we didn't have the ability to identify and filter spam, that would be a nightmare.
Now, obviously the goal of spam laws would be to prevent the sending of these emails in the first place. Ideally, we wouldn't even need a spam filter, right? However, there's not a ton of enforcement for CAN-SPAM at this point, probably due to the scale of the issue.
But we'll let the legislators debate over the effectiveness and helpfulness of CAN-SPAM. For now, it's the law, and we need to know how to follow it!
How to be CAN-SPAM compliant:
Luckily for you, I'm a nerd and went directly to the original Act to get the actual wording of CAN-SPAM. There's a lot of back and forth from people about what CAN-SPAM actually says is right or wrong, so I didn't want to just reference other bloggers. When you go directly to the source, the rules are actually pretty clear and easy to follow.
Just remember, the intent of this law is to ensure you are not spamming your subscribers with unwanted content, and you aren't deceiving them in any way.
- Do not use false/misleading header information or subject lines.
Persuading someone to click and/or read your email with effective copy is one thing. Deceiving them into thinking your email is about something else so they read it is another.
If your email is for marketing, do not make your subject line deceptively personal. "Uncle Bill is sick!" as the subject line of a promotion for your course is A) rude, B) stupid, C) ineffective, and D) illegal.
Something like "I have an awesome gift for you!" when the "gift" is an opportunity to buy your $999 e-course would be misleading. And kinda egotistical.
Just make sure your subject lines and the email header are an accurate reflection of the content of that email.
- Identify the message as an advertisement.
This is similar to the first item, in that you need to be clear about what your email is about. If it's an ad, for your products or someone else's, it needs to be identified as such - if you're sending out cold pitches or purchasing email addresses (btw, I don't recommend either).
If your subscribers have opted in to receive emails from you, then you don't need to identify a sales email. But still, be transparent.
I'd also add here that you must disclose your affiliate links in an email as well. People have a right to know when they're being sold to. It's your job as the salesperson to persuade them to buy while they have this knowledge.
Also, fun fact: Amazon doesn't allow affiliate links to be sent through email.
- Have a valid return address.
This is pretty simple. Just make sure that they can reach you through a valid email address. Having a "do not reply" address is fine, but make sure your email recipients have a way to get back to you. It's all a part of authentication and proving you're a real person.
- Inform recipients of where you are located.
This is probably the most well-known CAN-SPAM requirement, but it's also misunderstood fairly often.
CAN-SPAM requires the inclusion of a physical address. Many, many people say they've made up an address, or used a partial. "123 My House Lane, City, State 12345" is not an address.
Specifically, CAN-SPAM wants a valid postal address. As in, a place where you receive mail. Some people use a business address at their work, which is fine if your employer is okay with your receiving mail there. Some people are okay with using their home address, but most of us aren't.
Your other option is to get a PO Box form your local post office. A small box only costs about $25 every three months.
The intent behind this portion of the law is to make sure you're a legitimate person/business. CAN-SPAM wants to know that if they or your subscribers wanted to reach you "in person", they can. In this sense, "in person" simply means that you have a physical presence where you could physically receive a form of contact, such as mail. No one is going to come knocking on your door, they just need to know you're actually a human being.
A lot of people talk about using virtual mailboxes. After reading through the act, I'm hesitant to agree with this. The wording "postal address" leads me to believe that you should use an address attached to a physical mailbox.
- Inform recipients of how to opt-out.
This one is pretty easy because most of your email services already include this for you.
If a subscriber doesn't want to receive emails from you anymore, but can't find a way to opt-out of receiving them, you're in violation of CAN-SPAM. It's almost like holding them hostage. Hotel California? You can opt-in any time you like, but you can never leave.
Make it clear that they can opt out of any sequence or from your entire list whenever they want. Don't hide the opt-out button. Make it visible for them. If it's hard to find and they report you, even if the link is there, you're still in trouble.
I've seen companies avoid hyperlink formatting (different colored text with an underline) to try and make it harder to find the opt-out link. Don't do this. It's irritating, and pointless.
If someone doesn't want to receive your emails, you don't want them on your list! They'll kill your open and click-through rates, and they'll never be engaged and willing to buy your products. So don't try to keep people that want out.
If you want to try to pitch an alternate list or setting that may appeal to them more, you can do that on your opt-out confirmation page. But don't make it impossible for them to leave.
This also means you can't require information or charge them a fee for opting out. This may sound ridiculous, but the law is in place because people have tried it. You may ask for them to specify why they're opting out, but it cannot be more than a single reply email or a single web page form. If you require them to jump through any more hoops to opt out, you're violating the act.
- Honor opt-out requests as promptly as possible.
This one is even easier than the last. Your email service should take care of this for you when people opt out by automatically removing them from your list. But, it's still important for you to be aware that this is a part of CAN-SPAM law.
Basically, the rule is 10 days. You have 10 days to make sure they they're not receiving emails from you anymore once they've opted out.
- Monitor messages that are sent on your behalf.
If someone else is sending emails out in your name (like a VA), make sure they're following CAN-SPAM. The rules apply to your sender address, regardless of who is hitting the send button.
A few other considerations for CAN-SPAM compliance.
If you know someone is violating CAN-SPAM, do not continue to promote them.
CAN-SPAM doesn't apply to text marketing, but mobile marketing does have it's own rules under the FCC. Just be informed if you decide to go this route, as uncommon as it may be. (Not many subscribers will agree to give you their cell phone numbers, anyway.)
Forwarded emails are not responsible for the third party's country's spam laws. If a subscriber forwarded an email to a friend in China, you're not responsible for China's spam laws (unless you have another subscriber in China). Basically, you're only responsible for the countries that you sent an email to.
However, if you offered an incentive in exchange for your subscriber forwarding a sales email to a friend, the above exception no longer applies.
Social media has it's own spam laws. Some court decisions have applied CAN-SPAM to social media marketing messages.
Additionally, Internet Service Providers have the right to sue for violation of spam laws, so be sure to check the terms and conditions of whatever website/social media site you're marketing on.
You are responsible for the spam laws of the country your email list is from. Click here to see an infographic that summarizes spam laws around the world so you can cover your bases (opens in new tab).
It all comes down to intent.
I hope this guide has served to enlighten you, rather than overwhelm! Honestly, it's all rather simple. I think we can safely boil all this down to four important points:
Only send emails to people who have opted into your list.
Don't mislead anyone or attempt to deceive them to engage with your emails.
Make sure you provide valid contact information, including a physical postal address.
Let people opt out.
See? Not so bad!
Stay informed, follow the rules, and rock your email marketing.
What countries are the majority of your email subscribers from?
Let me know in the comments! And feel free to send me any questions about spam law at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time!
- Katie Scott