Internet spam is potentially one of the most serious problems in today’s electronic environment and is unquestionably the most tenacious. It is impossible to determine how many spam emails users receive on a daily basis; even conservative estimates likely number in the hundreds. Naturally, email and web users of all sorts rightfully err on the side of caution and tend to dump any spam—or spam-like—email message as soon as they spot it in their Spam Folders.
This is mostly a good practice, but it puts honest e-business people at a disadvantage when it comes to distributing email flyers. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that, by many laws, sending email unsolicited is illegal, and can potentially incur severe penalties. With these factors working against them, business owners are often at a loss as to how to send email advertisements to potential customers when doing so is prohibited by law.
Although sending e-mails to customers completely unsolicited is prohibited, there are ways to distribute emails to potential customers legally. In order to do so, users need to understand the laws in place about emails. They also should have a good grasp of letter-writing etiquette, professionalism, and honesty.
Finally, they must ensure that their e-mails cannot be mistaken for e-mail spam. This can be a tall order for those unused to drafting emails, but by following a few simple principles, it can be done. If users simply heed the following pieces of advice, they should have little difficulty contacting customers by email.
Since spam is such a serious problem, it stands to reason that it has been outlawed. At the provincial/state level, as well as the federal level, numerous pieces of legislation exist that prohibit the dispersal of spam. Users would do well to familiarize themselves with any and all sets of rules and regulations relating to e-mail. While the specific laws in force will depend on a user’s location, some good jumping-off points would be the Federal Trade Commission, the Internet Policy Task Force, and the CAN-SPAM Act. The details of each set of laws will vary according to the region, but there are two guiding principles that should serve users well in holding to the spirit of the law.
First, before sending an e-mail, the user must have express consent from the would-be recipient. In other words, the recipient must have clearly stated that the user has permission to contact them. In some cases, this consent can be inferred from a recipient’s behavior, but if a user is not certain they have consent, they MUST clarify this. Second, any message that is sent must contain accurate information about the sender and/or his or her organization, including how the recipient might contact them.
As stated earlier, users must know the details of the e-mail laws that are in force in their location. The above two points may help users grasp the full meaning of the laws, but they must be aware of those laws.
Knowing the federal and regional legislation on e-mail use should give users a good idea on the policy of their Internet Service Providers. In addition to local laws, each ISP has an agreement with all their clients, part of which deals with the acceptable and unacceptable use of their services. Needless to say, spam email is likely near the top of what is considered unacceptable by any ISP. While users should review their service agreements to determine exactly what is prohibited, it is safe to say that any breach of the agreement’s policy would be sufficient grounds for the ISP to revoke a user’s service privileges.
If users have agreements with more than one ISP, then the amount of care they must take increases proportionally. Just because a user is compliant with one ISP does not mean that they are not in breach with another.
Just because one has permission to contact a potential customer by email does not mean that a user can simply send any kind of message. One of the most telling signs of e-mail spam is the tone and message of the e-mail. Spam messages are always impersonal, even though they may try to sound personal. One dead giveaway is the subject line of a spam message; some of the more well-known lines are “Blessed deal,” or “Social security payment.” When devising a subject line, users must make sure it is well thought out and relevant. The message itself should be of a respectful tone.
A good rule of thumb is to use the same kind of language one would use when devising a cover letter to an employer. One should start with a pleasant greeting, and end by thanking the recipient for their time and/or consideration. In today’s age of texts and tweets, the art of letter-writing – and diplomacy—seems to be dwindling; many forget that good manners can open many doors. By exercising a bit of common courtesy, users can win over a potential customer without needing any ads.
In the same vein as courtesy, users must ensure that the content of their messages matches the tone. Another giveaway of a spam message is the grammar and punctuation; namely, the lack of it. How many times has one read through a nearly legitimate-looking email only to find enough spelling errors and grammatical missteps to give one a headache? Perfect punctuation, spelling and grammar in any message—typewritten or electronic—is ideal, but not absolutely essential. One or two small errors can be understandable, but if every other sentence has one glaring flaw, the recipient is going to automatically assume it is spam, delete it, and possibly report it to his or her ISP.
If a user does not have the best spelling or grammar skills, then a word processor with Spell Check or Grammar Check is necessary. Even the formatting of the message is important. Randomly using bold or italicized fonts, or putting sections all in caps, will also raise alarms in a reader’s mind. The same goes for unusual colour schemes or text; black lettering is the gold standard for a message. Consistency in message formatting is key. If the text of a message makes you want to pound your head against a desk, then the recipient will most likely feel the same way.
Users with product or service offerings may choose to use itemized flyers in their email advertising. If a user intends to send such an advertisement through e-mail, then special care must be taken. In cases like these, the e-mail must be specifically and clearly identified as an advertisement. With all commercial e-mail, the FTC has strict rules; one of these mandates that e-mail ads must identify themselves this way.
Fortunately, this is relatively simple; all a user need do is place the word “Advertisement” above their promotional text, or at the top of the e-mail. Adding “Advertisement” to the subject line of a message is another option, though including it in the main text as well would be recommended. Complying with the law need not always be difficult, but it is always required.
A corollary to many—if not all—of existing laws regarding e-mail is that users can only send to addresses obtained by honest means. In other words, if a user sends an e-mail to an address he or she obtained fraudulently—through deception—then that user has broken the law. For example, if a user happens to see the e-mail address of an acquaintance or colleague on a form he or she does not have normal access to, then that address was obtained fraudulently. This ties back with the issue of gaining consent; a recipient must give permission for a user to send a message.
If said user simply obtains an address surreptitiously, then that user has not gained consent to contact its owner. However, if a potential customer fills out an online survey, it is possible that survey could include an option to provide an email address. Such an option would include a statement saying expressly that, by providing an address, the individual is indicating they would like to receive information about the subject.
In a case like this, an address could be used, as the customer has provided implied consent. The same goes for any list that customers voluntarily sign up for to receive updates or other notifications. Users must be mindful of how they obtain contact information of potential customers. Even if they know the addresses of people—friends—themselves, they must obtain consent before sending any messages. Otherwise, not only would they be in breach of multiple laws, they risk losing those friendships.
Another tenet of email law is the requirement for any message sent to have an option allowing the recipient to opt out of future messages. Specifically, messages must have an opt-out option that is actually enforced. Many e-mail users often see “unsubscribe” links in spam messages, but never click them, out of fear that doing so will only attract more spam email. Before sending any messages—whether one has consented or not—users must have a solid opt-out policy in place. In addition, they must ensure that all those involved in sending emails understand that policy, and the steps to enforce it.
Finally, they must have effective means to acknowledge and comply with a recipient who indicates they are opting out. It is not enough to simply have an “unsubscribe” link; said link must work. The best way to ensure that an opt-out policy is effective is to test it. Users can do so by sending a message to their own address, click the “unsubscribe” link, and see if they ever receive another message. If no other messages are ever received, then the opt-out policy is an effective one.
In addition to a polite tone, proper formatting, and good punctuation and grammar, there are a few other things a user can do to be professional in a message. First, a user can avoid including any attachments in an email. One of the biggest fears with spam email is that it can contain malware, spyware, or any number of malicious programs. If a potential customer gets a message they do not expect, they are already wary. E-mail attachments, especially large ones, only add to that. If there is any information that a user must convey, it should be placed in the body—the main text—of the message.
Similarly, if a message must contain any HTML elements, it should be specifically prepared, and not taken from a web page. In cases like these, a message should have two sections: one for the HTML elements, and one with the message in normal text. Both sections should contain the same information, and both should be preceded by a brief statement indicating that HTML is used. As long as users are upfront about the contents of their message, there should be little trouble.
In order to achieve maximum dispersal of their malicious content, spammers often send a single message to dozens of addresses at once. Often times, this involves guessing at addresses blindly, and hoping that their guesses are correct. This practice is as inefficient as it is malicious, but it ultimately gets the spam to some addresses. This is also how recipients can recognize spam. If an individual sees an unfamiliar email sent to an unusually high number of addresses—which can include a misspelled version of their address—then it is likely spam.
To avoid this kind of red flag, a user should ensure that their message is as targeted as possible. To begin, users should only send one message to one recipient at a time, even if many recipients must receive the same information. Next, the message should be personalized, such as addressing the recipient personally. If a message is meant for many eyes, then parts of it can be reused, but it should always be written as though only a single recipient will see it.
Finally, the message should include the sender’s signature block, which usually consists of a name, organization, and physical postal address. This reassures the recipient that the message was drafted by a real person—not auto-composed by a spammer’s botnet.
To ensure that no spam makes it past their inbox’s doors, some email users seek out email validation programs or services. These programs offer multiple methods of deterring and countering e-mail spam, ranging from abuse detection, spam traps, IP locators, and disposable address detection. Users who plan to send out e-mail advertisements would do well to always assume their customers have such a service at their disposal. Assuming that a message will have to pass such a system can help users focus their writing efforts, and ensure no detail is overlooked.
This kind of program can also work in a user’s favor, by using it as a test. If an email message can be read by such a program without being flagged as spam, it has an excellent chance of making it to its intended reader. Another option would be to consult web development or computer specialists and ask them if a message could be flagged as spam, and how to avoid it. Just as there are those who propagate email spam, there are just as many who seek to curtail it. By seeking these individuals out and asking their advice, users can do more than just help their advertising efforts. They can also pass on helpful information about how to cut down on spam.
Given spam’s prevalence, it is understandable why so many would be concerned about it. Despite the best intentions of lawmakers and IT professionals, measures to curtail spam can adversely impact honest e-businesspeople. Although the existing laws—and hefty penalties—related to spam e-mail can seem intimidating, users should not be deterred from honest efforts to attract customers.
Knowing the laws involved will inform users of what is and is not permitted with e-mail. Knowing one’s customer lets a user send a precise message that will not be mistaken for spam. With a dash of diplomacy, courtesy, respect, and common sense, users can ensure their messages will not be immediately trashed when they are read. And by reaching out to anti-spam experts in the IT field, users can ensure their practices are up to code, and even help others cut down on spam. While the principles outlined in this article are a good start, users should not consider them the be-all-end-all with regards to email advertising.
This article can help users formulate the cornerstone of their own email marketing strategy. It still falls to individuals to perform their own research on the law, their clientele, and on their business offerings. Ultimately, any user’s advertising plan will depend on their businesses. We hope that the previous words will help honest users in their advertising endeavors going forward.
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