Email Compliance 101: How to Navigate the Legalities that are Keeping Email Strong
In 2015, Inc.’s John Brandon predicted that email would be obsolete by 2020. He didn’t know exactly what would replace it, but surely something would. We’ve seen some contenders, including Slack, Microsoft Teams, and even social media platforms like LinkedIn. All have taken over some functions of email for some organizations, but none have unseated it. Email even remains a critical tool for marketing, and we continue to send more emails every year—why?
There are a few basic reasons why email has not only survived, but has thrived, particularly for activities like marketing. As with the phone system, the protocols email is built on are a universal standard, rather than a platform or service owned and operated by a particular company. Atop this standard is a maturity and universal adoption that is matched only by phones and physical addresses—everybody’s got one.
Critically, email’s maturity and universal adoption means that governments and email providers have had a lot of time to understand how email works and enact legislation and build new technologies to protect email users from abuse of this powerful tool by spammers and those seeking to exploit holes in security.
In this article, we’ll discuss how email marketing campaigns can stay on the right side of the law and technology to maximize email marketing deliverability and campaign success as email continues to grow.
Why is there email compliance?
More than communication services owned and controlled by a single organization (like Slack), email is viewed by regulators more as a public good or utility. As anyone who has followed the news at all knows, emails, like phone records, can be subpoenaed and submitted as evidence in court. Companies that use email recklessly—whether by straying into spam or phishing territory or failing to keep proper records—can quickly find themselves in serious legal trouble.
All of which mean it’s a good idea to take email compliance seriously from the start. Planning for compliance before email operations and infrastructure become complex can save a lot of headaches and exposure to liability.
What do you need to do to comply?
While regulations do vary by locality, the global nature of business means that major regulators like the US and EU can set rules that apply globally in practice. It’s important to be familiar with the major regulations including the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the CAN-SPAM act in the US, varied state, provincial, and territorial laws across North America, and national laws elsewhere.
The regulatory landscape is complex, which is why email compliance is a massive industry. The email encryption market alone stood at $3.36B in business in 2020. Getting professional help with email compliance is a good idea at an organizational level, but every individual marketer should be aware of the basic principles that underpin most of this legislation:
- Make sure you have permission to email people on your list.
This permission can be explicit, like signing up to receive a newsletter or updates, or implicit, like gathering email addresses at an in-person event. The key question to ask is: can the recipient reasonably expect to hear from me? If the answer is no, you can do more damage than good, particularly across a large list of recipients.
- Don’t make your header information misleading.There’s no quicker way to raise the ire of an email recipient than to make them feel duped by a misleading header or subject line. In the long run this practice will prove counterproductive as spam reports and automatic or manual attempts to unsubscribe from your list flood in. For that reason, misleading headers are often actually illegal.
- If you’re selling something, make it obvious
Any messaging that could be perceived as ensnaring someone into a purchase decision situation is a bad idea and sometimes illegal. Again, this can and often should be implicit. “20% off on our summer sale” clearly communicates a company is selling something and is better than something explicit like “Purchase opportunity inside”
- Put your physical address in the footer of the emailThis is another common spam filter trap. Regulators and email providers have recognized that having a physical address is a key component of operating a legitimate business, and an easy way for spam filters to sift the wheat from the chaff. Most human recipients will never notice this, but the machines certainly will.
- Offer an unsubscribe option
Unwanted emails are spam, and offering a clear way out is the best way both to prove you’re not intending to spam recipients as well as ensuring you don’t continue to send unwanted messages. Well-deployed unsubscribe buttons can also be an excellent source of data for building segmented lists, as often recipients do want to hear from you, but perhaps just not as often.
- Quickly unsubscribe those who request it
By law, you must remove someone who requests to be unsubscribed from your email list within ten business days. The reason should be clear: these requests could be ignored or delayed by both malicious spammers and shortsighted legitimate marketers. Unsubscribing those who request it as quickly as possible is also a basic goodwill gesture demonstrating you respect the time, attention, and agency of those on your list.“We don’t want to see you go” type follow-up emails are a tempting strategy that tries to find a middle ground. We’ve found they cause more distrust and ire than generate leads. When it comes to unsubscribe requests, a clean breakup is the goal.
How to increase email open rates
Staying out of regulatory trouble is clearly the bare minimum for running a successful email marketing strategy. In this section, we’ll share five tips on the positive side of strategy.
- Keep your lists up-to-date
This includes ensuring your list segmentation is up-to-date and that everyone on your list is in the right part of the funnel and the right lifecycle stage for receiving your emails.
- Avoid generic subject lines
The subject line is your chance, your elevator pitch in writing, to capture your audience’s attention and provoke them into wanting to learn more. It’s an adage in writing that it takes twice as long to write something half the length. Packing a nuanced and persuasive message into your subject line should follow this adage.
- Put time into the content of your email
The subject line is your critical moment to shine, but the content must be able to close the deal. A great strategy here is to follow the core principle of content marketing: give valuable information, rather than a straight sales pitch. Don’t give away the farm, but prove that you are the expert in your field as well as a trusted partner who first and foremost wants the best outcome for their customers.
- Speak directly to your target audience
When you’re talking to everyone, you’re talking to no one. Not only will trying to cast a wide net introduce the risk of blandness in your message, but you’re also missing a key opportunity to demonstrate that you understand your audience’s business and pain points at a granular level.
- Regularly give your audience the mic
From a psychology perspective, asking what customers and prospects want gives them the sense you want to get to know their business better and find better ways to serve them (which you do!). Practically, it’s also a great way to achieve those goals. This doesn’t have to be complicated—responding quickly and helpfully with requests and making a real human respondent available goes a long way toward building a deeper connection with a company.
Because of email’s unique history, its unique features of universality and authority, and the regulatory measures that have helped keep it a serious, safe, secure mode of business communication, email is not going anywhere soon. As with every powerful tool, following the rules that keep it safe and running is important—but email marketing also offers a platform for expressing a unique, creative, and powerful communication skillset that all firms should master.