Marketing email or spam?
Anybody starting off in email marketing has some idea that they need to send email that isn't spam.
Spam is unwelcome in anybody's inbox.
But that brings forth a host of questions, such as...
- Is my email a legitimate marketing email or is it spam?
- What are the consequences of sending it out if it's considered spam?
- When can I send email advertising to a particular list of email addresses?
- When can't I?
All of these are critical questions and none have simple answers.
Instead, you have to answer those questions for yourself, making a judgment call about the emails you plan to send out. And to make that judgment call as objectively as possible, you need the information contained in this article.
The marketing email spectrum
First off, forget about finding standard definitions for "spam" or "legitimate marketing email." There aren't any that everybody agrees on. Instead, think of marketing email as a spectrum of possibilities.
At one end we have the kind of email that just about anybody would say is spam. That would be an email where, for example...
- You didn't ask for the email
- You don't know the sender
- The subject line is misleading and bears no relevance to the content
- You have no interest in the content
- There is no way to get the sender to stop sending you the email
Think of the spam emails you get offering "replica watches" or "penis patches" or purporting to be from the wife of the former Nigerian ambassador to the UN.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the marketing email that everybody would agree is perfectly legitimate. One that is based on widely-recognized best practices.
For example, you visit an online store selling pet food. You use a form at their website to submit your email address and tick a box that says, "Please send me a weekly email with special offers on cat food."
The store sends you an email asking you to confirm the request by clicking on a link, which you do. From then on you get an email once a week with...special offers on cat food from that store. It would be hard to find anybody that would claim that those marketing emails are not perfectly legitimate.
(Note: Even with these two situations, you'll find people who disagree. There are those who believe that any kind of marketing email is legitimate. And those who believe that any kind of marketing email is spam.)
Good. So we have the two ends of our spectrum. The "good" end with our clearly legitimate email. And the "bad" end with those emails that are undeniably spam.
Now the tough part. An awful lot of marketing email falls somewhere along that spectrum. And the further you move away from the "good" end, the more likely you are to find people calling your email spam.
What's important here is that there is no magic line to cross. There is no single definable point on that spectrum where your email suddenly becomes spam.
That's because each email recipient has their own definition of what counts as spam. The point on the spectrum where an email turns from "legitimate" into "spam" is different for each of them.
So nobody can say, "If you send that email you are sending spam." Nor can they say, "If you send that email, it's fine, it's perfectly legitimate."
All you can say is that the further you move along that spectrum away from best practices, the greater the percentage of recipients who will think of your email as spam. Exactly how many see it as spam depends on the nature of the people you're emailing.
All you can do is manage the probability of being perceived as spam by choosing to follow (or not) best practices.
So, for example, take our cat food special offer email. What if the pet food store included a special offer for dog food in one of those emails? Most people wouldn't be bothered. But a small percentage would now begin to see that email as spam.
What if you were a regular customer at that online store, always buying cat food. You never specifically requested special offers by email. But they send you them anyway. Again, some people wouldn't be bothered. Some would even welcome the emails. But many would see them as spam.
What if those unsolicited specials were for all kinds of pet food, not just cat food? Hmmm, now more people are probably thinking the S word.
What if you weren't even a customer of that store? What if you weren't a customer and didn't even have a pet? Now we're deep into spam territory.
You see how the further you move away from that legitimacy ideal, the more and more recipients think you're sending spam.
So it becomes a risk assessment game. The more you deviate from the characteristics that define the perfectly legitimate email, the greater the chance of being labelled a spammer. From a marketing perspective, then, you need to know two things if you are to master that "risk assessment game."
First, what exactly are the characteristics that define that perfectly legitimate marketing email? Second, just what is the downside of being labelled a spammer by a proportion of recipients?
What makes a perfectly legitimate marketing email?
Legitimate marketing emails are those where:
- The recipients requested it
- The email arrives in a timely manner
- The email is relevant to the needs of the recipient
- The email allows the recipient to quickly grasp who sent it and what it's all about
- The recipient can stop getting the emails easily and any time
"Good" marketing emails are those based on permission. You can read more about permission here and I'd urge you strongly to fully digest the articles listed at that link.
Essentially, permission means that the recipient of that email has explicitly asked for those emails, or explicitly consented to receive them.
In its purest form, it means the recipient took some kind of deliberate action with the express purpose of getting those emails. Ticking a box marked "add me to your email list" is one example.
Note the use of the word explicit. One way to begin deviating from the ideal is to forget this little word. An example is asking customers during the online ordering process to tick a box if they don't want to get emails from you.
Those that don't tick have given you permission to send emails. But not explicit permission. And you will find at least some people are surprised to find themselves on your list. You have started the move toward the bad end of the email spectrum.
Permission is the big criterion when it comes to defining perfect legitimacy. But it's not the only one. A related criterion is the idea of matching expectations.
When someone asks to get your marketing emails, they have expectations of what they're going to get. The further you are from meeting those expectations, the more likely you are to be considered a spammer.
That's why it's important to ensure people know exactly what they're going to get before they submit their email address to you. Take a look at the sign-up form on the top right of this page. It tells people what's in the emails and how often they're sent. The "more info" link goes into further detail and shows them a sample email.
That way I can be sure that the expectations of those who sign-up are met by the emails. If I begin to send out emails more often than every second week, or with content unrelated to email marketing, then I can expect some people to begin thinking of those emails as spam.
This is because permission is always temporary.
One oft-forgotten aspect of email marketing is that it's not enough to get the right permission when first adding an email address to your list. Permission is not eternal nor fixed in stone. You have to renew that permission through your email practices.
By this I don't mean repeatedly asking recipients if it's OK to keep sending them email. It means that to remain firmly at the "good" end of the marketing email spectrum, you need to keep matching the recipient's expectations.
Many people collect email addresses with the intention of starting up an email newsletter. The longer the delay between signing up an email address and sending out the email, the more likely the recipient is to forget they signed up in the first place. And the more likely she or he is to have changed interests and needs.
So when your first email does arrive, some will see it as spam, either because they think it's unsolicited or simply because it is no longer relevant to them.
This timeliness issue applies equally to subsequent email frequency. Leave it too long between emails (longer than a month or two) and the same problems apply.
This idea of expectations means you need to stay relevant. Recipients perceive spam not just as emails they never wanted but also as emails they don't need. That's why it's important to ensure you match the right email content to the right recipient through some consideration of targeting.
And that's also why you can head the wrong way down the spectrum when you start making too many assumptions about what the recipient would like. If they signed up to your newsletter A, well, surely they'll like newsletter B, too? That's an assumption you are not entitled to make under the idea of permission-based email marketing.
The need for relevancy also means you need to keep an eye on the design of your emails. Because if people can't see or grasp your message, then they become irrelevant. And irrelevancy propels you in the wrong direction on that spectrum.
For more information on these issues, check these blog posts and articles:
Er, no...actually I don't want your newsletter
Lingo alert: stale permission
Lingo alert: assumed permission
But surely my emails are relevant?
How to send more email to your list without annoying them
Additional "best practice" criteria are more formal and include such things as ensuring your emails:
- Have a subject line that reflect the contents
- Come from a recognizable sender
- Contain clear contact information
- Contain easy instructions on how to get off the address list
These requirements are often reflected in the anti-spam laws email marketers are obliged to follow.
So now we have a grasp of what makes a perfectly legitimate marketing email. The more you deviate from this ideal, the more people think of you as spamming. So what?
Sending spam is bad for you
Let's clear up a myth first. There are many who believe that complying with anti-spam law is sufficient to protect yourself from any negative effects of sending "spam."
This attitude is widespread and it's utter nonsense. If you believe it, you're in for a rude awakening when you start sending out marketing emails. So please note...
- Recipients do not decide whether you are spamming based on the criteria set down in anti-spam laws. Each recipient has their own idea of what is spam and what isn't. They don't care what the law says.
- Most of the negative consequences of sending spam (see below) have nothing to do with the threat of legal punishment. And the ability to prove your emails are not spam in the eyes of the law will not save you from these negative consequences.
- All complying with relevant anti-spam laws does is protect you from prosecution by the authorities.
So what are these negative consequences?
There are some problems that occur everytime an individual decides you're sending them spam. That person's relationship with your business suffers. Your image, your brand, and your reputation weaken in the eyes of that recipient. Don't underestimate how much people dislike businesses that send them unwanted or unsolicited emails.
This has potential and obvious consequences in terms of customer loyalty, sales, word of mouth etc. With some recipients, your relationship may be strong enough to get away with it. With others, it means they shop elsewhere. They may even badmouth you in public. The Internet is full of bloggers and others openly shaming companies that spam.
It doesn't matter whether you think you deserve the spam moniker or not. It doesn't matter that other recipients think your emails are more valuable than their own spouse. The more you move down toward the spam end of the spectrum, the more people will regard you as a spammer, and the greater the risk of these negative (brand) consequences.
Now throw in those problems that arise when enough people decide to report you as a spammer, which may be as easy as hitting the "this is spam" button at their webmail service.
Once spam complaints pass a certain threshold, you can find yourself on one or more blacklists (lists of email senders with a black mark against their name.) These lists are used by ISPs and others to label incoming email from those blacklisted senders as spam and prevent its delivery. It doesn't take too many complaints before your delivery rates suffer. For more on blacklists, check this page.
And if you start heading even closer to the spam end of the marketing email spectrum, then the service you use to distribute your emails will close your account. The people hosting your website may follow suit. Neither wants to be associated with spam.
A lot of these problems bubble beneath the surface, quietly undermining your email delivery success and your customer relationships while you continue blithely sending out the same kinds of email, blissfully unaware of the long-term damage you're doing to your business.
That's why you'll often hear spammers saying "I've been sending these emails out for months and hardly anyone ever complains." Most people who think you're sending them spam don't complain to you. They complain to some other third-party who has the power to stop your emails getting delivered.
Spamming means risking two core pillars of a successful and legitimate business: your reputation and your customer relationships. It also risks destroying your ability to market through email at all, if you attract the ire of those who guard the email infrastructure.
You now know what makes a "good" marketing email and what can happen as soon as you start to move away from this ideal. So you can assess for yourself whether the email you plan sending is going to cause you trouble or not. And if you're like most businesses interested in a positive brand and solid customer relationships, you'll see that it makes sense to stay as close as you reasonably can to the "good" side of the marketing email spectrum.
Permission-based email marketing works. Spamming doesn't.
Date first published: April, 2007