Email Marketing: How Not to Be a Dirty Rotten Spammer


Do you remember when you were a kid and crossed the street without looking? Remember how mad your mom got? Even if you were within your legal rights and crossing in a crosswalk, it just takes one oncoming car that doesn’t see you and you’re flatter than Wile E. Coyote.

The “official” definition of spam is unsolicited bulk email with a commercial and/or malicious intent. The U.S. 2004 CAN-SPAM law makes it illegal to send commercial email with a misleading header, without a postal address, without a way to unsubscribe, or if the addresses were harvested in various nefarious ways.

The definitions vary somewhat. But theoretically, if you’re sending email marketing to someone who asked for it and you’re not defrauding them, it’s not spam.

The Aunt Frances guide to spam

Now go ask your Aunt Frances what spam is. “Oh good lord, those annoying messages they send me from . . . . ”

You can finish that sentence with any one of a hundred companies. Amazon, eBay, GoDaddy, the Thanksgiving turkey farm, the list goes on and on. Companies that may have legal permission to send her email, because she agreed to it once upon a time, or because she’s already a customer.

Aunt Frances might be hip enough to have registered with GoDaddy, but she doesn’t know or care about official definitions. If it’s getting on her nerves, it’s spam.

She won’t unsubscribe (because someone told her she’ll get more spam if she does), but she will triumphantly mark it as spam. Email providers will start to look darkly on the sender. If a high enough percentage of subscribers mark messages as spam, messages start to go automatically to junk folders even when there are raving fans waiting breathlessly for the latest message.

And some email providers will just throw your messages away.

Sure, the senders are following the letter of the law, but they’re still road kill.

If you’re GoDaddy, this is a manageable problem. If you’re a small business and you just want to send nice stuff to your customers, it is not.

You’ve got to keep Aunt Frances happy

There are two definitions of “spam.” One involves a complex set of legal regulations and loopholes that apply to email marketing. The other is “crappy email I don’t want.”

If you want to send out email to more than a handful of customers, you need to live up to both standards. Not only do you have to follow the letter of the law (if you don’t and you’re emailing from the U.S., the fine is $11,000), you have to be better than the law. Just like white hat SEO, there are best practices for white hat email marketing.

Here are a couple of tips for being the Gary Cooper of email.

Make yourself useful

You’re already working toward this in all of your communication, right? If everything you send out benefits your readers, they’re a lot less likely to get pissed at you and click the dreaded spam button.

Every email you send needs to have something valuable for readers. Otherwise, why are you sending it? Just to pitch your stuff and benefit yourself? That’s not going to work, now is it?

(On the other hand, you don’t have to be afraid to sell. Unless you’re running a list that has a purely philanthropic intent, if you want readers to buy, go ahead and ask them to. Just don’t be an ass about it.)

Honor what you were originally given permission to do

Email marketing is permission marketing. The idea is, you convince someone to say, “yes, please market to me.” Then you go ahead and do that.

You don’t ask permission to send information about auto maintenance, then use that permission to send marketing messages about escort services. Uncool.

And if you promise useful tips and tricks, you’ve got to make about 80% of your content tips and tricks. Yes, you can sell, but there have to be enough goodies to make the sales message palatable.

Make sure they remember you exist

Just this week I had three promotional emails sent to my Gmail account. If I was a normal customer, I would just have marked them as spam, because I can’t for the life of me remember signing up for this list.

The first antidote to this is to mail your list often enough so that they won’t forget about you. You must email new subscribers immediately after they sign up, and make enough of an impression that they’ll still remember who you are two months from now.

Use your emailer’s autoresponder function to get a prompt string of useful messages into every email box on your list. I’d suggest a sequence of at least four or five useful messages to make a real impression. I’m partial to a ten-message sequence, myself.

(This happens to be why I prefer HTML to plain text email–you can use colors and a simple but distinct graphic style to help fix your identity in your readers’ consciousness. You can also include your photo, which helps an awful lot. These don’t take the place of useful content, but they do help people remember you later.)

If you’re still getting marked as a spammer

If you’re still having trouble with folks mistakenly marking you as a spammer, go ahead and jog their memory about when and why they signed up for your list in the first place. The king of bulk email providers, Aweber, has a great tip. Create an automatic signature that reminds the person when they signed up, what the list is about, and what to do if they don’t want to get it any more. It would look something like this:

You’re getting this email because you subscribed on June 17, 2007 to Sonia Simone’s free content class. If you don’t want to get these messages any more, just click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the page and you’ll be immediately removed from my list.

Aweber has an automatic field with that sign-up date, which makes it simple. If your email provider doesn’t, the technique still works fine without the date.

If you’re getting a lot of false spam clicks, put that at the top of each message. If you’re just getting a few, put it at the bottom under your signature.

That little reminder is often enough to jog Aunt Frances’s memory that she did, at one time, want to receive your 101 Meatball Recipes newsletter. And it helps her feel reassured that gangs of email marauders will not come down on her if she goes ahead and unsubscribes.

Lots more free info on email marketing

Yep, you guessed it. If you want some more tips and advice, I’ve got a ten-part free email class on creating great content for e-newsletters. (Virtually every lesson applies to blog content as well, so even if email marketing isn’t your thing, feel free to sign up.)

I won’t clog your email box up with crap, and of course I will never rent or sell your information to anyone. (And neither should you. It’s a terrible business practice.)

Get the free class

(Important note: You’ll have to confirm that you want to get the email class or you won’t receive it. Once you submit your information, you’ll get an email very quickly asking you to confirm.)

Flickr Creative Commons image by uberculture


  1. James Hipkin says:

    Customer data can help your emails be useful.

    Understand what your customers are interested in, based on past purchase behavior, and keep your primary message focused there. If you have the data, and the budget, next-likely-purchase models can be very useful for this.

    Customer data can tell you what else purchasers of product A bought. Make this your secondary offer. Track the results and record the info in the database.

    Keep this up and soon your emails stop being advertising and become content.

  2. Geez, girl, you always have the best pictures!

    This looks good, I’m totally signing up.

  3. Evan says:


    Interesting marketing twist – talking about the objection before the pitch.

  4. Sonia Simone says:

    Thanks, Michael. I’m grateful to Skellie for her post on how to mine the Flickr Creative Commons. I probably spend more time finding images than I should, but it’s a very satisfying part of the process for me, I must admit.

    Evan, it’s not so much about when you address the objection, as making your marketing useful in itself whether or not anyone buys. That’s how I see it, anyway.

  5. Sonia Simone says:

    Good stuff, James. Just plain old watching your customers’ behavior can reveal all kinds of things.

    For individuals or small organizations, another very handy thing you can do with an email list is just send out a free survey. Maybe you give them a freebie for filling it out, maybe not, depending on your relationship.

  6. Kelly says:


    Signed up yesterday. Love how you worked the request to sign up in and I didn’t even see it coming, because the post was so well-written. After that, I couldn’t resist!



  7. James Hipkin says:


    Surveys are a great tool. Not only do you gather good info about your customers you also demonstrate your willingness to listen.

    We have seen up to a 60% reduction in attrition among survey respondents. Some of this is a tautology but, when you consider attrition was down up to 40% among survey recipients who didn’t respond, you have to give the survey some credit for the loyalty improvement. When we reported the results of the survey in the next communication and told customers what was being done with the info, loyalty was improved again.

    Relationship building / loyalty comes from creating value beyond the transactional / functional benefits of your product. Surveys are another great, win-win way to do this.

    I’m telling my staff to sign up for your course.

  8. Sonia Simone says:

    James, I love that. I think it makes perfect sense that surveys will increase loyalty–on an individual level, don’t we feel more loyalty to someone who actually wants to know how we feel? And that is a great point, when we come back and let people know how we used that information, it’s even stronger.

    Yep, Kelly, I’m suuuuuper sneaky. :) Not to worry, I solemnly promise I will not turn into a scary salesperson on you. 90% useful information, 10% (at most) soft sell, that’s my formula.

  9. J.D. Meier says:

    > Email marketing is permission marketing.
    Well put.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..Social Loafing

  10. Zeus Digriz says:

    However long it took to find that spam truck picture was time well spent.

    I laughed out loud and read the rest of your post.

    Do you have any plans for Oscar Meyer’s Weinermobile?

  11. Aliwhiteley says:

    As well as the content suggestions are there any specifics relating to the subject cc, bcc and attachment fields that we should be aware of for good practice…

  12. Only found your site yesterday – and reading continuesly :)

    Just two quick suggestions:
    always include the name of the subscriber into your mail – how should a spammer know your first name, so the mail comes through as more legit.

    Try to seperate your vistors by gender. I had some success with adding slight changes to the copy to better sddress each group (3 groups: male, female, don’t know).

  13. I learned to check my spam folder in my email ever since I found out that important messages go straight there.

  14. Chip Tudor says:

    Good thoughts on e-mail spamming, Sonia. Always a very delicate balance for me as I try to keep my current list of potential customers fresh and glean new prospects.

  15. I appreciate your tip about enrolling new subscribers immediately after they sign up and send them their first e-newsletter right away.
    Catherine Lockey´s last [type] ..3 Good Reasons Email Marketing Must Be Part of Your Digital Marketing Plan

  16. Some excellent points – and comments also.

    Also shows the power of using the right images. Amazing use of a picture to really grab my attention and start me reading. Reading hundreds of websites weekly it is important to differentiate yourself and that is exactly what you’ve done and a lesson we can all learn when sending emails too.

  17. Dawn Yun says:

    Hi Sonia,

    Just signed up for your fab newsletter. I like your take on life. Nice pix, too.
    Dawn Yun´s last [type] ..Trust Your ‘Mom’ Instincts


  1. [...] the same way, free content like email newsletters, blogs and autoresponder content are tasty appetizers that make your prospects hungry for something [...]

  2. [...] article by Sonia which you should read – It’s a how to article though : Email Marketing – how not to be dirty rotten spammer. Tags: Blogging Tips, how to blog, [...]

  3. [...] I’m one of the nice ones. Many people will just mark you as a spammer for the crime of being [...]

  4. [...] About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication. [...]

  5. [...] But if you want to learn to communicate your message and promote your book without feeling like a dirty rotten spammer, she’s your [...]

  6. [...] a wonderful article from Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication. While she is writing about persuasive copy in this Third Tribe Blog, it applies equally well for [...]

  7. [...] Email Marketing: How Not to Be a Dirty Rotten Spammer (by Sonia Simone) [...]