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 CrazyAuntFrances.com 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.
Flickr Creative Commons image by uberculture