In the old days, somewhere between covered wagons and anti-spam legislation, it felt like it was every man for himself in the fight against the online casinos, Nigerian princes asking favours, and highly suspect 'enhancement' promises.
Things got so bad that I once 'replied' to 50 spammers with a 'bounce' notification (indicating my email didn’t exist). The 'bounce' usually worked, causing the spammers to remove my email address from their lists.
This one worked very well too. I didn’t get any more messages from any of those accounts. I also didn’t get any mail from any account for the next 24 hours as my ISP punished me for "spamming" 50 emails at once.
It took several tense calls to their customer support line to get my service turned back on amidst plenty of finger-wagging and lecturing about me spamming the spammers.
I’ve kept that in mind in the years since, as with each new round of legislation making it harder to send unsolicited emails, there are a handful of marketers claiming the cure is worse than the disease. With each new common-sense guideline – all of which, by the way, have massive public support – many businesses claim the burdens are too tough, the measures too restrictive. "How can anyone make a living", they seem to want to ask, "with so many severe rules and penalties around email?"
Let's take a quick look at them:
Anti-Spam Laws in the US, Canada, and Europe
It’s true that the restrictions on sending marketing emails have gotten a lot tighter over the years. To get a sense of where we’re at now, let’s take a look at a few of the major guidelines in place for those of us in the Western world. Note that this is not advice, but simply my perspective. Check out the actual legislation to ensure you adhere to all the rules.
In the U.S., CAN-SPAM legislation has a firm opt-out rule. Basically, it suggests that marketers may send unsolicited (unexpected?) marketing messages, but must remove people from lists promptly when requested or face very stiff fines from the federal government.
In Canada, we’ve taken things a little bit further. Our CASL laws state that marketers can't send anything deemed “unsolicited commercial electronic messages” unless that individual has specifically requested to receive them. In essence, it makes it all but impossible to send spam without facing the prospect of massive fines.
However, it’s important to note that once a prospect has opted in, it is considered a blanket opt-in so marketers could blast that person (drip campaign) until they opt out (and probably think you are a jerk) if desired. While that’s not exactly in the vein of good branding or relationship-building, it is legal. That said, please don't. Just don't.
Across the pond, the EU’s new anti-spam legislation (GDPR) (March 2018). The EU laws make our (relatively) stringent Canadian and US legislation seem like baby steps. The new guidelines will dictate not only the use of email, fax, and text messages like Canadian law does, but a long list of additional electronic communication methods as well – including telephone calls, browser cookies, and a lot more.
Or, for a simpler take on things, check out HubSpot’s post on the topic.
Are Anti-Spam Laws Working?
Any piece of legislation that cuts down on the amount of unsolicited email we receive is going to be popular with the public, but is it effective?
I suppose you could argue this both ways. On the one hand, messages that are obviously junk still find their way into my inbox. And, that’s after my ISP probably blocks dozens or hundreds a day without ever passing them along.
So clearly, spammers are still hard at work. Even so, the problem is a lot less severe than it used to be. Filters have gotten better, and companies have become warier in sending unsolicited mail, lest they be hit with a large financial penalty or negative reviews.
In some cases, it seems as if marketers either don’t understand the new laws that are in place, or are purposefully ignoring them. For example, I regularly receive messages from senders in other countries that clearly violate local guidelines. I’m imagining they tell themselves that Canadian law doesn’t apply to them, or that I’m simply collateral damage in their email blast.
In reality, CASL applies to both what I send and what I receive. Under Canadian extradition law (not to mention NAFTA), U.S.-based companies (for example) should be able to face fines and penalties for violating these statutes. This will probably happen eventually, but it seems as if enforcement is lagging a little in this area. And perhaps enforcement is ultimately what will make these measures successful or not.
Despite that reality, my expectation is that anti-spam laws will only get stricter and more prolific as time goes on. No one likes receiving unsolicited emails, and legislation that discourages this type of marketing activity is almost always going to be popular with the general public. However, given that so many people hate receiving spam, it’s worth asking the real question in all of this mess…
Why Do We Even Need Anti-Spam Legislation in the First Place?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have laws to protect us from spammers (even if they aren’t as effective as I might like). My sense of wonder is with the marketers themselves.
You don’t have to be all that brilliant to realize that annoying people isn’t a good sales tactic and that your credibility is essentially shot when you start sending out mass unsolicited emails. That’s not a way to make friends or start new business conversations. And once that first shred of trust has been lost, you aren’t likely going to get back.
Personally, I’ve never had any problems with email compliance, and my interest in anti-spam legislation mostly has to do with my role as an advisor to companies. There just isn’t any profit in spamming people, so it’s not a technique I endorse.
Why would you want to break the law – and risk huge financial repercussions – for a tactic that doesn’t work? Instead of taking on a high-risk, low-reward sales campaign, you could follow an easier path:
- Develop a corporate compliance program for email and other electronic indications.
- Follow established best practices to attract prospects rather than interrupt them. I know from firsthand experience you can use SEO, social engagement, and quality content in your marketing efforts to achieve amazing quality lead generation results.
- Recognize that the word “blast” or any of its synonyms should be a huge red flag when figuring out how you’re going to get customers. If you’re aiming for anyone with a pulse or shooting for very low percentages, then you’re probably breaking the law and toasting your own profitability.
As a rule of thumb, I never assume subscriber-ship from anyone. If someone wants content for me, they tell me what they’d like to receive (by way of a download or subscription), and then I send them only what they request. That seems to work well for me because my focus is on providing quality content they can use, as opposed to forcing my content on them.
Marketers throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe should be asking themselves whether they are compliant with anti-spam regulations because missteps in this area can get to be very expensive quickly. In a more practical sense, though, we should all be wondering why anyone bothers to send spam in the first place when there are so many better ways to build a business.