Villing & Company

Are You a Spammer? How to Use Email Marketing Without Sending Spam

We use the term "spam" frequently, but until recently I had no idea how unsolicited bulk messages came to be associated with a canned, precooked meat product. Before I let you in on the history of the term, see if you can make the connection? What does Hormel's famous tin of spiced ham have to do with junk mail?

The answer might surprise you.  According to ISOC, an international, Internet standards organization, the word "spam" is derived from a famous Monty Python sketch. In the sketch, which many of you have probably seen, the word "spam" gradually takes over each item on the menu until it's clear that there are few, if any, spam-free options.

According to ISOC, "This so closely resembles what happens when mass unsolicited mail and posts take over mailing lists and netnews groups that the term has been pushed into common usage in the Internet community."

Technically, spam is defined by these two characteristics:

  1. It's unsolicited - the recipient didn't ask to receive it
  2. It's sent in bulk - it's part of a larger collection of messages with nearly identical content

If your email campaign fits those two criteria, you are most likely sending spam. It's illegal to send spam and if you get too many complaints (roughly 1 complaint per 1000 recipients), you may be blocked from sending future messages by the recipients Internet Service Provider (ISP). A complaint is registered any time a recipient clicks "Report Spam" in their email program. This notifies their ISP, who then sends a warning to the originating email service (e.g. MailChimp or ConstantContact).

Here are the most common reasons that companies are blacklisted by ISPs:

  1. Using old lists - if someone doesn't remember signing up, they may report you.
  2. Spam traps - old email addresses are often used by major ISPs to create traps; send to one of these, and be blocked instantly.
  3. Tradeshow lists - sending bulk email to the attendees of a tradeshow is considered spam.
  4. Outlook/Salesforce dumps - unless you're careful, dumping your address books from Outlook or CRM software can lead to being blocked.
  5. Purchased lists - if the list is purchased, bulk mail should only be sent by the company who sold you the list, otherwise you should only send emails one-by-one.
  6. Organization/Chamber lists - using these lists for bulk email can get you blocked.

Ultimately, anything that is "unwanted" by the recipient has the potential of being reported as spam, so it's important to pay attention to your list. In addition to being blocked by ISPs, which could take months to resolve, you can also be fined by the FTC. For example, Kodak was fined $26,000 for failing to provide a physical address or an opt-out method in their emails.

As valuable as email marketing is, it's important to understand the rules and risks involved. If you're interested in learning more, MailChimp has a great collection of email marketing resources that are easy to read and understand. I'd strongly suggest that you take a look at some of their guides if you're planning to send bulk emails, so you can make sure that your email marketing campaigns are as effective as possible.

(I used MailChimp's "Warning Signs That Your Client Is Spamming" to inform much of the content of this article. Please download the full report for additional details.)

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