Email Compliance in 2017: The State of CAN-SPAM

Email Compliance in 2017: The State of CAN-SPAM

It’s been almost 14 years since the CAN-SPAM Act passed. A lot has changed in the email marketing world since then. ESPs have come and gone, the rise of engagement metrics have relegated most malicious email straight to junk, other countries have passed their own email regulations, and media queries have made marketing emails into works of art.

(Need a quick refresher on the CAN-SPAM Act? Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone. Check out this handy blog post, and then hurry back here!)

So when the FTC asked the Online Trust Alliance to speak on the future of CAN-SPAM, the OTA’s recommendations reflected this shifting email marketing world. After all, if anyone knows about email compliance trends, it’s the OTA. Each year, they audit email compliance practices and award the top emailers with a spot on their Honor Roll — UnsubCentral’s made the honor roll 3 years in a row.

They published their response to the FTC in a letter you can read here. UnsubCentral contributed to this response.

In short, the OTA recommends that CAN-SPAM stay in place with a few updates. Of course, the law’s not changing anytime soon, but — hypothetically — if the FTC were to adopt their suggestions, how would you fare? Would you be in danger?

Hopefully not. In fact, most of the recommendations come from email compliance best practices you should already be following. We’ve compiled 6 of them here so you can see how you’re doing.

1. Make it clear who’s sending the email.

Students of the CAN-SPAM Act know that sending misleading emails is already against the law, but the OTA recommends that the FTC clarify this part of the act. Fortunately, it’s in the sender’s best interest to be as clear as possible anyway.

Many marketers say the subject line is the most important factor in whether an email gets opened, but that’s not the case. According to Litmus research, the first thing readers look at when they open an email is who the email is from. All in all, it doesn’t matter what the subject says if the sender looks suspicious.

A clear sender will catch the eye of interested readers while decreasing the odds of them marking your unopened email as spam. Plus, when engagement metrics matter more than ever for inbox placement, this keeps your open rates (and deliverability) high.

2. Your unsubscribe link must be clear and conspicuous.

This is another existing CAN-SPAM requirement that brands are neglecting, which is why the OTA wants to enhance this part of the rule. In their audit, the OTA noticed that fewer retailers are including clear opt-outs in their emails. While 96% of the top retailers used clear links in 2015, this number fell to 88% in 2016.

What happened? Are those mail marketers falling down on the job, or do they think they’ll hold onto more subscribers if they can’t find the unsubscribe link? Well, you can run, but you can’t hide from unsubscribes. Nor can you hide from the CAN-SPAM fines you’ll face for hiding your opt-out links.

It sounds counterintuitive, but clear opt-out links will actually help your list. A clear opt-out reduces the odds dissatisfied readers will mark you as spam. That might explain why 89% of top retailers now include opt-outs in their email header. By making it easy for subscribers to leave, you’ll keep your list cleaner and your engagement metrics higher.

3. Don’t use an image for your opt-out link.

This goes hand-in-hand with having a clear unsubscribe link. There are several reasons for using text-only opt-outs. First, many clients don’t load images by default. Readers on these clients might never see your unsubscribe link. Even if they do choose to load images, it might be not apparent that the image is a link (especially if retailers use these images to purposely hide their opt-outs).

Also, after several years of audits, the OTA noticed that some unsubscribe images would stop working just a few months later. If a reader tries to clean out their inbox by unsubscribing from old emails, you’ll only frustrate them. Again, it all comes down to making it more likely that a disinterested reader clicks “unsubscribe” and not “mark as spam.”

4. Include a way for subscribers to know the subscription address.

Many people have multiple email addresses. Still, it might seem obvious that a recipient would know what email address they’re using to receive a particular email. Clearly, it’s the inbox of the address they’re checking their email in!

The OTA audit notes that some of these people set up these accounts to forward all email to a single account. This makes it easy to check email, but it might be hard to unsubscribe when the unsubscription page asks for your email address.

The best way to help your audience out would be to autofill their email address in the form on the opt-out page. At the very least, including a “This email was sent to” line in your email footer can make things easier on them.

5. Use preference centers to provide a single opt-out.

Sometimes a single signup generates multiple mailstreams, often involving a newsletter and separate promotional emails. It’s lucrative for you, but it can make it difficult for the recipient to opt out of each stream.

That’s why the OTA recommends that consumers have a way to quickly opt-out of all mailstreams with a single unsubscribe request. The best way to do this is with a preference center. With a preference center, you empower consumers to decide what emails they want or allow them to opt out entirely.

Preference centers make unsubscribing easier for the reader, but they also make things easier for you. If you offer multiple newsletters, it’s a great way to entice consumers to sign up for additional newsletters or adjust the frequency of communication. Whether you earn more newsletter signups or just hold onto an existing subscriber by offering different options, it’s a win-win for your email program.

6. Honor opt-outs. Please, please honor opt-outs!

This goes without saying, but because some people apparently aren’t hearing it, we’re going to say it anyway. When someone opts out of your emails, stop sending them emails!

Among the top online retailers, opt-out compliance was 94% in 2016. This sounds like a good grade, but the 6% of brands who don’t are running afoul of the law. Even worse, the OTA notes that compliance is probably lower among smaller brands, and it’s these brands who certainly can’t afford the CAN-SPAM violation penalties.

Ultimately, the OTA stopped short of recommending that the 10-day window for honoring opt-outs be shortened. While all 94% of compliant retailers honored opt-outs in 3 days (85% in a single day), the remaining retailers still have some work to do.

Are you following these email compliance best practices? If you need more CAN-SPAM help, click here to check out our comprehensive email compliance guide.

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