This month I want to explain why you need to be careful with email lists. I have had several situations this last month with business owners being in the dark on the legal ramifications of using purchased email lists or sending to harvested lists.
Email can still be a great way to reach out to prospects and clients but make sure that what you do is legal before you start sending.
With economic times being tough in many business sectors, business owners are looking to use email promotion as a way to inexpensively put their products and services in front of the eyes of more consumers. Spammers are actively marketing email lists to unsuspecting business owners hoping to make a fast buck off of decision makers who may not be apprised of the law as it pertains to email list creation. This article will explain in common sense terms what the Federal CAN SPAM Act means for email marketing.
First, this Act was created during the height of the spam problem back in 2003. Email inboxes were being flooded with spam, this was the age of stand alone spam filters, and Internet Service Providers did not have advanced spam filters in place. The CAN SPAM act is still in effect and although there have only been a few high profile arrests, this does not mean that you could not be prosecuted for your actions if you are found in violation of the law, both at the federal and state levels.
The law says in essence the following:
1. If someone wants to unsubscribe from your email list, you must process the action within 10 days of receiving the request.
2. Relevant subject lines must be used. Adult content must be labeled as such.
3. The businesses must list a physical address on the correspondence. A P.O. Box does not satisfy this requirement.
4. The message cannot be sent through an open relay. An open relay would be considered a compromised website server that is used by spammers through a security exploit.
6. The message cannot contain a false header. False headers are used to disguise the origination of an email.
The bottom line for businesses is that if you are going to start using email as an inexpensive method to reach more customers and you buy a email address list, you had better know confidently where it has come from. In fact, truthfully to consider buying a list is plain and simple, risky business today.
It is the creation or origination of an initial list from my interaction with astute business owners this past month that has caused me to write about this specific topic. In one case the business owner was approached by a previously unknown resource with an offer to sell 100,000 "double opted-in" names for $1,000. In another case the business owner was offered a list pertaining to his industry that was hand harvested from business websites.
In the first case could the owner really trust that the list was double opted in? It is important to know that when a list is sold from one party to another there is very specific criteria that the original list owner must do such as advising list members of the pending action and allowing them to opt out before a new business emails the list. If you buy a list from an unknown party can you say without a doubt that this action has been done?
What is important to know is that even if you decide you want to use these types of "gray market" lists, is that most list subscription firms such as Topica, iContact, and Vertical Response will not typically load or even send to emails that start with info, sales, or contact. They simply net them out on your initial list load as they question the validity of the address in regards to being CAN SPAM compliant. Additionally, when you add several thousand names to a subscription service you will immediately trigger red flags with the size of your large list (even as small as 2,000 names). Some services will refuse to send out your email until you legally sign and verify that your list is CAN SPAM compliant, moving the legal liability squarely onto your shoulders.
Another big red flag should be the cost of a list. $1,000 for a 100,000 subscriber list would be very low. List rentals from legitimate resources may run several thousand dollars for under a thousand names. Additionally another red flag would be the strategy used to send to the list recommended by the seller. The seller of the 100,000 name list recommended setting up different domain names for each list send - a true spamming technique - milk a domain then drop it and use another. This recommendation alone, should taint the legitimacy of the resource selling the list and make the list highly questionable to use.
Email can still be a great way to let customers know what you do, but unfortunately the emails that you really can use are those of people who have contacted you through your website or that you have had some business relationship with. You cannot just email people you do not know on a mass mailing basis. To do so, you risk violating the CAN SPAM act, besmirching your company's reputation, and run the risk of a legal penalty.
For more easy to understand information on the CAN SPAM Act, the Verio website has a nice primer that you may want to additionally review.
These are the legal penalties if you are found guilty of violating the CAN SPAM Act: imprisonment for up to five years, fines up to $3 million dollars (but can be higher), confiscation or forfeiture of properties used to commit the crime or earned from proceeds of the crime. The government has 1,700 law enforcement agents who investigate CAN SPAM Act violations in Canada and the US.
My recommendation for businesses who really want to expand their reach is to not use email marketing, but rather use Google AdWords or Yahoo Sponsored Search to reach these broad untapped markets. There is simply too much risk involved legally to mass email people who you do not know in an effort to generate sales.