Perplexed by CAN-SPAM? Gain Clarity With an Information Disclosure Standard

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Though many industry professionals lament the CAN-SPAM Act as confusing and complex, a closer look reveals unseen benefits for legitimate e-mail marketers.


The law hasn't solved the persistent problem of spam, of course, and probably never will. But CAN-SPAM has succeeded in something even more important: It has raised the industry's consciousness. That's not just a squishy, feel-good acknowledgment; CAN-SPAM forces legitimate e-mail marketers to vigorously re-examine privacy policies, permission procedures and the various elements that make up best practices.


The industry's next logical step is to create and embrace an e-mail marketing Information Disclosure Standard. This standard's utility and underlying premise would break the reactive cycle of ill-informed regulatory maneuvers and lead to tangible action that benefits customers and boosts the industry across the board. It is simply the right thing to do.


The term "Information Disclosure Standard" might sound high-minded, but in practice it simply represents a collection of important, recipient-focused data points -- some mandatory, some discretionary, but each contributing to the umbrella concept of best practices.


Getting tactical. What might an Information Disclosure Standard look like? Think of the standard as a transparent administrative utility and compliance mechanism. It should include a predictable, if not uniform, area within the e-mail message where the recipient finds certain CAN-SPAM-compliant elements.


These "best practices" elements might include the mandated postal mailing address, an opt-out area, format preferences, a change e-mail address feature, a privacy policy link, an update profile option and other components that would vary depending on the e-mail technology in use, permission practices, types of sent messages, information collected about recipients and other factors.


The CAN-SPAM Act requires two minimum components: a valid postal mailing address along with unsubscribe language that consists of either a reply-to address or a clickable link to an unsubscribe Web page. These functional, rudimentary stipulations do not adequately address the kind of best practices that ensure deliverability, establish trust and elevate legitimate marketers above common spammers.


We have identified and recommend several data points that speak to permission best practices. These data points would reside in the body of the e-mail:


· Company name and contact information. Your company's formal business name, phone number and e-mail address.


· Policy statement and link. A one-sentence description of your company's e-mail/privacy policy with a link to a longer, formal statement of policy.


· Recipient identifiers and subscribe date. Various recipient identifiers including e-mail address, IP address, subscription date and (if double opt-in enabled) confirmation date. For example: "You subscribed to this newsletter on 05/02/2004 using the following e-mail address johnsmith@company.com from IP address 192.161.81.101."


· Update profile/preferences. A link to a page on your Web site where recipients can update their profile and preferences easily, including their contact information, e-mail address and whether they wish to receive e-mail in HTML or plain text.


· Qualification statement. A simple, one-sentence description of the e-mail's purpose; e.g., "You are receiving this e-mail as a valued customer of Global Software Inc. and subscriber to our Insight Weekly newsletter covering trends and best practices in enterprise CRM software implementations." This helps manage recipient expectations and reinforces your value proposition.


· Delivery schedule. A simple statement of delivery that reinforces the recipients' expectations; e.g., "The (Name of Newsletter) is published twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays."


There also are several easily implemented features that increase the usability of the e-mail to the recipient:


· Subscribe link. Enables recipients who were forwarded the e-mail to easily subscribe or opt in.


· View as Web page. A link to a formatted Web version of the e-mail for recipients who prefer text-only versions and those with HTML compatibility problems.


· Send to a friend. An embedded form or link to a Web site form that enables recipients to send the e-mail message to others.


· White list/buddy list information. A statement that encourages recipients to permit mails from your company, such as "This e-mail was sent using the domain 'company.com.' Please use this domain name when configuring e-mail or spam filters."


There also is additional information that, though having little to do with legislative compliance, helps position the sender as a legitimate, trustworthy entity and provides a recurring location for recipients to find information. This includes copyright information, a link to a user agreement, link to shipping and return policies, ISSN number, advertising information, reprint instructions and other appropriate information.


Whether the Information Disclosure Standard encompasses all elements described in this article is immaterial. What is important is that e-mail marketing companies embrace and begin the process of shaping this standard now.


Customers and subscribers are taking greater control over their information relationships -- and expect e-mail marketers to live up to their end of those relationships. A viable, transparent Information Disclosure Standard not only would position your e-mail as a trusted communication vehicle, but also would enhance your brand, improve delivery rates and increase results.


As the standard is collectively defined, refined and adopted, those companies that ignore this trend risk a decline in subscribers and customers, trust in their brand, their reputation and their revenue.


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