CAN-SPAM, four years on

In December of 2003, President Bush signed the CAN-SPAM Act into law. The CAN-SPAM Act set rules for sending commercial e-mail, including mandatory inclusion of an opt-out mechanism, adding a physical address to the message and using a legitimate subject line.

So four years later, what is the assessment of the CAN-SPAM Act? Government officials, Internet service providers (ISPs) and e-mail service providers (ESPs) generally agree that the law has had a positive effect.

Genuine marketers are not seen as major contributors to the SPAM problem. Still, it is a criminal element that continues to be responsible for much of the harmful SPAM being sent today, and the US government still sees SPAM as a pressing issue and is focusing on enforcing the law, rather than changing it.

The good, the bad and the evil
Let’s start with evil:
many experts agree that an increasing portion of SPAM is related to illegal activities. Some common examples:

  • Pump-and-dump stock scams
  • Identity theft and fraud
  • Scams (I am the widow of an African dictator…)

Unfortunately, many people are still falling for these scams and fuelling the spammers’ fire.

The good: ESPs and ISPs have worked well together to put in place standards and technology that prevent forged e-mail and better allow recipients to manage what mail they want to receive. In the past few years, the sender policy framework (SPF), sender ID and domain keys, (authentication protocols supported by such products as Campaigner) have been developed and are now widely adopted. In another example, ISPs have set up feedback loops with ESPs so that SPAM complaints can be transmitted to senders in real time.

Strong authentication tools are needed to establish the reputation of individual senders. Eventually, like on eBay, recipients will be able to see a sender’s reputation before agreeing to engage in a relationship. As a marketer, it is important to start thinking of your e-mail reputation, if you are not already. Many ISPs are already providing filtering tools to their users. AOL pioneered the “report spam” button in its mail client and others followed. Yahoo has a “this is not junk” button, and Hotmail is working on a way to let people unsubscribe using a tool in the Hotmail interface instead of the link in the message itself. The trend giving more control to recipients is one that will continue.

This brings us to the bad. Some marketers are still not following all of the best practices put forward by the industry and rules required by law: Get permission, provide an opt-out, and include a physical address.

Another factor affecting your reputation is the relevance of your content. Despite having opt-in status, if you are sending offers that are only of interest to a segment of your list, you may be receiving complaints. So target your message to relevant segments and spare the rest. Take a common-sense approach and your reputation will be fine.

(This article first appeared in the 2007 edition of the Essential Guide to E-Mail Marketing.)

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