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It’s no secret that email marketing is increasingly important for small businesses worldwide.

Not only does it offer you a direct way to land in consumer’s inboxes (a.k.a. their sacred space), but it has also been proven to bring in more return on investment (ROI) than other marketing methods.

In fact, just $1 of investment in email marketing can yield an average $38 in return. Nothing to be laughed at, right?

But it’s not just cold, hard numbers that has business owners bowing down to the email marketing gods. Well-structured and thought-out campaigns can create a positive brand image, boost credibility, and create a community – abstract goals that most modern-day businesses strive for.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that more than 86% of businesses are planning to increase their email marketing budgets in the next year.

The importance of email marketing ethics

Direct access to consumer’s inboxes means there are a strict set of rules that all businesses must follow in order to align with legislation and ethics.

Here, I’m going to lay out what you need to know about creating ethical email marketing campaigns and why it’s so important for your business.

What exactly is the CAN-SPAM Act?

Let’s start by outlining the CAN-SPAM Act. This isn’t a tin of processed meat like you might think; instead, it’s a legislation that protects consumers from receiving too many spam emails.

The Act was passed in 2003 after a surge in the amount of spam emails consumers were receiving about certain medical enhancements and other irrelevant additions to their lives.

Under the Act, a number of requirements were drawn up to align with the national standards for email marketing stated within the law. Here’s the gist of it:

  1. Use a subject line that does what it says it will

Have you ever received an email with an exciting subject line, clicked through in eager anticipation and been disappointed by the offering on the other side?

Maybe the content has nothing to do with the headline, or you feel like you’re being miss-sold something because the subject line was heavy clickbait.

Under the CAN-SPAM Act, you have to make sure your subject line doesn’t mislead your readers in any way.

QUICK TIP: Don’t disappoint your subscribers by promising the world in the subject line and not being able to follow through in the body of the email.

  1. If your email is an ad, say so

If your email is advertising a company, product, or anything else, you need to make sure this is clear within the email.

Under the law, there is no specific way you must identify that your email is an ad to your readers. The law simply states that your disclosure must be “clear and conspicuous.” This means that as long as your subscribers can clearly see and understand the email is an ad, you should be ok. You also do not need to place this disclosure within your subject line.

  1. Your sender information must be strictly true

It can be tempting to put a funny name in the sender segment of your emails, but under the CAN-SPAM Act, you have to ensure the “From”, “To”, and “Reply-To” fields of your emails and the routing information accurately identifies you or your business as the sender.

  1. Provide a physical address

A lot of businesses try to side-step this option, especially if your business is ultimately run online. But, in fact, you have to provide a legitimate address that your email recipients can reach you at.

This is a non-negotiable under the CAN-SPAM Act.

If you don’t have a physical address for your business, you can easily and affordably get a PO Box or a physical mailing address using a virtual mailroom or office.

  1. Make opting-out easy

It can be sad to see the unsubscribes roll in, but if you don’t offer your recipients the opportunity to opt-out of your emails, you’re essentially breaking the law.

You must provide a link in every email that recipients can click to unsubscribe for your mailing list if they no longer want to receive your emails.

You kind of want to do this anyway – imagine a potential customer getting so wound up because they can’t unsubscribe and then not buying from you or, worse, bad-mouthing you to other potential customers.

QUICK TIP: The top reason consumers unsubscribe from emails is because they receive them too frequently.

What are the repercussions?

If you are reported for not having complied with any of the CAN-SPAM Act requirements, you could be charged with fines of up to $16,000.

Seems like a lot, right?

Which is why it’s important when forming your email marketing strategy to double-check and double-check again to be certain you are not violating any laws.

Maybe not illegal, but is it ethical?

The CAN-SPAM Act is extensive in what it covers, but there are still a couple things it does not address.

Even though these things are not addressed, you should still ask yourself if they are necessarily ethical or effective to include in your marketing strategy (most of the time the answer is no).

Buying email lists

You might have come across list brokers on the market who claim they can sell you lists of people interested in what you have to offer.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

That’s because it is. Most of these claims are false but, let’s assume for a minute that they’re not.

Just imagine how many other marketers the list brokers have made their offer too – marketers you have no idea about.

Think about all the emails those marketers have sent to people that could be on a purchased email list. Think about how many other offers those recipients are receiving every single day from the other businesses that have essentially bought their way into their inboxes.

Do you really want your brand to be associated with just about anyone or anything? The answer is probably no, right?

Therefore, in order to be ethical and comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, it would be better to refrain from buying lists/leads from such brokers.

The best part about building your own email list from scratch is it’s full of people who actively want to hear from you. What’s more, you can segment your email list depending on the actions they take and the offers they take the most interested in.

Buying traffic

Buying traffic is legal, but it’s up to you to use common sense to decide on an ethical way to purchase traffic.

For example, let’s say you found a list owner who is willing to send an email to her list encouraging her recipients to visit one of your webpages where you offer something valuable in exchange for an email subscription.

As long as the list owner has an audience with interests matching your offer and market, you’re in business.

You can start building your own email list safely and ethically.

The same goes with buying ad traffic from advertising companies (Google Adwords, Facebook ads, Bing, etc.) and directing it toward the same type of lead acquisition process (although, in many cases, sending traffic directly to a form like I described is frowned upon, so you’d rather send it to some content buffer.)

The benefits of abiding by the rules

You probably know when a tactic is “bad”.

Things like buying consumer email addresses probably gives you a bad feeling in your stomach, but it might be tempting, especially if you’re trying to get your business off the ground.

But making a mistake in the early days can lead to negative effects later on in your businesses life, ranging from bad brand cohesion to consumers actively avoiding your products because you’ve bombarded them with too many irrelevant emails in the past.

So, you know what makes an email marketing campaign “bad” and unethical. But why is it SO important to be “good”?

The results are easy to see:

  • Higher open and response rates – by making unsubscribing easy, you’re left with people who actively want to hear from you and read your emails.
  • Increased sales – by building your own list of interested parties, you’re only going to be offering your products and services to people who are looking for them. Which means more sales.
  • More trust – in this day and age, trust and authenticity is important for every business if they want to succeed and stand out. Sending campaigns that are relevant and targeted to the right people means you’ll be consistently building that all-important trust.

QUICK TIP: Abiding by email marketing ethics and laws means you’ll see higher open rates, increased sales, and more trust amongst consumers.

But perhaps the biggest benefit is knowing that you’re building your business on your terms, with a list full of potential prospects who are eagerly waiting for your emails to drop into their inbox.


Knowing the difference between ethical and unethical marketing will ensure that your emails successfully reach your recipients and gain you more satisfied subscribers and customers.

By being aware of the current legislation, you will keep your business out of trouble and safe from being charged with expensive fines.