The Definitive Guide to Marketing Automation

The Definitive Guide to Marketing Automation

Written by Neil Patel & Ritika Puri

Chapter Six

Avoiding Spam

If you’re launching your first marketing automation campaign, you’re probably out-of-your-mind excited. After all, you’re building a high-value, low-touch customer acquisition and retention stream to get started. What could be better?

The excitement is reason enough to feel trigger-happy. You want to press go-go-go to start driving traffic.

Here’s what happens.

What you see as ‘excitement,’ your email list will see as excessively obnoxious behavior. If you don’t think through your marketing automation campaign, you may give off the impression of being an accidental spammer.

A content mishap can be more than just an innocent mistake. Without even realizing it, you could be breaking the law. Our last and final chapter will ensure that you’re always in the clear.

Let’s jump in.

Knowing the Law

Keep in mind, before reading this section, that we are NOT lawyers, and we have not reviewed this section with any attorney. We’re reporting what we’ve learned from basic web research with the goal of helping you figure out what your blind spots are and what questions to ask. Proceed with caution, and consult with a lawyer and/or official government source before moving forward.

Let’s start with the law. You’re probably well-aware that in the early days of the Internet, shady marketers abused the heck out of email. What happened as a result was a federal crackdown on sketchy marketing activity.

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. The law established the U.S.’s first national standards for email—enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The CAN-SPAM law’s full name is Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003. The goal is to protect consumers from unsolicited email. The law overrides many state laws that would otherwise allow for unregulated or partially regulated email marketing activity.

Relax—there’s no need to worry. The FTC has provided a clear set of (actionable) guidelines to keep you in the clear. To be compliant, your email marketing needs to meet three criteria:

Here they are, straight from the brilliant minds of Wikipedia:

The Law from Wikipedia

  • Unsubscribe compliance

    • A visible and operable unsubscribe mechanism is present in all emails.
    • Consumer opt-out requests are honored within 10 business days.
    • Opt-out lists also known as suppression lists are only used for compliance purposes.
  • Content compliance

    • Accurate from lines (including “friendly froms”)
    • Relevant subject lines (relative to offer in body content and not deceptive)
    • A legitimate physical address of the publisher and/or advertiser is present. PO Box addresses are acceptable in compliance with 16 C.F.R. 316.2(p) and if the email is sent by a third party, the legitimate physical address of the entity, whose products or services are promoted through the email should be visible.
    • A label is present if the content is adult.
  • Sending behavior compliance

    • A message cannot be sent through an open relay
    • A message cannot be sent without an unsubscribe option.
    • A message cannot be sent to a harvested email address
    • A message cannot contain a false header
    • A message should contain at least one sentence.
    • A message cannot be null.
    • Unsubscribe option should be below the message.
  • Content is exempt if it consists of:

    • religious messages;
    • political messages;
    • content that broadly complies with the marketing mechanisms specified in the law; or
    • national security messages.

Here are more details to keep in mind—again, summarized by the mastermind competitors at Wikipedia:

  • No restrictions against companies emailing existing clients or those who inquire about products or services—even if those individuals have not given express permission.
  • When sending unsolicited or commercial emails, you need to specify that the message is an ad or piece of marketing collateral.
  • If a user opts out from your list, you have 10 days to honor the request.
  • You can’t sell or transfer an email address after an opt-out request.
  • The ‘unsubscribe’ message in your email marketing campaign needs to be active for at least 30 days.
  • You can get in major trouble if you’re negligent or don’t comply with CAN-SPAM laws.
  • It’s a misdemeanor to send false header information
  • If your email campaigns include Trojan horses or worms—or anything else that’s really really illegal and sketchy, you could be accused of committing an ‘aggravated offense.’

Enforcement of CAN-SPAM is user-driven. If you violate the CAN-SPAM Act, a user could report you, and your company may be sued.

Just make sure that you’re compliant.

Here is the law, directly from the FTC (in their words):

The Law from the FTC

  1. Don’t use false or misleading header information. Your “From,” “To,” “Reply-To,” and routing information — including the originating domain name and email address — must be accurate and identify the person or business who initiated the message.
  2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines. The subject line must accurately reflect the content of the message.
  3. Identify the message as an ad. The law gives you a lot of leeway in how to do this, but you must disclose clearly and conspicuously that your message is an advertisement.
  4. Tell recipients where you’re located. Your message must include your valid physical postal address. This can be your current street address, a post office box you’ve registered with the U.S. Postal Service, or a private mailbox you’ve registered with a commercial mail receiving agency established under Postal Service regulations.
  5. Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you. Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand. Creative use of type size, color, and location can improve clarity. Give a return email address or another easy Internet-based way to allow people to communicate their choice to you. You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to stop all commercial messages from you. Make sure your spam filter doesn’t block these opt-out requests.
  6. Honor opt-out requests promptly. Any opt-out mechanism you offer must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after you send your message. You must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days. You can’t charge a fee, require the recipient to give you any personally identifying information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request. Once people have told you they don’t want to receive more messages from you, you can’t sell or transfer their email addresses, even in the form of a mailing list. The only exception is that you may transfer the addresses to a company you’ve hired to help you comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.
  7. Monitor what others are doing on your behalf. The law makes clear that even if you hire another company to handle your email marketing, you can’t contract away your legal responsibility to comply with the law. Both the company whose product is promoted in the message and the company that actually sends the message may be held legally responsible.

Watching Your Metrics

Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that you should do it. After all, you’re interacting with people not robots on the other side of the computer screen.

Don’t think that “just because it’s legal” is a loophole to do something legal. Your audiences will get horribly annoyed. And then, they’ll blast negative reviews about your company online. They’ll want nothing more than to ruin the reputation of your company.

Here is the reputation for one website, as an example, on WebofTrust — a browser plugin that allows users to report safety online:

The bottom line is not fooling anyone. Apart from driving away potential customers, a negative brand review has the potential to rank in search engines—and hurt business for your company.

Spamming can be accidental too, however. You may have the best intents in the world and accidentally end up annoying your users.

In addition to looking at success metrics like open rates, click-through rates, and traffic back to your website, you should also check cues for negative user experiences.

Here’s a sendout to one particular email list, as an example:

Take a look at your bounce rates, unsubscribe rates, and abuse reports. Look for trends between specific marketing activities (i.e. how often you send emails) and responses. Remember the most important skill that you have as a marketer—empathy.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

One Quick Sprout blog post from back in 2011 goes through the five most common reasons why email marketing fails. Even though the online advertising and marketing space has changed dramatically, these five points are still extremely true.

Here are the common mistakes that you should always, always avoid:

Buying Lists:

Make no mistake that buying lists is a terrible, terrible idea. If you’re hard pressed to deliver an immediate ROI, however, you may feel compelled to just do it.

There’s a small chance that you’ll succeed, but in all honesty—you’ll probably hit a wall. These recipients don’t know you. They’re not expecting to hear from you. They know nothing about your product and probably don’t even need it—not to mention, you have no idea where these supposed email list ‘sellers’ found their recipients’ contact information.

Not to mention, you could get in trouble from buying a list. Possible consequences include:

  • Being blacklisted by your ISP
  • Being kicked off your email service provider
  • Developing a horrible reputation as a seller

Look back to Chapter 4 if you’re looking for ways to build your list organically. Here are some ideas that were mentioned in the 2011 blog post—the throwback is still relevant today.

Organic Growth Ideas

Sidebar Opt-in Box

This option is popular and basic. It’s a successful way to grow an email list. Keep in mind, however, that there are a ton of email newsletters online, and the competition is tough to make yours stand out. You may need a more compelling offer, like this ebook from Coworks, a marketplace for premium creatives:

Hello Bar

This is the tool that you see on the top of Quick Sprout that sticks with audiences down the page.

You can easily customize it to promote any offer

including an email sign up. Once again, it will be important to have a valuable incentive that inspires interest.

Freebies

A compelling way to entice an email list sign-up is through the promotion of a free product or free trial offer. Similarly, you might consider hosting a giveaway.

Lightbox

This is a simple pop-up overlay on your website. You can control the programming to determine when you’d like it to trigger—for instance, when a visitor arrives on your site or when it seems as though he/she is about to bounce.

End of Post Subscribe Box

Stick a subscription box at the end of each post on your blog. Again, make sure that you have a compelling value proposition to offer.

Landing pages

Running an early to mid funnel marketing campaign? If so, you’ll likely be driving leads, not direct sales. Make sure that you optimize these pages to make it really, really easy to subscribe to your website’s newsletter (aka - to enter your website’s marketing funnel).

Chasing quantity

Marketers are obsessed with numbers. The more you see your web traffic volume and subscriber lists increase, the happier you probably feel.

This is the wrong way to approach this marketing challenge. At the end of the day, your goal is to drive revenue. Remember that leads are only a means to that end. It’s better to have a higher conversion rate at a comparatively lower customer acquisition cost—in other words, the higher the ratio between these two metrics, the more efficient your marketing program will be.

A large list isn’t always a good thing. You’re better off trimming it down to focus on your most important prospects.

Here’s a throwback to the Quick Sprout blog in 2011:

One email marketer I know shaved off almost 90 percent of his list after cleaning it up…but doubled his conversions! How does a smaller list improve conversion? It’s all about engagement.

It’s interesting, but when it comes to ISPs, they look at engagement when deciding whether to put your emails through. ISPs can see your metrics, so if you have a large list that’s pretty much dead, then they’ll suspect it’s a spam list.

Quicksprout Blog

Here are some techniques for keeping your list alive and engaged:

  • Run a re-engagement campaign

    Every few years, reach out to your subscribers and ask if they’d like to continue receiving messages from you.

  • Let users choose frequency

    Create a few ‘opt-in’ options into your list. Ask users to choose whether they’d like to receive email from you daily, weekly, monthly, bi-weekly, etc.

  • Segment your list

    Group audiences by demographic variables or web traffic source. Whatever dimensions you choose for segmentation, make sure that they reflect a clearly defined set of user characteristics.

Here is an analysis from 2011 about what happens when marketers segment their list. As you’ll see in this sample, segments performed higher—in terms of both open and click-through rates—compared to the email list’s average.

Setting unclear expectations

One of the first emails that you send should be a short introductory email that sets expectations about the content that you plan to send. To the best extent possible, make this information available before audiences describe.

Here are the expectations that you should clarify:

  • Content

    Tell audiences exactly what your future emails will deliver—from blog posts to tips and promotional offers.

    Here is an example from Pinterest:

  • Frequency

    Make sure that your subscribers know how many emails to expect from you. And don’t be sporadic. If too much time passes between messages, your subscribers may lose interest.

  • Design

    Why not show your audiences a preview of your newsletter campaign? Keep the design consistent—don’t catch them off guard with any unexpected (or unwelcome) surprises.Tell audiences exactly what your future emails will deliver—from blog posts to tips and promotional offers. Here is an example from Pinterest:

Focusing only on successes

To reiterate, you need to focus on negative user signals—in addition to the positive ones.

Make sure that you examine the entire picture:

  • Clicks
  • Soft Bounces
  • Hard Bounces
  • Abuse Complaints
  • Unsubscribes

Making do with boring content

Human attention spans are fleeting. Your content needs to be highly compelling. Here are some ideas for content that you can send, based on analysis done in 2011:

  • Cornerstone content

    This is the content that will make up most of what you give your readers. It’s what defines you. If you’re an SEO, then you’ll write about SEO. If you’re a graphic designer, you’ll give content based on graphic design.

  • Personal content

    Don’t forget to share personal stories. Most of your readers will be around to learn what you have to say about your area of expertise, but sharing personal stories will build a great relationship with them.

  • Spicy content

    Finally, you should also occasionally write spicy posts. Write about a high-profile figure that you disagree with or about something controversial. These email pieces are going to be the ones that probably will get forwarded the most.

Increasing Deliverability

If your email is flagged as spam, your deliverability rates may suffer—you’ll never reach your desired audience’s inbox. Here are the steps you should take — based on a Quick Sprout post that was written in 2012 — to maximize your marketing campaign’s deliverability:

Step One Avoid spam words

Certain words are flagged by email clients as “suspicious” or spam.

Here are some examples from the finance space:

  • $$$
  • Affordable
  • Bargain
  • Beneficiary
  • Best price
  • Big bucks
  • Cash
  • Compare rates
  • Cost
  • Credit
  • Credit bureaus
  • Discount
  • Earn
  • Easy terms
  • Free

…And here are some examples from the ecommerce space:

  • As seen on
  • Buy
  • Buy direct
  • Buying judgments
  • Clearance
  • Order
  • Order status
  • Orders shipped by
  • Shopper

Your marketing automation software can help you identify words and expressions that are likely to be spam.

Step Two Don’t look spammy

Here are the steps that the Quick Sprout post recommends:

Don't look spammy

Avoid red

red is a loud color and is used a lot by spammers. It could potentially set off spam filters.

Misleading subject lines

from blank subject lines to ones that don’t even match your copy, be careful using them because they are a big part of the spam algorithm email providers employ.

Capital letters

avoid using all capital letters within your email or subject line.

Don’t be too excessive with symbols

avoid using too many question marks, dollar signs and exclamation marks… especially in a row.

Don’t link too much

from your calls to actions to links within the email, ideally you shouldn’t use more than two or three links.

Unsubscribe links

each of your emails should contain an unsubscribe link. The harder you make it for people to unsubscribe, the more problems you will have.

Be thorough

make sure you include a proper reply to email address and a from address so that people can get in touch with you if they have any issues.

Step Three Choose the right service provider

Work with a partner that has a positive track record. There are thousands of marketing automation and email marketing companies out there—some are bound to be spammy, with dubious histories.

No matter what you’re promised, don’t take any chances—ever. Only work with the companies that have a positive track record.

Step Four Certify your IP

This will help you get on the good side of many email providers. It will likely cost thousands of dollars a year, so make sure to do a rigorous cost/benefit analysis.

The Most Important Step

Use your common sense! Talk to your audiences 1:1. Do plenty of common research to understand what’s going on with your marketing automation and why. The question of what will never be enough. To avoid throwing darts in the dark with your marketing, always ask why.

It feels like common sense, doesn’t it?

Key Takeaways

  • You’re probably well-aware that in the early days of the Internet, shady marketers abused the heck out of email. What happened as a result was a federal crackdown on sketchy marketing activity. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. The law established the U.S.’s first national standards for email—enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
  • Enforcement of CAN-SPAM is user-driven. If you violate the CAN-SPAM Act, a user could report you, and your company may be sued. Remember that lawyers didn’t write this guide, and we’re doing research based on what we’ve found online. If you have follow-up questions about the CAN-SPAM Act, you should talk to an attorney.
  • Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that you should do it. After all, you’re interacting with people not robots on the other side of the computer screen.
  • In addition to looking at success metrics like open rates, click-through rates, and traffic back to your website, you should also check cues for negative user experiences.
  • This is the wrong way to approach this marketing challenge. At the end of the day, your goal is to drive revenue. Remember that leads are only a means to that end. It’s better to have a higher conversion rate at a comparatively lower customer acquisition cost—in other words, the higher the ratio between these two metrics, the more efficient your marketing program will be.
  • Your marketing automation software can help create a ‘test’ segment within your database. If your list is big enough, it will be valuable to measure audiences responses so that you can refine and build upon your messaging.

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