Go beyond CAN-SPAM compliance with e-mail relevancy

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Five years ago this month—specifically, on Dec. 16, 2003—the CAN-SPAM Act was signed into U.S. law, making it the first national standard for commercial e-mail. Enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, the act was put in place to help eradicate spam’s impact on consumers and businesses.

Five years later, has CAN-SPAM made a difference?

According to a December 2005 report to Congress on the effectiveness of CAN-SPAM, the volume of spam had begun to level, falling to about 35% to 40% of all e-mail traffic. However many attributed that progress to improved technologies, not to the law.

Now, three years later, anti-spam technologists estimate that spam has risen to 80% to 90% of all e-mail, more than double what it was in 2003. Although legitimate direct marketers are not seen as major contributors to the spam problem, a few bad actors are making it harder for everyone to get e-mails to the inbox.

Sure, a company that complies with CAN-SPAM will protect itself from legal action, but that alone won’t ensure e-mail delivery and ongoing campaign success. In fact, many of the e-mail campaigns I consider spam actually comply with CAN-SPAM, which is just the bare minimum that an e-mail marketer must do. With the current focus on reputation and accreditation, we all need to go beyond CAN-SPAM’s provisions.

Going beyond CAN-SPAM

Increased delivery rates now depend more on your recipient’s perception of your e-mail message than any adherence to the law. And you want that perception to be accurate and not be flagged as spam, because it's easier for recipients to click “Report as Spam” than it is to click “Unsubscribe” and be removed from your list.

Recent studies have confirmed that the “Report as Spam” buttons within popular e-mail clients enable recipients to do more than identify messages sent without their permission; they’re also used to mark irrelevant messages as spam. The result is essentially “scope creep” in the definition of spam, making it even more important for companies to send highly relevant messages based on e-mail recipients’ preferences and behaviors.

E-mail experts continue to proclaim, "Be more relevant!” But how do you actually put relevancy into action?

  • Behavioral targeting. This is one of the most successful ways to ensure your messages are relevant. It can be more effective than targeting based on stated preferences, because actions speak louder than words.

  • Behavioral targeting does require tight integration with your back-end systems and customer databases, because you need to have real-time access to the data contained in these systems to deliver relevant messages based on content and timing. You don’t want a delayed promotion to reach someone after they’ve already made a purchase or lost interest.
  • Frequency. The frequency of your e-mailed messages is another important piece of the relevancy equation. Striking a good balance between sending too many or too few e-mail marketing messages will help ensure your communications remain valuable, and that recipients don’t reach for the spam button.
  • Testing. Test your messages to determine the best frequency for your business. For example, if you’re looking to increase frequency, do it gradually and little by little, and watch for an increase in unsubscribes or complaints. Along with this, be sure you’re not sending messages too infrequently, or your subscriber base may forget about your existing relationship.

While CAN-SPAM establishes requirements for commercial e-mail senders to provide protection for both legitimate mailers and recipients, it’s clear five years later that spam is still a big problem, even for conscientious, permission-based e-mail marketers. Taking the provisions of CAN-SPAM a step further by adding relevancy to the mix will help to ensure your business remains one of the "good guys," earning respect and more business from your e-mail subscribers.

Ryan Deutsch is senior director-market strategy, with StrongMail (, based in Redwood City, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected]

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