Email Marketing is Not Spam!

My wife asked me a question that gave me pause…  I was describing the importance of an email marketing strategy and she told me that email marketing sounds a lot like spam.  Thinking more about it, however, there are many differences between email marketing and spam.
In general, companies send plenty of marketing emails that are not necessarily spam.  Such emails should contain content that recipients want to see, almost always emails that customers willingly signed up for.  For example, I like to subscribe to emails with daily news articles, information about latest trends in cybersecurity, and upcoming enhancements to Python (a computer programming language).  I expect to see these items in my inbox on a regular basis and I try and take time to read them.  Some people like emails with promotions or coupons for their favorite stores.  Often these recurring emails will contain a ‘call to action’ making them marketing emails.  For instance, a cybersecurity email newsletter may have links to a Web site that has more in depth news articles but also serves ads.  I don’t mind too much; I learn more about cybersecurity while the Web site operator makes money showing me ads.
Every legitimate marketing email in the United States will contain an option to ‘unsubscribe.’  By law (called CAN-SPAM) email opt-out has been required in the United States since 2003.  Marketing emails must offer an easy way for recipients to opt-out.  (Note this does usually apply to transactional emails from companies you do business with, such as emails that contain invoices or bank statements… these are not considered marketing emails and are not subject to CAN-SPAM requirements.)

Newer regulations even enforce more stringent requirements, sometimes even requiring customers to ‘opt-in’ to marketing emails.  For example, under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), consumers must ‘opt-in’ to marketing emails by checking a box or performing some action on your Web site.  Because it’s hard to get customers to act, opt-in regulations are more difficult for marketers than opt-out regulations.  It is one thing to (legally) compile a list of email addresses and send emails until the recipients choose to be removed.  It is more difficult to create an email subscriber list when subscribers have to go out of their way to opt-in to be on the list.

Whether you use opt-in or opt-out, you want to send material that is interesting and relevant to the recipient.  Otherwise they won’t read your email.  Or worse, they will remove themselves from your email list.
In fact, there is an even more important reason to send relevant content.  If recipients flag your email as junk or report your email to their email hosting company, it will be harder for you to send legitimate emails in the future.  Spam emails hurt your email ‘deliverability’ score.  This score is used by email hosting companies to decide whether your email is legitimate.  Emails with bad scores will end up in a junk folder.  Or worse, email hosting companies will block such emails completely.  I once worked at a large company where sales people went off on their own and sent large quantities of ‘spammy’ emails.  The companies email domain got blocked by major email hosting vendors.  When the company sent legitimate emails (such as invoices) to customers, the emails could not get through.  Email deliverability is a large and somewhat technical topic.  Read this article for a bit more information.

For many of the reasons above, marketers should never purchase lists of email addresses.  If recipients flag the emails as spam, that will make it harder for the marketers to send emails in the future.  Moreover, in regions where consumers have to explicitly opt-in to emails, they will not have opted-in to receive your marketing material if you purchased their email addresses.  This could lead to substantial penalties.

According to Wikipedia, spam email is ‘unsolicited’ email sent in ‘bulk.’  I would argue that it may not neccesarily need to be sent in bulk, but spam email is certainly unsolicited.  This differentiates it from the type of marketing email that is an increasingly important part of a good digital marketing strategy.
For a more in-depth discussion of email marketing best practices, check out the book “Email Marketing Rules” by Chad S. White.