About email marketing: Two conflicting rules for success

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Can U.S. marketers learn lessons from the implementation of Canada's stringent anti-spam regulations?

Canadian businesses are feeling some relief now that the government has suspended a key (and scary) provision of its anti-spam legislation (CASL), the right to private action. Under the provisions of the law that went into effect originally two years ago, anyone who would send unsolicited commercial email outside of some very narrow exceptions could have been subject to vulture lawyers and lawsuits effective July 1.

The CASL rules are astoundingly stringent compared to the US, though they more closely resemble the regulations in Europe, and the general legal provisions remain in place even with the recent step-down on litigation risk. Unless you have express consent — that is conscious and provable (the burden of proof is on the sender) permission — you cannot send commercial emails. There are some exceptions for implied consent but these create nightmarish record-keeping rules. (You can email to previous customers for two years, and if someone makes an inquiry to you by email, you can send emails for six months. But things reach the silly stage, for example, when you receive a referral. You are allowed to send ONE follow-up email after that event.)

The dual system has created plenty of challenges for my own business since we have a US corporation serving US markets as well as a Canadian business, and we need to tread the waters between the two systems. I’m quite cautious about sending emails in Canada but I fear at least a few emails would have slipped through the various implied consent deadlines.

Federal regulators aren’t going after small-scale violators — they are rightfully charging large organizations and spammers who abuse the rules — but I could see the lawyers and threatening warning messages in the wings if the private-action provisions hadn’t been canned.

Phew.

Nevertheless, there has been an interesting and perhaps important irony in the Canadian rules. Businesses which play by them are reporting much higher click-through rates and client satisfaction. Reason: If you send emails only to people who want/request them, you will have much more engagement. As well, you’ll be much more careful about what emails you actually send.

Do you really want to push a spammy advertisement on your list and experience a high volume of difficult-to-replace “unsubscribes”?

This leads me to the somewhat buried lead in this post — the contradictory principles of email marketing, as outlined in Matt Handal‘s post: Two Email Marketing Beliefs That Could be Hurting Your Firm.

The first myth: “Let’s not bother our clients” suggests that you should not send excessively frequent emails. Handal says “hogwash” to this one — if you have worthy content and messages, relevant and frequent communication is important.

Regardless of what they claim, too many firms don’t want to treat clients like a friend.

They don’t want to bother their clients until those clients are in need of services again.

That’s a mistake. You need to treat your clients like friends. Therefore, you need to communicate with them on a regular basis.

You can use email as a tool to help you maintain regular and consistent communication with you current, past, and future clients.

The second point, however, creates the contradiction. Handal says you must stop sending Self-Serving, Valueless Emails. “Do you send your friends email with advertisements, about contracts you’ve won, or featuring your latest company picnic?” he writes.

However, while you’ll presumably find it much harder to send routine emails with real value, than to pull your company picnic stories out of the in-basket.

Sometimes it is easy to create real value, but it is often much harder to deliver useful, exciting, and interesting comment — on a regular and frequent schedule.

So what should you do?

Yes, take time to think about worthy and useful content relevant to your audience. And I think there are merits for marketers even in the US to apply the CASL rules to their email policies. If you can produce the worthy content on a reliable and frequent schedule to readers who really want your emails, good for you. Go ahead and hit “send” as often as you like. But I ain’t going to say that will be easy.

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