Broadcast emails: Inspiration . . . not (but recovery).

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Canadian Anti-spam lawThis weekend before the first summer long weekend should be a time for rest and (for me) preparation for our oversea vacation next week.It also marks the last opportunity for Canadian business to do stuff that you might consider to be spam.

The new Canadian anti-spam legislation will give this country one of the most restrictive sets of email marketing rules in the world. Although the government says small businesses who inadvertently break the rules requiring permission for all commercial emails won’t experience the possible $1 million fines, there has been plenty of angst in the business and non-profit community as observers read the rules and discover that, well, quite a few names on their lists were gathered without explicitly documented permission.

To make things more confusing, the government has set out the concept of “implied consent” and several exceptions to the express consent rules. For example, in some cases, you can simply collect business cards to validate consent. Or, if you receive a referral from a third-party, you are allowed to send ONE email to introduce yourself and confirm the renewal. The complexity is somewhat mind-boggling. It is okay, for example, to send uninvited commercial email if the business or individuals publish their websites in a prominent way to encourage it. But what is prominent?

We’ve had some challenges with the rules, in part, because, as publishers, we have alliances and agreements to work cooperatively with other organizations and sometimes share lists. Clearly, we are sensitive to the concept of spam — but we don’t see sending a copy of our electronic news magazines to be spam (especially since opt-outs are always respected.)

In fact, in North Carolina, our list probably gathered through a variety of methods that would violate the impending Canadian rules, has reached the stage where readers contact us if the newsletter doesn’t arrive on time — and we receive plenty of referred subscription requests. We also use a commercial email service provider (Mailchimp.com) which would never tolerate spam-type behaviour. In Canada, I expect our newsletter would be illegal under the new rules; of course thankfully it is quite okay to continue in the U.S.

A more challenging problem arose last week when a  co-operating business provided a list of 20,000 Canadian architectural, engineering and construction company emails. This organization has made good use of the list for several years. I needed to decide if I would try to send out emails to this list before the July 1 deadline, with the hope of gathering some opt-ins, and perhaps squeaking through the interpretations of “implied consent” for future mailings later this year and next.

Here, I received a quick reminder that legitimate businesses in Canada and the U.S. really cannot do anything that even approaches “spam” even if they have what appears to be a “good list” and the capacity to try to send out the emails.

We had a service provider in the US, who just a few months ago reported had been shut down because of spam complaints.ISPs receive quick signals of high-volume email activities, and take measures to throttle delivery.

Nevertheless, after a careful small test where there were only a few opt outs, I decided to crank up the machinery and start sending the 20,000 emails.

By the time the business day ended, we had delivered about 6,000. I knew better than to leave the system running unattended — and turned the machine off. Good decision. I started reading some of the “bounces” and the returned emails made it clear they weren’t being delivered because the spam bots had caught them. We were sending up red flags — and if I had continued, I expect I would have received a call from my ISP shutting down our entire email system.

The fact remains that you really cannot send out unwelcome commercial emails without unwelcome consequences, and your definition of “unwelcome” possibly may well be less severe than that of the Internet bots.

Yet spam doesn’t seem to be drying up — in fact, it looks like it is getting worse. It seems that virtually any legitimate business even thinking of broadcast or mass emails will run into problems — but the criminals in Russia, China or elsewhere have no problem pouring out more and more of their malicious crap.

Nevertheless, this weekend, I thought I could get a “fresh start” by perhaps setting out a new domain name server and clearing the records/caches to cover the tracks of my  emailing on Friday. Alas, I discovered that commercial services are quite ready to provide domain names for receiving emails, but not sending them. The reason: You guessed it, spam complaints.

I ended up blowing some time and energy before reverting to the old servers — and now, in the midst of our regular business email (we are completing three Canadian publications this weekend), I have the chance to see the limitations and costs of broadcast email initiatives.

Yes, we received about a dozen requests for online subscriptions from Friday’s bulk emailing, but I also saw how various ISPs were restricting access to our email accounts, meaning our regular outbound  emails will likely be stalled or not delivered to many places next week. The problem will gradually ease, if we don’t do other broadcast emails, but it is still a pain.

Clearly, the conclusion is that welcome broadcast emails can be truly effective (as we have experienced in North Carolina), but there isn’t much room for error when it comes to sending out unrequested emails. Spam, like telemarketing and canvassing, might “work” for some, but overall these methods are  expensive and ineffective for marketing. Maybe we’re lucky to be in Canada where we will now work under extremely restrictive rules.

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