Imagine that you are sitting in a coffee shop, and all of a sudden, a waiter brings you a cupcake and leaves it on your table.
You’re a bit confused for a moment because they didn’t say anything about it.
You look at the cupcake – it’s sprinkled with chopped nuts.
You look at the waiter – they’re walking away like nothing happened.
You call out, “Sorry, I didn’t order this.” You say it again a bit louder, but they don’t respond.
You stand up and walk over to the counter. Still no reaction from them. You say, “There must be a mistake because I didn’t order this. Who is it from? Is it on the house? I can’t actually eat this because I’m allergic to nuts. Please take it back.”
The face of the waiter is like a blank canvas and you’re left standing there feeling like an idiot.
One thing’s for sure, you don’t want that cupcake.
You leave it on the table and walk out to find another coffee shop.
Then the same thing happens again.
Now imagine that these cupcakes are like the unwanted emails you receive every day.
Pretty brutal, right?
But pretty annoying.
For a long time, I used to receive the same unwanted email at the same time of every day. I would hear the notification sound on my phone, check the screen, and there the email was again, even though I’d just unsubscribed again.
I did everything I could to stop that email turning up in my inbox, but after a while, I just assumed I’d be clicking on that delete button for the rest of my life.
The good news is that a few months ago, the recurring email finally disappeared for good from my inbox. I don’t know what happened; I never bothered to check. Maybe the company ran out of business or got fined for illegally mass emailing.
Because that’s actually a thing. Those emails made me start wondering about email laws and regulations. I wanted to know about my rights and how to protect them so I did a lot of research alongside a friend who happens to be a lawyer.
I learned a lot. In fact, I learned so much that it got me slightly worried. Because the thing is, I send out cold emails too.
I don’t want to be similar to a waiter who wordlessly leaves cupcakes on somebody’s table – and my company certainly doesn’t want to be the sort of coffee shop that supports such practices.
So I learnt how to walk the fine line to ensure that my cold emails are legal, and you can too. Here’s everything you need to know about illegal cold email outreach and why it can cost you a lot of money under anti-spam laws.
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1. If your cold emails don’t offer an opt-out, you’re in trouble
All international anti-spam laws agree on this matter: for every cold email that you send out promoting your product or service, there must be a visible opt-out link or button.
That’s right, you need to provide your recipients with an easy way to unsubscribe from all commercial emails you send.
So at the end of your emails, make sure you add an unsubscribe link.
It can be just the word ‘unsubscribe’. Or you can get more creative: ‘Getting too many emails? Unsubscribe here.’
Most email automation software like MailChimp offer an integrated opt-out mechanism.
If you’re not using these automation tools, then you can manually add an ‘unsubscribe’ link using Google forms. All you need to do is create a Google form and link to it in your email.
This is how your Google form might look:
2. If you don’t ask subscribers to opt-in, it can be a problem
If you’re complying only with the US CAN-SPAM Act, you don’t have to ask for an opt-in.
That’s fine. But if you happen to send emails to recipients living in Canada, Australia or the European Union, then international laws are very strict when it comes to obtaining permission to email someone.
Given how many companies now offer their product or service globally (and yours may be one of them), I strongly suggest that you always ask your recipients to opt-in.
It’s a great way to show people that you respect their free choice and that you won’t force them to receive emails they don’t want to.
Here’s a cool way to ask for permission to email someone in your first outreach email:
Make sure your initial email appears to be targeted directly to the person you are sending it to and does not directly promote your product or service, or it will come across as spammy and they’ll never opt-in.
3. If you buy email lists, you still need to obtain opt-in permission
Honestly, for a long time, I thought that email lists were illegal – but I was wrong.
According to international anti-spam laws, you are allowed to buy and use email lists. But here’s the catch: you have to obtain permission for sending emails to people that are on the list.
Whoever made the original email list you then bought had to obtain permission to put those people on it in the first place, and when you buy it, you need to again obtain specific permission from each recipient of your emails.
In the end, this kind of ruins the main reason you bought the list for – saving time.
Here’s another thing to be aware of: the US CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t require an opt-in for email lists, however, when people opt-out of emails, they can’t be legally contacted again.
Yet another tricky aspect of bought email lists is that most of the time you can’t verify:
- How the email addresses were obtained and if the source asked for permission.
- If any of the people on the list have opted-out before.
- If any of them are residents of different countries (which means different international email laws apply in their scenario).
The simplest advice I can give you for solving this problem is… just don’t buy email lists.
First of all, they won’t save you that much time in the long run. Also, you won’t ever be able to correctly target your leads. And last but not least, you could get fined under anti-spam laws.
What you should do is build your own list. What we do in my company is use our in-house tools – Etools – to find relevant emails by searching a certain domain.
4. If you don’t say who you are, that’s not okay
This rule of cold email marketing is very simple. You have to let your recipients know who you are and why you are emailing them so they can easily identify you and your company.
It’s simple to abide by. Always use your originated email address. Since you are emailing strangers who might want to know more about you, besides just complying with the law, you can make this process of recognition way better by:
- Creating a Gravatar account with that email address.
- Using the same email address on your social media channels.
- Using the same picture in your Gravatar, social media and email.
It’s super easy, and it will help you a lot in terms of being perceived as a real person and not a robot.
Also, in your email signature, you should add:
- Your first and last name.
- Your company name and link to it.
- The physical mailing address of your company.
Note: If it’s too long, you can always use a smaller font for this.
5. If you use tricky subject lines, you’ll violate anti-spam laws
You might get carried away with the plethora of marketing articles telling you to be as creative as you like when it comes to email subject lines. And sure, cold emailing can become very predictable, so it’s great to experiment and test out different ideas.
But don’t get carried away, because according to anti-spam laws, your subject lines need to reflect the content of your message.
In other words, don’t trick your recipients. Especially not in your first outreach email. Playing around and being creative is very different to misleading people into opening your emails.
Make your proposal and your subject line clear and simple.
Even without the law telling you this, you probably already know that if your recipients feel deceived, it’s unlikely they would want to do anything further with you or your company. It’s common sense and basic courtesy not to deceive anyone.
6. If you don’t monitor what others are doing on your behalf, expect problems!
This one is very important and most people forget about it.
If you have a freelancer or agency that takes care of your email outreach efforts, you can’t pass on the full legal responsibility to them.
The company whose product or service is being promoted will ultimately be held legally responsible for not complying with email laws, not the individual who sends them out.
Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t apply here.
Make a list of rules for the people who are conducting email outreach for you and circulate it. This article can help you better understand anti-spam laws, and if you want more details about specific laws you can take a look at this legal guide for international email outreach I wrote.
However, if you feel like you are lacking information on something specific, you can always consult with a lawyer who is an expert in the field.
In my case, a friend and lawyer, Alessandro Mazzi, helped me properly understand the main international anti-spam laws and how to navigate them within my company.
I know that they say that the most effective way to persuade people is to scare them – in this case, make you scared of getting fined and losing money whenever you send a cold email.
However, what would frighten me the most in this scenario is losing my reputation by playing dangerous games with my leads.
I read this sentence while I was in college and it was one of the best definitions of freedom I’d ever found: “Your limit of freedom goes as far as you don’t obstruct freedom of others.”
If you play by the rules and respect others, you will never be that cupcake I described at the beginning of this article.
Quite the contrary, you will be the cupcake that everyone wants to get served when they enter a coffee shop. Following anti-spam laws can ultimately only help you add value to your email outreach.
Guest Author: Nina Cvijovic is a researcher and writer at Etools – a toolkit that lets you find the exact contact details of any business.