How to Keep Your eMail Marketing Legal by @deborahsweeney

Photo Credit: Martin Bekkelund via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Martin Bekkelund via Compfight cc

by Deborah Sweeney | Featured Contributor

Few small business owners willingly break the law, but making sure everything you do is completely legal can be tough. You may know what permits and licenses you need, but there are less-obvious ways you could be breaking the law – like in your email marketing. Commercial email is one of the most useful, and cost-effective, marketing tools for small businesses. But if you aren’t careful, you could be flouting an important law. In 2003, congress passed CAN-SPAM, establishing the national standards by which all commercial emails must adhere. And if yours don’t, you could face stiff penalties. So if you’re unsure whether or not your marketing meets regulations, take a look at a recent message, and make sure the following criteria are met:

It’s obvious who sent the e-mail

You are first required to clearly identify who sent the email. So your ‘From:,’ and ‘Reply to:,’ lines have to be filled out, and must include the originator’s domain. That means you can’t route your marketing through another service or hide your email address. All messages must also include the business’s name and a physical address at which the company can be reached. From what I’ve seen, a lot of small businesses do forget to include their address, so just make sure yours is in there.

Recipients can unsubscribe easily

Most small business owners know that they have to let people unsubscribe from their marketing, but the lack of an unsubscribe option is where most complaints originate, so its very important you follow all relevant rules. Any commercial email you send has to have an obvious and easy way for recipients to unsubscribe. You can include an ‘unsubscribe’ button, or ask them to simply email you if they wish to unsubscribe, as long as the average person can quickly figure out how to opt-out of future communication. Further, you must be able to process opt-out requests for up to thirty days after sending the original email, and you must honor any request within ten business days. You aren’t allowed to require that they tell you why they opted out or give you personal information beyond an email address. Make your opt-out process as easy and obvious as possible, and you should be okay.

Ads look like ads

This can be a bit hard since the law doesn’t say exactly how an ad is supposed to look. But, essentially, if you send out an advertisement for goods or services, you can’t use any sort of trickery to disguise your emails as something other than an ad. The most obvious violation of this I’ve seen was an e-mail I got from ‘an old friend’ talking about this great company they just found out about. You clicked a link in it, and it’d bring you to that company’s landing page. Obviously, this was an ill-guided attempt to trick people into clicking through. But there are less-obvious ways that small business owners violate this part of the law. For example, subject lines have to be relevant to the content – you can’t put ‘Hi.’ or ‘How are you?’ in the subject line, and then have the content be entirely about your upcoming blowout sale.

In the end, adhering to CAN-SPAM is just about not tricking people. I know opens and click throughs are important, but each separate email in violation of the law can be subject to penalties up to $16,000. Review your marketing campaign, ensure it’s all above board, and make sure anyone you have sending out emails on your behalf is following the law. Sticking to the letter of the law isn’t that hard, as long as you know what you have to do to comply.


Deborah Sweeney – Legal Expert, CEO, – Calabasas, CA

Deborah Sweeney HeadshotAs CEO of MyCorporation Business Services, Inc. (, Deborah Sweeney is an advocate for protecting personal and business assets for business owners and entrepreneurs. With her experience in the fields of corporate and intellectual property law, Deborah has evolved from lawyer to business owner. She has extensive experience in the start-up and entrepreneurial industry as she has been involved in the formation of hundreds of thousands of businesses for’s customers.

Ms. Sweeney received her JD & MBA degrees from Pepperdine University. She is active in the community and loves working with students and aspiring entrepreneurs. She serves on the Board of Regents at California Lutheran University and is a founding member of Partners of Pepperdine. Deborah has served as an adjunct professor at the University of West Los Angeles and San Fernando School of Law in the areas of corporate and intellectual property law. Ms. Sweeney is also well-recognized for her written work online as a contributing writer with top business and entrepreneurial blogging sites.  She is a regular contributor on Forbes, American Express, Social Media Today, and BlogHer among many others.

In her ‘free’ time, Deborah enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons, Benjamin (8) and Christopher (6). Deborah believes in the importance of family and credits the entrepreneurial business model for giving her the flexibility to enjoy both a career and motherhood. Follow her on Twitter @deborahsweeney and @mycorporation.

Share :


One Reply to “How to Keep Your eMail Marketing Legal by @deborahsweeney”

  1. Judy Yaron PhD

    Terrific tips, Deborah. So, simple – but so crucial! Thanks so much for the reminders. Going back to check out my own practices! THANKS 🙂
    HUGS <3

Comments are closed.