Spam Laws and Non-Profit Organizations

One of the interesting quirks about non-profit email marketing is that non-profits are sometimes exempt from parts of the CAN-SPAM law in the United States. Generally speaking, if a non-profit organization is sending out email that does not contain commercial advertisements or promotions, its messages may not be governed by CAN-SPAM. Given that the holiday season is coming up (as of this writing) and non-profits are cranking up their marketing campaigns for end-of-year donation drives, I thought we should review some of the basics quickly.

There’s a catch to anti-spam laws that some non-profits have learned the hard way: the CAN-SPAM law is largely meaningless. Why? Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to decide which email they choose to receive and have full ability to set their own filtering standards (under the CAN-SPAM law). Basically, each major ISP – such as Yahoo, GMail, Hotmail, etc. – decides for itself what constitutes spam and what doesn’t and applies their own in-house algorithms to incoming mail regardless of the law. For example, if enough users of Google’s GMail application flag your non-profit message as spam, it will be classified as spam in the GMail system and will not be delivered even if it’s in full compliance with the law.

ISPs continue to evolve their algorithms for what constitutes spam and what doesn’t, but most of them share similar characteristics. Here are three important things to consider and plans of action you can take.

1. What users think is spam, is spam. Nearly every major email client and ISP offers some way for a user to communicate that a message is junk. The ability to flag a message as spam is easier than most unsubscribe mechanisms, and has a significantly negative impact on the rest of your email program.

Plan of action: Consider putting an unsubscribe message at or near the top of your email messages so that people unsubscribe rather than flag you as spam.

2. Reputation matters. Nearly every ISP has a digital “memory” of sorts, and overcoming a bad reputation is significantly more difficult than maintaining a good one – and trashing your reputation is surprisingly easy to do.

Plan of action: Create and use an editorial calendar for your email marketing so that you never send out a rushed, poorly thought-out campaign that will have a significant number of your subscribers marking your messages as junk.

3. Intent doesn’t matter. What you as an agency or organization intended to do with your email marketing unfortunately does not matter to the computers and servers that judge spam. Even if your organization’s cause is incredibly good, computer systems can’t recognize that and thus don’t incorporate it into spam flagging mechanisms.

Plan of action: The only long-term, sustainable, sure-fire email strategy that will consistently get your email delivered is the golden rule of all email marketing, for-profit and non-profit alike:

Send relevant, timely, targeted, valuable email to people who asked for it.

As ISPs continue to change and make their spam detection algorithms more powerful, following the golden rule will be your only way to get your organization’s messaging delivered and advance your cause. Ultimately, ISPs will continue to make the decisions about what constitutes spam and what does not even if laws change, so make sure you continue to put the golden rule at the heart of your non-profit email marketing program.

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