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Are Your Email Messages CAN-SPAM Compliant?

During this unique time when just about everyone is in front of a screen for most of the day, email marketing campaigns can be extremely effective in reaching your target audience and furthering your goals. However, your association should avoid sending out emails all willy-nilly. The Controlling the Assault of Nonsolicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act, signed into law in 2003, established the United States’ first national standards for the sending of commercial emails. To ensure the emails you’re sending are in compliance, review this list of CAN-SPAM’s main requirements, courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission

1. Don’t use false or misleading header information. Your recipient should be able to easily see who the email is from, such as the original domain name, email address, and the name of the person or business that originally sent the message. 

2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines. The recipient should see a subject line that clearly indicates what the email is about. 

3. Identify the message as an ad. There is no one set way to do this, but it’s important to be transparent in sharing the email is an advertisement.

4. Tell recipients where you’re located. Your email must include your valid, physical postal address.

5. Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future emails. Your email has to include directions on how the recipient can remove themselves from your distribution list. You can link to a menu that lets the recipient choose which specific communications to opt out of, but you must also include the option to opt out of all commercial messages.

6. Promptly honor those opt-out requests. You must honor opt-out requests within 10 business days.

7. Monitor what others are doing on your behalf. Even if your association isn’t the one to directly send the email, you are still responsible for the actions of those who are sending emails on your behalf. Both you and the entity hired to handle your email marketing could legally be on the hook if guidelines are not adhered to.

8. Think before you send. If you’re unsure of whether the CAN-SPAM act will apply to the email you’re sending, consider the primary purpose of the message. Typically, most communications fall within three buckets:

  • Commercial content, which advertises or promotes a product or service.
  • Transactional or relationship content, which facilitates an already agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer about an ongoing one.
  • Other content, which doesn’t fit either of the above descriptors. 

According to the FTC: “If the message contains only commercial content, its primary purpose is commercial, and it must comply with the requirements of CAN-SPAM. If it contains only transactional or relationship content, its primary purpose is transactional or relationship. In that case, it may not contain false or misleading routing information, but is otherwise exempt from most provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act.”

However, it is not always the case that your email message will contain only one type of content. For example, there could be an instance in which the content is both commercial and transactional. In those cases, go back to the primary purpose of the email. If the recipient would automatically assume from the subject line that the email is an advertisement, or if the transactional messaging doesn’t appear near the top of the communication, it’s still considered a commercial email and must adhere to CAN-SPAM guidelines. 

If you’d like to share your thoughts on the CAN-SPAM Act, small businesses may do so without fear of reprisal by calling 1-888-REGFAIR (1-888-734-3247) or visiting

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