How E-mail Marketing Works

Permission, E-mail Marketing Scams and the CAN-SPAM Law
Ronald Scelson, of Scelson Online Marketing, a self-described sender of spam, during a Senate Commerce hearing on computer spam on May 21, 2003.
Ronald Scelson, of Scelson Online Marketing, a self-described sender of spam, during a Senate Commerce hearing on computer spam on May 21, 2003.
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Let's say you've developed a new energy drink you're excited about, and you want people to get excited about it and buy it. After writing a quick, flashy paragraph about the drink and typing out a vague subject line, you search the Web for as many e-mail addresses as you can find -- the more people who receive your message, the more potential you have at making more money. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, not only will people probably identify your message as spam or an e-mail marketing scam and delete it, you might even be breaking the law.

One of the most important concepts in e-mail marketing is that of permission -- a business must receive a customer's authorization before sending out any promotional e-mails. If a person receives an e-mail from a business that he never requested, chances are that e-mail is considered spam. There are some guidelines that help companies create effective marketing campaigns, and some countries even have laws that define spam and prohibit businesses from sending it.

The United States, for example, has the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act). The act has four basic requirements:

  • The header of an e-mail shouldn't have false or misleading information. This includes the "To" and "From" of the message -- the person or business who sent the e-mail needs to identify themselves correctly.
  • Deceptive subject lines aren't allowed. This means your subject line for the new energy drink can't say something like, "How'd you like to taste the fountain of youth?" The sentence implies everlasting youth, but your drink will most likely give someone a quick caffeine boost before he crashes.
A typical example of a junk e-mail folder filled with spam.
Fotopress/Getty Images
  • The e-mail must come with an opt-out method. Once a person receives a promotional direct e-mail, a return e-mail address or some similar form of response has to be somewhere in the message that allows a person to unsubscribe from any list that would send him or her further e-mail marketing.
  • Any e-mail sent to customers or potential customers needs to identify itself as an advertisement and include a valid physical postal address.

If a business is ever convicted of any of these offenses, it could be fined as much as $11,000, and its e-mail capabilities could be blocked and its Web site shut down. On top of all of that, sending out spam usually tarnishes a company's reputati­on.

It's not the same everywhere, however, and the American act has many detractors, especially in relation to the opt-out method, which some people regard a free pass to send out spam anyway. Most European countries, for instance, have an opt-in method instead of an opt-out one. These techniques are usually used on a business's Web site -- when a customer buys a product, he'll have the opportunity to check a box that informs the company whether or not he'd like to receive more related information.

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More Great Links


  • Brownlow, Mark. "What is email marketing?" Email Marketing Reports.
  • Environmental Sustainability Committee. "Nationwide Waste Statistics."
  • Federal Trade Commission. "The CAN-SPAM Act: Requirements for Commercial Emailers." April 2004.
  • Pope, Daniel. "American advertising: a brief history." Making sense of advertisements. History Matters.