• Email Marketing Laws for Small Business Owners

Email Marketing Anti-SpamIf you’ve recently started using email as a part of your marketing strategy, innocent mistakes can result in expensive lawsuits if you’re unaware of the current regulations against spam. While there are general rules of thumb for email marketing that are more obvious (for example, never sending emails to a purchased list), most of the mistakes that small business owners make are more subtle, but can still open you to lawsuits.

Before sending out bulk emails, it’s pertinent to familiarize yourself with the current CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003) laws along with the rules of thumb for email marketing. In this article, we’ll give an overview of the basic legal requirements for bulk email marketing in the United States and deconstruct the legal language to make the information more digestible and actionable.


Passed in 2003 and amended in 2008, the CAN-SPAM Act has five main components to the legislation and applies to all “commercial electronic mail message”. This is defined by the US Government as “any electronic email message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose”.[1]

Only business emails with “transactional” or “relationship” content are exempt from the regulations of the bill. Examples of these types of emails include receipts of payment, shipping notifications and so on.

The penalty for simple mistakes can be costly. Even if your business is using a third party affiliate to send out the emails, your business still is at risk for a lawsuit. Not only is your business liable if you participate in spamming, but the penalty also applies to the individuals sending out the email as well. Luckily, it’s easy to follow the guidelines for email marketing that the CAN-SPAM Act has laid out.

The legislation can be broken down and more easily understood into 5 components, which our article will go into detail about.

–       Opt-In Requirement
–       Opt-Out Requirement
–       Sender Identity
–       Subject Lines
–       Contact Information

1. Opt-in Requirement for Email Marketing

The CAN-SPAM Act does allow marketing emails to be sent to anyone, without permission, until the individual explicitly requests to opt-out. Often times, when you’re signing up or registering for a service, businesses will include an “opt-in” box to check off. Checking off this “opt-in” box means that you’re giving your consent for the company to email you marketing content. What most marketers don’t know is that the “opt-in” box is not necessary for sending out bulk emails in the US. The “opt-in” box option is only necessary for B2C communications in Europe.

For small business owners sending out bulk emails in the US, the best practice is to have an “unsubscribe” link placed at your email’s footer. This leads us to the second component of the CAN-SPAM Act.

Related: Email Marketing for Small Business Owners

2. Opt-Out Requirement

In the U.S., every email MUST include instructions for email recipients on how to unsubscribe from your emails. This option must be included in every marketing email you send out. As a business owners, you must honor your email recipients’ unsubscribe requests within 10 days. Your email unsubscribes must also be able to opt-out without paying for the request or taking any steps other than sending a response email or visiting a single webpage to opt out.

The easiest and best way to comply with this part of the CAN-SPAM Act is to have an “Unsubscribe” link either at the top or bottom of all the marketing emails you send.

Email Marketing Opt Out Option

3. Sender Identity

The CAN-SPAM Act bans misleading header information- the “From”, domain name, and email address must all be accurate and should identify the person who sent the email. Falsifying the Sender information and misleading your email recipients on who the email is from is illegal.

4. Subject Lines

Along with the ban on misleading Sender information, deceptive subject lines are also illegal. The subject line cannot mislead the email recipients about the subject matter of the email contents. Be very careful in how you word special offers or including the word “free” when crafting your marketing emails’ subject lines. Check our blog post on email subject lines best practices for more information.

Great email subject lines are those that are creative and catchy but not deceptive.

5. Contact Information

Lastly, every marketing email you send out must include a valid, physical postal address somewhere in the email body.

Our Takeaway

Avoiding potential lawsuits and following all of CAN-SPAM’s requirement is quite easy. Just remember to give your email subscribers a working “unsubscribe link” in the email, to include a valid postal address, and avoid misleading subject lines. To read more about the CAN-SPAM Act’s requirements, read the CAN-SPAM Act’s guide for businesses. Do you have any questions about the CAN-SPAM Act that we didn’t cover in the article? Feel free to ask us in the comments section. Need ideas or need email templates for your small business email marketing campaign? Be sure to download our free eBook, “10 Awesome Email Templates to Get More Customers”.

Image Credit: ipalatin


[1] http://www.business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business

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  1. Lisa smith says:

    Great sharing for the awareness of email marketer to avoid the uncertainty to the email marketing campaign.

  2. Brian Hah says:

    good stuff. Very helpful. Thanks ThriveHive!

  3. Joe says:

    Say a company sends a commercial message to a legitimately acquired email address. The email is then forwarded to another recipient, whether in the same or in a different company. The second recipient then follows the instructions for opting out of receiving future emails. What is the original sender’s obligation with respect to (1) the original recipient, who never opted out, and (2) the second recipient, to whom the original sender never sent the email?

    • Emily Weisberg says:

      Hi Joe – If an email is forwarded to someone, that person is not automatically opted-in so they don’t have to unsubscribe from the list. The first person, who received the subscribed email and is on the opt-in list, should not be affected at all. I hope that helps!

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