Direct Email – Thou Shalt Not Spam by Bobette Kyle

If you are new to Internet marketing, you might equate direct email to direct postal mail. The concepts are very similar; in both you broadcast a standard message to a large number of individuals in hopes of receiving positive responses. To the uninitiated, it is logical to assume you can approach the two in the same way. It seems like the only difference is the means of communication. If you are thinking this way, STOP! STOP! STOP!

The unsolicited commercial message (UCE) – spam – has a different connotation to the recipient than junk mail from the postal service. Spam on the Internet ties up resources. It uses storage space, slows down systems, and can crash equipment. For this reason and others, many abhor spam.

Some assertively condemn spammers. If you spam you will undoubtedly be reported to your ISP and email provider. Depending on the circumstances, your accounts could be closed and your Website may be shut down. Need I say it? This is NOT the result you are looking for from your direct email program.

Some spammers feel that as long as there are unsubscribe instructions in the email or they only send one message it is okay. A few use never-passed legislative proposals in their defense. In marketing, perception is far closer to reality than loophole rationalizations, however. The recipients are offended whether the unsubscribe phrase is there or not and they are offended even when they receive only one message from you. Honest businesses look for ways to build a respectable reputation, not grab sales on the run.

Spam comes in two forms – unwanted advertisements posted on message boards and email messages sent to email addresses. Different individuals define spam a little differently. Many, however, consider all forms of UCE (excluding personal messages from friends or family) or unsolicited commercial postings spam. This means that if you send advertisements without prior permission from the individuals you will get complaints. In all likelihood you will be reported as a spammer and it is possible you will be sued under one or more state laws governing UCE. Even if you follow all current laws, you are likely to be reprimanded or shut down. Reputable, high quality service providers generally have user agreements that are stricter than current U.S. state and federal laws.

Spam/UCE Law

As of this writing there are no U.S. federal laws governing UCE. It is a high-profile topic, however, and several laws are currently under debate. According to the SpamCon Foundation Law Center ( spammers have been sued under other laws – forgery and trespass – and lost. Some states have laws that regulate UCE. Currently, those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. Depending on the state, allowable claims range from $10 per message up to unlimited damages. Most laws are opt-out, meaning companies can legally send UCE one time only as long as certain procedures are followed.

International laws are stricter. Six countries – Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, and Norway – have opt-in laws. In order to legally send UCE, you must first have the recipient’s permission. Other countries have opt-out directives or pending legislation.

Worldwide, there is much discussion about UCE and laws are changing quickly. There are several sites you can monitor for details about spam. These include the SpamCon Foundation Law Center (, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE,, and the spam section of The Open Directory Project (

Opt-in (Permission Marketing) Versus Opt-Out

Opt-in is when the recipient takes the first action by agreeing to receive email messages from you (or the email list rental company). Only after giving permission do they receive email. There are different degrees of opt-in. Terms vary according to the source, but I will call the different opt-in levels basic and confirmed.

Basic opt-in is when the recipient is put on a mailing list because (s)he has indicated an interest in receiving email. The sign-up circumstances vary. Common methods involve checkboxes on registration and other forms. With basic opt-in, the recipient is immediately added to the opt-in list. Often, the new subscriber is sent a “welcome” email as well.

Confirmed opt-in (Also called “double” or “closed loop” confirmation) is when a recipient’s address is added to a mailing list only after two steps are completed. The requestor must first submit to have his/her email address added to the list and then reply to the confirmation message. The purpose of double opt-in is both to verify the email address was not submitted by someone other than the address owner and to make sure (s)he did not accidentally request inclusion.

Which Opt-in is Best?

There is some controversy about which opt-in level is best. Basic opt-in is still widely used, but confirmed opt-in is becoming more prevalent. As email volumes grow and “professional” spammers become more aggressive, ISPs are encouraging or requiring confirmed opt-in.

Confirmed opt-in almost completely eliminates accidental or forged subscriptions because the recipients must indicate twice that they really would like to be on the list. If the confirmation email is not clear, however, some people will not understand that they must reply to the confirmation message. This means many willing subscribers are not added to the list.

No matter what level of opt-in you choose, always include removal instructions in every message. It is favorable to include a line at the beginning explaining when/how the recipient opted in to the list and directions on how to be removed from the list. If you have the technology to do so, it is also a nice touch to tell recipients when and how they agreed to receive email from you (Submit buttons, after all, are not the highlight of one’s day. A lot of people will forget they asked for information.).

It is also critical that your removal system work – preferably automatically. Customers become exponentially frustrated (and sometimes hostile) if their remove requests bounce back to them or end up in an ineffectual black hole. A faulty remove address also makes you a candidate for spam complaints.


With an opt-out email list, recipients must take some action in order to be excluded from the distribution list. A common method of populating opt-out email lists is to include a pre-checked box on a registration or other submission form. Unless the submitter notices the checked box and un-checks it, (s)he has given permission to be added to an email list. A few Websites write their Privacy statements in such a way that new customers/subscribers are automatically added to various lists unless they adjust their user profiles or notify the site they wish to be removed from the list.

While pre-checked boxes and “opt-out” Privacy statements are unpopular, the third method of developing an opt-out email list is opposed most vehemently. Using this method, email addresses are indiscriminately gathered from a variety of sources. Once the list is harvested, commercial messages are sent without the prior permission of the recipients. If a recipient wants to receive no more messages, he/she must take action to have his/her email address removed from the list. Usually, this is done through an “unsubscribe” or “remove” email address found in the text of the mailing. In theory, an unwilling recipient sends a message to the unsubscribe address to be removed from future mailings.

In practice, email appearing to be opt-out is often the work of an intentional spammer. The spammer gives the illusion of opt-out by including an inoperable remove address. Worse yet, some use remove requests as evidence of “live” addresses where more spam can be sent. Because of opt-out’s negative association, legitimate marketers almost universally prefer and use an opt-in method for their direct email campaigns.