Wait, That Newsletter's Not Spam!

Wait, That Newsletter's Not Spam!

How to keep your organisation's messages from getting junked

By: Katie Dean
December 6, 2005
TechSoup, originally posted at http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/page5052.cfm


Following the rules of the federal CAN-SPAM Act to a T when sending out your organisation's e-mail newsletters? While that may help your organisation look nice in the eyes of the law, it won't guarantee the same response from your audience. In fact, it might make your e-mail delivery problems worse, some experts say.

"The current anti-spam laws establish a very low hurdle that practically any responsible organisation is going to be able to jump over," said Bill Pease, Chief Technology Officer for GetActive, an online communications firm that provides newsletter management services for nonprofits. "Compliance with those laws does absolutely nothing to make sure you are getting your e-mails into inboxes."

Technically, the CAN-SPAM Act applies only to e-mail messages "the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service." While that doesn't describe the majority of nonprofits, if a recipient reasonably concludes that the message promotes a product or service -- if the newsletter contains ads, for instance -- the newsletter could be seen as commercial, and CAN-SPAM may apply.

Moreover, most Internet users have a much lower tolerance for spam and won't hesitate to mark your newsletter as such if it doesn't meet their needs. It's safest, then, to not only comply with CAN-SPAM rules, but to exceed them.

Here are some tips for keeping your organisation's newsletters from getting marked as spam:

  • Always obtain consent before you start sending newsletters to people on your subscriber list. While the CAN-SPAM Act requires senders to include an "opt-out" option that allows receivers to unsubscribe from your list, "opt-in" is the most effective way to build a good relationship with your supporters, says Pease.
  • When you collect subscribers' e-mail addresses via your Web site, don't pre-check the opt-in box for the subscriber. You want to be sure you get explicit, and not accidental, permission to send newsletters to your audience.
  • Even if you have a donor's e-mail in a database, don't assume they want to receive a weekly e-mail newsletter. Make sure that they have signed up for it.
  • Likewise, if a partner organisation collects e-mail addresses from a co-registration site (where a user registers on a Web site other than your own), note that that doesn't mean users want to receive correspondence from your specific organisation.
  • If users ask to be removed from a list, be vigilant about weeding their e-mail addresses out of your subscriber database. Nothing annoys people more than when they try to unsubscribe and nothing happens. That can lead to complaints about spam.

Good list-building practices are critical if you want your newsletters to successfully reach your audience, according to Pease.

"In the e-mail communication arena, if you are perceived to be a spammer, you have lost the ability to have a trust relationship with your audience," Pease said. "That is fatal to a nonprofit organisation. That's why this stuff matters."

But no matter how clean your subscriber list, there's still the chance that your messages won't reach your audience. Both your organisation's Internet service provider (or ISP) and your subscribers' ISPs may block your messages based on rules of their own, according to Nick Allen, CEO of Donordigital, a company that helps nonprofits use the Internet for fundraising and marketing. Major ISPs are also constantly tweaking the algorithms they use to block spam and they have no obligation to inform people of such changes, cautions Allen.

"If the same e-mail is going to lots and lots of people, it can be flagged as spam," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF has put together a white paper on best practices for noncommercial e-mail list owners, to avoid being labeled a spammer. The digital rights group also helps nonprofits perceived to be sending spam clear their names.

E-Mail Services Firms

One way to increase the chances that your messages will get past ISPs and into inboxes is to have an e-mail services firm distribute your newsletters. Some of the firms have relationships with ISPs and are therefore listed on the ISP's "whitelists" -- which means they are pre-approved by the ISP.

There are a number of firms that can help nonprofits get legitimate e-mail to its audience. Nonprofits can use the following list as a starting point for researching firms that meet their needs:

Another thing to keep in mind when selecting an e-mail services firm is that your organisation's reputation can get tied to that of the other organisations that the firm serves. That's because mail from any of the firm's clients is likely to originate from the same mail server, notes Pease. That means that if a commercial business uses the services firm to send out unsolicited advertisements -- and users start to complain about spam -- an ISP might block all mail from that server, including yours.

"You often get stigmatised by the mailing practices of the other commercial vendors," said Pease. "You essentially become collateral damage."

Ensuring that your newsletters make it safely through to their intended recipients can be a challenge. But keep these suggestions in mind and you should be able to distinguish yourself from those hawking Viagra or miracle diet pills. Your audience will thank you for it, and you'll build a more trusted organisation.