How To Properly Manage An Email List – Can-Spam & Double Opt-In

By CertifiedHosting 11/22/2013

No Spam image by Wikimedia Commons, Indolences

Starting and maintaining an email list is not nearly as simple as it was in the early days of the Internet. Just as do-not-call lists protect consumers from being barraged by telemarketers, anti-spam measures by the US government and email services such as Gmail greatly reduce electronic junk mail. (Sadly though, when we want to see how many international lotteries we've won, we have to remember to check the spam folder.)

Furthermore, the way that people feel about receiving emails has changed. The strategy of “double opt-in” developed to make sure that everyone on a given email list wants to be receiving emails. This approach certainly reduces the size of your list, but it has several advantages:

  • It makes you less likely to get marked as spam and potentially blacklisted.
  • It brands you as a polite and conscientious business.
  • It confirms a “yes” answer from your customers, further engaging them.
  • It minimizes strain on your server sending to disinterested parties.
  • It’s much less annoying than double opt-out.


Let’s review the US CAN-SPAM Act to make sure you stay legal, and let’s also look at the basics of double opt-in.

CAN-SPAM Act: Keeping your outbox legal

What it covers & possible fines

CAN-SPAM is specific to commercial communications. It provides guidelines that make it easy for anyone on your email list to refuse contact from you. CAN-SPAM is actually incredibly broad. Though its title sounds as if only mass mailing is at issue, even individualized messages fall under the auspices of the law. Any message that markets business offerings is subject to its rules, both those sent to consumers and to other businesses.

Any email message that falls outside the regulations established by CAN-SPAM can effect a fine as high as $16,000, which is unfortunately not payable in sultry messages to US Senators. Clearly a pattern of abuse can be incredibly expensive, especially if multiple emails have been sent prior to your business being alerted of wrongdoing (since businesses are expected to understand commercial law).

The 7 basic rules of CAN-SPAM

(Note that these descriptions are summaries; full information is available through the FTC site.)

  1. All of the information in your headers should be correct. In other words, you can’t change the “From” address to make recipients think the message is coming from another source.
  2. The subject line should not be misleading and incongruous with the body of the email.
  3. The email must be marked as an ad, in obvious language (such as 6-point legalese).
  4. You must include a mailing address that corresponds with one of the physical locations of your business (which can be either the street address or a PO Box).
  5. There must be clear and simple instructions to unsubscribe. It must be possible to stop the messages through simple online means.
  6. When you receive a request to unsubscribe, you must quickly process it – within 10 business days, maximum. You also need the mechanisms that allow recipients to opt out to work for a month after the email is sent. You can’t require any information other than the email address to cease your mailings to anyone.
  7. You cannot transfer responsibility. If a third-party entity is in charge of your email list and CAN-SPAM is disregarded, both you and the outside company are held accountable. Then, typically, everyone involved is rounded up in the middle of the night and forced to watch a movie starring Miley Cyrus and Demi Moore.

Double opt-in: the basics

Essentially, a person needs to sign up for a newsletter and then confirm sign-up for your list to fall within the parameters of “double opt-in.” Typically the initial joining (half-joining, really) of the email list is either by directly filling out a contact form to join your list or by checking a box on an order page, etc..

Once that data arrives at your email list management application, an automated message shoots out to that same address with a link the person can click to truly be onboard. It is an excellent idea to create a thank you page with a screenshot of what the automated message looks like and instructions. That way the recipient is expecting the email and doesn’t experience any confusion when it arrives; if all your audience are experts at reading, clicking links, and pressing other buttons on their computer machines, no need to worry.

Why you need double opt-in

  1. Anyone could enter an email address. You don’t know that a person is entering an address he/she owns until you verify through said address.
  2. It’s also possible for a person to misunderstand the sign-up process, especially if she/he accidentally checks a box that automatically subscribes them or does not understand that your emails are sent out once per minute, round-the-clock.

That covers a couple of the basic aspects of email list management. Beyond email, another crucial marketing angle is Google+, which is rapidly rewriting the rules of social media and search engine ranking.

By Kent Roberts