Communicating with Customers
Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 3
Column Tag: Programming
by Dave Wooldridge
Communicating with Customers
How the New CAN-SPAM Act Affects Software Developers
Over the last few months, you've undoubtedly heard talk of the new CAN-SPAM Act that became federal law in the United States on January 1, 2004. The purpose of the CAN-SPAM Act is to help regulate and reduce the onslaught of spam that plagues all of our inboxes, but the perceived effectiveness of the new law has been met with mixed reactions. Many people feel that the law is not strict enough and actually legitimizes unsolicited e-mails. Still receiving hundreds of spam messages per day, touting organ enlargement solutions, get rich quick pyramid schemes, generic prescription painkillers and Viagra alternatives? You're not alone.
Whether you believe in the validity of the CAN-SPAM Act is irrelevant. Violations carry a severe penalty. Depending on the specific offense, penalties include jail sentences of one to five years, plus hefty monetary fines. CAN-SPAM also discusses the offering of a bounty of at least 20% of the collected fines to citizens who report violators. And with the strong hatred the general public has for spam, you can count on seeing a lot of people submitting reports, especially if they can make money for putting spammers behind bars! As a federal law in the U.S., it supercedes any regional state anti-spam legislation that currently exists, although some states may still pursue their own prosecution of spam offenders. Needless to say, anti-spam laws should not be taken lightly. To read the entire CAN-SPAM Act in its entirety, visit http://www.spamlaws.com/federal/108s877.html
For those of you who find legal documents to read more like alien Klingon scripture than actual English can rest easy. This month's column will summarize the key points of the CAN-SPAM Act and how they directly affect software developers. As a programmer communicating with only your existing customers and opt-in e-newsletter subscribers, you may wonder why you should be concerned with this new law, especially since many of the rules apply to unsolicited e-mail. The simple truth is that people lead busy lives and while they may have voluntarily subscribed to your e-newsletter last October, come January they may not have any recollection of doing so when they receive your latest e-mail. They report it as spam, not remembering they actually did subscribe at some point, and then before you know it, you've got men in black suits with badges knocking on your front door. You can never be too careful or conscientious when it comes to people's e-mail privacy. Even if you employ double opt-in procedures for your e-newsletter and customer mailing lists, it is important for you to understand the law. Honor the new rules with every bulk e-mail campaign you deliver, so that you do not accidentally wind up on the wrong side of a lawsuit. Plus, for those of you who do maintain a regular e-newsletter mailing list (and if you don't, you should), we'll explore some effective techniques for maintaining your subscriber base, strengthening customer loyalty and increasing software sales.
The "From" Address
The "From" line should state your name or your business name with a valid e-mail address. Never forge a false e-mail address and never substitute the name with marketing jargon (like "Special Offers").
Besides the fact that it is against the law, using a false or different e-mail address other than the one you are sending from is a sure-fire way to get caught by spam filters. For example, you decide to send the latest e-newsletter to your mailing list over the weekend from home, using your personal DSL account, but you want the e-mail to look professional, so you forge the "From" line to be your company e-mail address. While this may seem harmless enough, two problems can arise. One, your ISP's mail server may detect the false "From" header and block the bulk e-mail from being sent. And two, many of the anti-spam filters that people use are smart enough to spot false "From" headers and automatically send your e-newsletter to the "Junk Mail" folder where it gets deleted. You don't want to spend valuable time and money producing an e-newsletter that never gets read.
The "Reply-To" Address
Always use a "Reply-To" e-mail address that is guaranteed to be valid and active for at least thirty (30) days after you send the e-mail.
For those recipients who decide they want to unsubscribe, they often do not scroll down far enough to see the unsubscribe instructions at the bottom of the message, so they will click the Reply button and e-mail you a request to be removed from the list. Manually processing these kinds of unsubscribe requests can be tedious and time-consuming, so an effective way to deal with this problem is to set-up the "Reply-To" e-mail address with an auto-responder message. Most web hosting providers and ISPs support an e-mail auto-responder option, which shoots back a pre-defined message to any person who e-mails that address. Most companies use them for notifying clients when specific employees are on vacation, etc. but they can also be used to provide customer service to your mailing list subscribers. Set up a new e-mail address such as email@example.com that will not be used for any other purpose than as your e-newsletter's "Reply-To" address. Add an auto-responder message to that e-mail account. The message should thank the sender for contacting your company and explain politely that in order to unsubscribe from the mailing list, they should visit the following link (and then include the unsubscribe URL). It's also a good idea to list the URL or e-mail address for contacting customer support in case the sender wanted to ask a question or receive technical assistance on one of your software products. Make sure your auto-responder is in plain text format to ensure that even text-only e-mail programs can properly display the message.
The "Subject" Line
Your e-mail's "Subject" line should be descriptive and directly related to the content of your message. Using misleading or deceptive "Subject" lines (such as "Your account has been declined!" for a home loans promotion) can carry hefty penalties.
Using vague "Subject" lines may seem like a brilliant ploy to get curious recipients to open your e-mail message, but in today's world of sophisticated spam filters and over-cautious users, e-mails such as "Check this out!" or "Deal of the Century!" will, more often than not, end up unread in the "Junk Mail" folder. So not only are they against the law, but these questionable "Subject" lines will not stand out in an already oversaturated sea of vague spam headlines.
Figure 1. Even though recipients voluntarily subscribed to your opt-in mailing list, take extra care to ensure that your e-mail messages are effective, while remaining compliant with state and federal laws.
Your goal is to create a subject line that catches the attention of recipients while honoring the true content of your e-mail message. Including your company name in the "Subject" line may prove effective, but unless you're a well-known entity like Adobe or Macromedia, people may not instantly recognize your name. For small software companies and independent shareware developers, the eye-catching word that will jog users' memories is most likely the name of your product. Using our fictional software product, CodeQuiver, as an example, the "Subject" line in Figure 1, Item 1 is "CodeQuiver eNewsletter January 2004." You could obviously make the line longer with additional words such as "Electric Butterfly January 2004 eNewsletter: CodeQuiver Update," but you run the risk that users' have their incoming e-mails listed with a narrow width for the "Subject" field, displaying only the first part of the phrase: "Electric Butterfly January 2004 eNewslet..." By placing the identifying word "CodeQuiver" in the beginning of the phrase, "CodeQuiver" will always be visible, no matter how narrow the "Subject" field is set in email programs. Our "Subject" line will now prove to be much more eye-catching for those users who quickly recognize the product name, but not our company name.
But what if your e-newsletter promotes more than one software product? Due to space limitations, you don't want to list all your products in the "Subject" line. If you have several software titles and they cater to different markets (some are consumer-oriented, some are developer tools, etc.) then you may want to consider sending out several e-newsletters with each one targeted to specific subscribers in your mailing list. Users of your consumer-based products may not want to read in-depth news about your developer tool offerings. The most effective e-newsletters are those that are brief and focused on the interests of the recipient. Less is more. They will remain subscribers as long as the content remains useful and is easy to read quickly.
Apple is a good example of a company that utilizes e-newsletter targeting. When signing up online to receive e-mail news from Apple, you are asked to select the specific e-newsletters that interest you (usually represented by a list of checkboxes). "Apple eNews" announces the latest updates, special offers and user tips for Mac OS X, iLife, and other consumer-based Apple products. "QuickTime News" showcases multimedia authoring, special promotions on Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express, and other QuickTime-based software. "New Music Tuesdays" provides the latest music news and releases available in Apple's iTunes Music Store. "ADC News" is the official e-newsletter for Apple Developer Connection, focusing on Xcode, Cocoa, and third-party developer tools. If Apple combined all of these different topics into one consolidated newsletter, it would weaken their effectiveness to generate sales. There would be too much information in one e-mail with much of the content reaching the wrong people whose interests lie in other areas. Let's say a proud father who creates iMovie videos of his daughter's soccer games is interested only in hearing about the latest iLife and QuickTime news. If he received a general, "all-in-one" Apple e-newsletter that was packed with lots of unrelated articles on Objective-C programming techniques, he may grow impatient wading through the content just to find the information that suits his needs. If he unsubscribes after a few issues, Apple then loses the ability to tell him about new products and special offers that he would be interested in, losing a potential sale. By subscribing to the targeted e-newsletters "Apple eNews" and "QuickTime News," he only receives news related to the topics he wants to read about, providing a consistent and reliable line of communication from Apple to his e-mail inbox.
If you don't have a way to configure and manage targeted groups within a single mailing list on your own web server, there are several third-party services such as Microsoft bCentral's ListBuilder (http://www.listbuilder.com/) which provide these advanced features and more. ListBuilder generates a sign-up web form that enables subscribers to select their topics of interest (which ListBuilder calls "Groups") from a list that you pre-define. ListBuilder hosts your mailing list database and automatically manages all submissions and unsubscribe requests. Using ListBuilder's convenient web admin tools, you can elect to send an e-newsletter to either the entire list or to only specific Groups.
If you e-mail an unsolicited message promoting your products or services, you must identify the e-mail as an advertisement in the "Subject" line. Although there is no predefined standard, most e-marketers use the label [ADV]. Make sure the label is easy to spot by placing it at the beginning of the "Subject" field. For example, "CodeQuiver Improves Programming Productivity!" would become "[ADV] CodeQuiver Improves Programming Productivity!"
Solicited e-mails that are delivered to opt-in subscribers are not required to include any kind of identifier, but since some recipients may accidentally forget that they did subscribe voluntarily, you can avoid false spam accusations by politely reminding them in the first paragraph of your message. Personalize the e-mail with the recipient's name (Figure 1, Item 2) to show that it's not a generic message, but that it's addressed specifically to them. Then add a brief sentence that reminds them that they chose to receive your e-mails (Figure 1, Item 3). This can be done in a very elegant way by mixing the phrase with some dialog that explains why it is beneficial for them to continue receiving the e-mail messages. Using the fictional CodeQuiver e-newsletter as an example, we accomplished both goals with one sentence by saying: "As a subscriber to our free CodeQuiver mailing list, you are eligible for special offers and exclusive online events from Electric Butterfly."
Any e-mails (both solicited and unsolicited) that include sexually oriented material must be labeled as such in the "Subject" line. Most software developers won't have a need for this kind of labeling, but just in case some of you develop adult multimedia applications or web sites, it might be helpful to note that many adult magazines use the identifier [NUDITY] in the "Subject" line when e-mailing advertisements to their subscribers. Some states in the U.S. consider the unsolicited delivery of sexually oriented e-mails to be against the law and enforce serious penalties, so it is strongly recommended to consult an attorney before sending e-mails with this kind of content.
Whether you are sending solicited or unsolicited e-mails, each and every e-mail is required to include an easy to find "unsubscribe" link somewhere in the body of the message. A recipient should be able to opt-out from your mailing list in one step (or no more than two steps). Your opt-out instructions should be very easy to follow, making the process extremely simple. Forcing recipients to jump through a complicated string of steps as a deterrent to keep them from unsubscribing is not only against the law, but will only serve to agitate potential customers. All unsubscribe requests must be honored within ten (10) days of receiving them.
Most e-marketers place the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of the e-mail message. For opt-in e-newsletters, this is a good place to once again remind recipients why they are receiving the e-mail. In Figure 1, Item 6, the "unsubscribe" link is accompanied by a brief sentence of instructions: "This e-newsletter is only being sent to those subscribers who have asked to receive these mailings. To be removed from future mailings, click here to unsubscribe". Just in case some recipients do not think to scroll down to the bottom of the message, placing a second "unsubscribe" link near the top of the message provides added convenience. A subtle way to do this without cluttering your content is shown in Figure 1, Item 3, where the "unsubscribe" link is also added to the tail-end of the introductory paragraph. This may seem like overkill, but if you only include the one "unsubscribe" link at the very bottom, you'll be surprised by how many e-mails you receive from people who cannot figure out how to opt-out.
Another way to prevent confusion is to provide a confirmation page that informs people that their unsubscribe request was successful and that they should not receive any more mailings from you. If your mailing list system requires subscribers to opt-out by replying via e-mail with the word "unsubscribe" in the "Subject" line, use an auto-responder to send an e-mail message back to the user, acknowledging their request.
It is your responsibility to ensure your automated opt-out process is working properly. Double and even triple-check your opt-out feature. If people are unable to successfully unsubscribe from your mailing list, their first guess will not be a faulty system. They will assume the worst: that you are trying to take advantage of their good will. Feeling frustrated and exploited, these potential customers just turned into angry enemies who may falsely report you as a spammer.
A Physical Postal Address
All solicited and unsolicited e-mails are required to include the valid postal address of the sender. This means your full street address, city, state/province, zip code, and country. It's standard practice to place the postal address at the very bottom of the e-mail message, beneath the unsubscribe instructions.
If you are a home-based shareware developer and would rather not give out your home address (for fear of customers knocking on your front door on a Saturday afternoon), then rent a P.O. box from your local post office or mail supplies store. Prices are very affordable, typically ranging from $40 to $100 (US) per year. Using a P.O. box as your public company address will also shield your home residence from receiving junk mail from address collectors.
Guilty By Association
The CAN-SPAM Act also bans automated e-mail harvesting, so programming a robot script to crawl web sites to collect e-mail addresses is strictly prohibited. This means that purchasing a list of harvested e-mail addresses from a third-party company or utilizing a bulk e-mail service whose database consists of harvested e-mail addresses is also against the law.
Not only are you responsible for your own e-mail practices, but you are also responsible for all affiliates, resellers, and marketing agencies who send out e-mails on your behalf. Whether you have directly instructed these partners to promote your products/services or if they are acting independently in the hopes of increasing their own commissions, you are ultimately responsible for their actions since the e-mails are tied directly to the promotion of your software company. This is usually an easy element to control with resellers and marketing firms, but it can become staggeringly difficult to manage with an affiliate program. Enticing web site owners to promote your software by using special purchase URLs that track and reward commissions based on sales they generate can be an extremely powerful marketing tool. Affiliate programs like this have proven to be incredibly successful for online retailers like Amazon.com, but managing the selling tactics of these affiliate members can be somewhat tricky. Since affiliates make money when customers buy your software through their special affiliate hyperlinks, they often barrage the public with web advertisements and unsolicited e-mail promotions in the hopes of increasing their commissions. To enforce that all affiliates obey local and federal spam laws, all program members should be required to sign a Terms & Conditions document that limits your liability and states their selling boundaries. Let it be known in no uncertain terms that any affiliates who violate the rules will have their membership terminated and may face legal repercussions.
Beyond the new CAN-SPAM Act, there are several things you can do to further safeguard your e-newsletter campaigns and make them more effective as a key communication platform between you and your subscribers.
Double Opt-in. Don't let people clutter your mailing list with invalid e-mail addresses or the unauthorized e-mail addresses of others. After signing up online, a verification message should be sent to the submitted e-mail address, asking the owner to confirm their subscription request by clicking the included URL. If the request was initially made in error, they can opt-out by simply doing nothing. If the submitted e-mail address is invalid, then it won't be added to the mailing list (since there is no one on the receiving end to confirm the request). Making the opt-in path a simple two-step process will ensure that your subscribers are genuinely interested in receiving your e-newsletters.
Never Use Attachments. With so many computer viruses being distributed through e-mail, the general public has become very wary of e-mail attachments. The fear has escalated to the point where e-mails with attachments that were not sent by a friend or family member are usually quickly deleted without being opened. If you're sending an HTML e-newsletter, never send the HTML document as an attachment - always embed the HTML into the main body of the e-mail. And never send the web graphics used in the HTML e-newsletter as attachments. Aside from the fear factor of attachments, using relative paths to attached graphics in your <IMG> tags does not work properly in some e-mail programs, incorrectly displaying your HTML e-newsletter with broken images. The professional way to display graphics within your HTML e-mails is to host the graphics on your web server and then use absolute URLs in your <IMG> tags. For example, instead of using a relative path:
<img src="logo.jpg" width="300" height="50" border="0">
use an absolute path:
<img src="http://www.yoursite.com/logo.jpg" width="300" height="50" border="0">
Never Use HTML Forms. Avoid embedding forms in your HTML e-mails. Besides the fact that some older e-mail programs do not support HTML forms, they tend to scare or intimidate recipients. People are often suspicious of what is being activated when the "Submit" button is clicked and where their data is being sent. Even if your subscribers trust your company, they may not trust the e-mail since they have no way to prove its authenticity. The last couple years have seen hundreds of e-mail scams disguising themselves as eBay or PayPal, asking customers to verify their passwords, bank account numbers, social security numbers, etc. through e-mail-based forms. Not wanting to be the next victim, subscribers may opt to simply delete the e-mail or worse yet, unsubscribe. If you want e-mail recipients to participate in an online poll or survey, post the HTML form on your web site and then promote it in your e-mail with a URL link to that form page.
Useful Information. Don't assume people will remember what your software does by only promoting the latest release or sale price in your e-newsletters. In Figure 1, Item 4, we promote the new CodeQuiver release while briefly reminding readers of CodeQuiver's primary function. And if your e-newsletters only encourage software purchases, then their usefulness may diminish in the eyes of readers. By providing convenient user tips and techniques (Figure 1, Item 5), recipients will be motivated to remain an active subscriber for a much longer period of time.
Figure 2. Using an e-mail merge program like IntelliMerge, you can send personalized e-mails to your customer mailing list. Sending your e-mail with a multi-part MIME type will allow your message to display on both HTML-enabled and text-only e-mail programs.
Personalize. If you decide not to use a mailing list service such as Microsoft bCentral's ListBuilder or custom web server software, but elect to e-mail your mailing list from your own computer, you should still personalize each e-mail with individual names and e-mail addresses (Figure 1, Item 2). Personalizing your e-newsletters and customer communications adds a nice touch, building a direct bridge between you and each recipient. Do not send one message with your entire mailing list hidden in the BCC field. Many ISPs will refuse delivery, auto-detecting these kinds of bulk e-mails as spam, and even if they do get past ISP gateways, most personal spam filters will discard them. The best way to send out your own e-newsletter is by sending it to each recipient individually as a separate, personalized e-mail. Manually, this would take far too much time, but there are several mail merge software applications available for the Mac that can help automate this process. Intelli Innovations' IntelliMerge (http://www.intellisw.com/intellimerge/) is one such solution. Import your mailing list into IntelliMerge and then embed special database tags in your e-newsletter's text to dynamically populate those tags with the appropriate subscriber information when e-mailed via IntelliMerge. For example, the <<Full Name>> tag (Figure 2, Item 1) will be replaced with the subscriber's name when IntelliMerge delivers the e-mail (Figure 1, Item 2). If you prefer to use Mac OS X's Mail and Address Book, then Christian Fries' SerialMail (http://www.christian-fries.de/osx/SerialMail/) may be a viable solution for you.
Catering to Text-Only E-mail Programs. Due to personal preferences, limited access to the latest e-mail software, and/or the ongoing threat of e-mail-driven viruses, some people are unable to read HTML e-mails or choose to disable the HTML option. Since these precious few may be either existing customers or potential new customers, don't exclude them from enjoying your e-newsletters. This doesn't mean you have to design text-only e-mails to meet the lowest common denominator. You can configure the e-mail with a multi-part MIME type. This enables one part of the message to be designated as HTML, while the other part is relegated to plain text. Setting the current message in IntelliMerge as "Custom HTML" turns it into a "multi-part" e-mail, displaying two fields: one for the HTML version of your e-newsletter and one for the plain text version. In HTML-compatible e-mail programs, the HTML version will automatically display, leaving the plain text version hidden. In text-only e-mail programs, the plain text version will be displayed by default. If you prefer everyone to read the more elegantly designed HTML version, you can post it as a web page on your site and include the URL and viewing instructions in the plain text section (Figure 2, Item 2), so that text-only recipients can view the HTML e-newsletter in their web browsers.
Before sending out bulk e-mails from your own computer or web server, review your ISP or web hosting provider's e-mail policies. E-mailing thousands or even hundreds of people at one time can set off "red flags" with your ISP and web hosting provider. You don't want to send out your latest software announcement and then have your account shut down for violating an existing e-mail policy. Internet access providers are becoming increasingly strict in an attempt to control and reduce spam. Although you may only be delivering an e-newsletter to your double opt-in list of happy, legitimate subscribers, your ISP is not aware of these details - all they see are traffic logs of 3,000 e-mails being sent from your account within the short span of a few minutes. Using a third-party service like Microsoft bCentral's ListBuilder avoids these kinds of complications.
Stay on top of the latest local and federal anti-spam developments. Even though your opt-in e-newsletter mailing list would not be considered spam, it's a good idea to be aware of any new changes or amendments, so that your e-mails are always compliant with the law. When in doubt, consult an attorney so as to choose the right e-mail strategy that best protects you and your company. Better safe than sorry in the precarious world of e-mail marketing.
Dave Wooldridge is the founder of Electric Butterfly (www.ebutterfly.com), the web design and software company responsible for HelpLogic, Stimulus, UniHelp, and the popular developer site, RBGarage.com.