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Email Marketing Best Practices

Companies that abide by the best email marketing practices avoid sending communication that a customer will consider spam. Not only is sending spam annoying to recipients, but it may also violate the law. When advertising through electronic communications, it is best to choose legitimate email marketing strategies and stick to email marketing best practices.

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What is Spam?

When marketing a product or service through email, it is best to avoid sending prospective customers spam. Spam is unsolicited electronic messages sent to numerous recipients. Email spam is the most pervasive form of spam, but recipients can receive spam messages through cell phones, Usenet newsgroups, and instant messaging. Email spam is also referred to as bulk email and junk mail. See Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Spam for examples of how unsolicited emails can hurt your business. 


When conducting email marketing, it is important to conform to the laws that regulate sending commercial emails. The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act regulates the transmission of commercial emails and commercial messages. Under the law, commercial messages refer to "any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service." The act also covers messages that promote commercial websites. A violation of the CAN-SPAM Act can result in the assessment of penalties of up to $16,000.

Under the act, senders of commercial messages are required to:

  • Avoid the use of false header information
  • Use accurate information in the subject line
  • Make known that the message is an ad
  • Provide a valid physical address
  • Tell recipients how to opt out of future email correspondence
  • Honor opt out requests within ten business days of receipt

The act does not apply to email that only contains transactional communication. Transactional communication includes content that provides a customer with updates regarding a transaction, confirms a transaction, gives safety information about a product, delivers goods or services agreed to by the consumer, or provides warranty or change of terms information.

A message that contains both commercial and transactional content may be subject to the act. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a message with commercial and transactional content is a commercial communication if:

  • The subject line indicates a commercial purpose; or
  • The transactional content does not appear at the beginning of the communication.
The FTC provides a CAN-SPAM Act compliance guide to help small businesses get up to speed and avoid legal exposure.

Legitimate Email Marketing Practices

If used properly, email marketing is an effective way to communicate with customers. Email marketing is the use of email to promote products or services. Email has become a popular advertising medium because it is less expensive than other types of communication and it is a direct way to contact consumers. Companies use email marketing to send promotional product material to new and existing customers and to build loyalty and maintain relationships with customers.

Even if an email marketing campaign complies with the CAN-SPAM Act, it does not mean that others will not view the communication as spam, regardless of whether the law defines it as such. Sending unwanted correspondence can quickly give a company a negative reputation. Consequently, one of the best practices in email marketing is to receive permission from the recipient to send the email correspondence. For example, permission can be obtained when a person signs up for a newsletter or for the receipt of promotional material from a particular company.

Types of Email Marketing

Best practices for email marketing include sending the following types of emails to recipients that agree to the communication:

  • Direct email: Companies use direct email to promote a sale or a special event. These emails encourage the purchase of the company's products or services.
  • Retention email: Retention emails provide information and help build customer loyalty. While promotional messages may be included, it is not the focus of the communication.
  • Advertising in another company's email: A company may advertise products or services through email communications sent by other companies.

Regardless of the type of email marketing campaign, the most successful types of email communication will abide by laws that regulate commercial email communication, will provide the recipient with relevant and timely information, and will make it easy for the recipient to opt out of the communication.

Get Legal Help with Email Marketing

While most people know what spam is when it shows up unsolicited in their inboxes, it's also important to understand the finer points. A skilled business and commercial law attorney can help you craft an effective email marketing strategy without violating the law or offending your customers.

See the Marketing and Advertising Laws section for more articles and resources.

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