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CAN-SPAM and E-Mail Sender Fields

  |  March 1, 2004   |  Comments

Who (or what) is your e-mail 'from'? The question now goes beyond response and open rates to legal compliance.

At a recent event, a speaker advocated emailers place a real person's name in the sender field to be in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act. He claimed a person, rather than the emailer's brand, should be liable for the message content.

Who, or what, really should be in the sender field: brands, products, list owners, or individuals?

Defining "Sender"

I've spent an incredible amount of time discussing the new definition of "sender" in the CAN-SPAM Act. Here's the law's definition:

(A) IN GENERAL -- Except as provided in subparagraph (B), the term 'sender', when used with respect to a commercial electronic mail message, means a person who initiates such a message and whose product, service, or Internet web site is advertised or promoted by the message.

(B) SEPARATE LINES OF BUSINESS OR DIVISIONS -- If an entity operates through separate lines of business or divisions and holds itself out to the recipient throughout the message as that particular line of business or division rather than as the entity of which such line of business or division is a part, then the line of business or the division shall be treated as the sender of such message for purposes of this Act.

Senders can be list owners, list managers, divisions, subsidiaries, advertisers, or even individuals. Each of these entities can determine what's applicable under the law.

Who (or what) appears in the sender field should also include who (or what) should never be there. Each of the following scenarios is part of the "primary purpose" for commercial email rulemaking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will make sometime this year:

  • The sponsor of a newsletter whose primary purpose is informational content

  • One of multiple advertisers in a promotional email that would be sent regardless of your advertising participation
  • An advertiser in part of a transactional or relationship message sent from a third party, such as an ad appearing in an account balance statement

Third-Party Lists: Owner Versus Advertiser

Long before CAN-SPAM, relevancy and consistency with sender fields was an issue, particularly with list rentals or third-party advertising campaigns. Though the subject is debated vigorously on both sides, CAN-SPAM doesn't change the ability of either the advertiser or list owner to be represented in the sender field. The real requirement is the listing be accurate and honest.

The first step is legal compliance. The second is to determine why you're emailing in the first place. If it's to drive response, then determine what will accomplish that goal.

Most list owners claim their brand is more important and relevant than the advertiser's. If the list owner's brand has always been in the sender field, it's probably accurate. If the list owner isn't consistent, then A/B-test list portions with the advertiser and list owner to determine projected response rates.

CAN-SPAM requires senders to collect and apply suppressions. If you use a global brand listing, that brand must apply suppressions across all its future messaging. This can be a daunting task for many large brands. So the preferred sender field is the specific sub-brand advertised in the email.

Though a global brand may increase response, many marketers are erring on the side of caution. They also provide increased relevancy by listing only the sub-brand or business unit in the sender field. Yet if the sub-brand is in the sender field but the message is all about the global brand (including the postal address), then an opt-out may be relevant for the global brand, not just the one the message is "from."

Brand Versus Offering

E-mailers rarely use a product offering in the sender field. It's worth discussing why.

Recipients typically first look at who or what a message is from, then to the subject line. Many recipients use only the sender field to determine relevance in their spam deletion process. So you'd think listing an offer in the sender field would drive response.

Ethical email marketers often look at what spammers do, then do the opposite. Many spammers take advantage of the sender identity issue and list the offer in the sender field. Typically, these are one-time, low-dollar purchases that may actually drive response (does "Mini Racer" ring a bell?).

I don't advocate using an offer rather than a brand name in the sender field. But a strict interpretation of CAN-SPAM's definition of "sender" above leaves room for it. Just as you can use a sub- or global brand, an offer or product line in the sender field may increase response. For some products, it may be worth testing.

Offering Versus Personalization

Now, to that statement at the event: Must a person's name be in the sender field? A couple years ago, a major online retailer made up a woman's name to sign a quasi-personal introduction to its weekly email offers. The retailer told me it not only increased response, it actually tested the name against other made-up names and salutations to determine what worked best. (Eventually, the company started getting calls for her and had stop using the name.) Was the name used in the sender field? Absolutely not.

Spammers use this tactic to make recipients think they might know the person sending the message and, hence, open it. There may be isolated cases this truly will increase response, perhaps an email from Bill Gates about the new OS. The reality is if an email in your inbox was "from" Bill Gates, would you open it or think it was spam?

Whatever brand entity collects the email address and is named in the first message's sender field should stay in the sender field. Inconsistency breeds confusion. There will be hiccups of success from testing, but email messaging should be viewed over the long term. Response suffers over time with inconsistent sender fields.

Does this mean you're stuck with one sender field? No. It does mean testing and changes should be made at the point of acquisition or carefully rolled out to the list.

I'd be remiss not to point out the trend du jour: requesting recipients add your address to their address book. Accurate reflection of the sender field to the sending email address is critical. Recipients don't want to add a string of random letters and numbers, or a potentially fake marketing rep, to their contacts. Using a specific sub-brand or business unit is generally the best approach to this difficult process.

What do you think should be in the sender field? Send me your thoughts!

Note: Though CAN-SPAM prohibits fictitious names in email sender fields, legal experts and FTC attorneys agree names firmly associated with major brands (e.g., Ronald McDonald and Betty Crocker) are permitted under the new law. --The Editors

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ben Isaacson

Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.

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