We recently received a request for guidance from a friend of the company. In hindsight, it was clear that the specific situation related to this request and the resulting conversation would be valuable content for others, so we’ve decided to share the discussion here on our blog. The following is taken directly from the email thread between SendGrid and the marketer who desperately wanted to abide by CAN-SPAM laws while also maximizing their potential return on investment.

Marketer in need:

“I am in real need of e-mail help. We recently sponsored an online event and received 6,000 contacts from it. Am I breaking CAN-SPAM laws if I e-mail them? We use [insert big email marketing company here] and they won’t let us e-mail them. Can I e-mail them from SendGrid? Sorry, e-mail marketing is a mystery to me, and I was hoping you could help. I’d hate to lose all of these contacts.”

SendGrid email expert:

“I’ve seen this scenario raised on spam discussion boards and it is, in my opinion, a grey area that probably demands looking at additional factors:

1. In what role was your sponsorship? In other words how many degrees of freedom were you removed from the email address owner:

1a. If you paid the sponsorship fee for the event and were simply presented a list of attendees, I’d say you shouldn’t email them – primarily because the email address owner, by attending the event, shouldn’t suffer collateral damage by having every single sponsor email them with potentially unwanted bulk email. In this case the email address owner is explicitly interested in the event, but not necessarily its sponsors. And then begs the question – did all 6k email addresses actually attend the event or just signed up and didn’t attend for one reason or another.

1b. If you held a “Win an iPad by dropping your business card in a hat” or similar promotion during the event, then it’s probably ok to email them. Dropping the biz card in the hat is the action that constitutes explicit permission to contact via email. What would be even better is if there were an opt-in disclaimer on said hat, but the main takeaway here is that the email address owner can make a decision whether or not to opt-in to the company by producing or withholding their card. Certainly when I proffer my business card, I expect to receive email (whether I want it or not) at which time I can make the decision to unsubscribe.

2. How relevant is your product or service to the list of email addresses? I imagine this might be easy to answer since you’d expect sponsors and event attendees to share a common interest, yet still worth considering.

2a. The next question (but not an issue here) is how long ago did you acquire the addresses. Many email marketers don’t consider the temporal aspect of opt-in. Just because someone opted in 3 years ago to your product or service doesn’t mean they still want to hear from you or that your product is still of interest/relevant to them.

3. Golden Rule – If you attended this event, or any other event you may personally attend in the future, would you personally expect or want to hear from this sponsor? Suppose you ran the Boston Marathon, would you want to hear from each and every sponsor that happens to have paid a sponsorship fee, regardless of the amount?

4. Once you answer this list of questions, you can consider CAN-SPAM which most legitimate companies easily comply with because in my non-legal opinion CAN-SPAM attempts to do two things: 1. Eliminate deception 2. Provide easy identification of the sender and ways to unsubscribe.

One final note – if [insert big marketing email company] won’t let you email them, you probably shouldn’t. They have a very good abuse/compliance department and deal with this sort of thing all the time. I would be interested to hear your responses on the above.”

There was one more exchange included, but that content is less relevant for our purposes here. However, the following commentary from our in-house expert sheds some additional light on deliverability as it pertains to this conversation…

“A lot of the problem with deliverability boils down to defining what is/isn’t acceptable. A lot of what is/isn’t acceptable falls in grey areas that are often open to interpretation, and depending on what side of the deliverability fence you’re on the interpretation is often contradictory. Also, anything that isn’t well defined like this is often subject to “creative reasoning” to justify sending for a given situation. As a result of these grey areas, deliverability folks end up doing a lot of educating their customer base because this sort of thing really isn’t obvious and many people with good intentions end up getting tripped up by the various nuances.”

We hope this post is helpful to our users and readers of the blog. If you’ve run into the same or similar issues, please share your thoughts in the comments below. This is a great chance for sharing and collaborating around common problems.

image credit: http://www.geelongcomputerhelp.com.au/

Director, Developer Relations at @SendGrid. Passionate about bringing people together around things they love. I tweet at @TimFalls.