What Are the Ethics of Email Marketing?

There is a term “First do no harm” from the Hippocratic oath, or more accurately from the Hippocratic writing Epidemics, which states “To do good or to do no harm” …that applies equally well to email marketing. 

Email marketing, unfortunately, has a history of unethical behavior by marketers who ignored that requirement quite completely.  While no one seems to know exactly how the term “spam” was attached to unsolicited junk email, (Monte Python somehow seems to be getting credit), about 20-25% of today’s active emails still constitutes spam.  While I’m sure not everyone would agree, not only do I think this is bad behavior, I think it’s totally unethical.  In addition to being unwanted, it slows down the Internet and takes up bandwidth that could be much better utilized.

Obviously, as email became a target for unethical marketing practices, there were enough email recipients who agreed, that in 2003  it resulted in Congressional action. The CAN-SPAM Act, which stands for “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing.” was enacted in January 2004.  It sets out requirements for commercial emails, establishes penalties for spammers, and gives consumers the right to ask emailers to stop spamming them. 

Prior to CAN-SPAM, anyone could send an unsolicited email to anyone with an email address, without fear of repercussion.  Only technical aspects determined whether your email would be delivered.  If you could pass the minimal content filters, you could get an email delivered.

Today, however, that simply is not true.  With few exceptions….those infrequent  instances when your ISP doesn’t filter your junk mail…any commercial emails you receive (and of course what you send) are “solicited” email.  An email that someone signed up to receive from you because they believed it would be of value.

Getting people to opt in so your emails get past the spam filter, however, doesn’t end your ethical responsibility.  There are certain marketers, with marketing tactics, who may barely meet the CAN-SPAM requirements, but would definitely not meet the “To do good or to do no harm” standard. 

Let me say there is no specific published standard, beyond the CAN-SPAM requirements.  (And that’s fine with me — I personally don’t like government interference.)  I do think, however, that everyone, including myself, who does business on the Internet, should hold themselves to the “do good or do no harm” standard.  If not for your prospects and customers, then for yourselves…in order to build and retain long-term business relationships.

Do you want to have email interaction… have your prospects and customers engage with you, respond to you… and be influenced by your messages?  If you do, then you’ll need to begin with impeccable permission practices, and add quality and value to their lives,  in order to gain their trust and build your reputation.

Those are the qualities that are the ethics of email marketing.  Those are the qualities that “” do good or  do no harm.”

There are rewards to ethical marketing, as anyone who engages in it knows.  If you are considering, or have ever considered, cutting a few ethical corners to make more sales…it might work…short termIt never works…long term. 

Are you building to “sizzle and fizzle” or are you building to last?  If it’s the latter, the road to success is paved with ethics.


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