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How to Write Effective Emails That Comply with CAN-SPAM Laws - ThinkstockPhotos-122584470-c.jpg

How to write effective emails that comply with CAN-SPAM laws

Before I was a marketer, I sold online media, where I had to write lots of cold email pitches. Six years later, I still rely on cold email outreach almost every day, both for Clever Zebo and on behalf of clients.

One of the things that’s helped me most in my career, I think, was the simple realization that there’s a right and a wrong way to email someone you’ve never met before. In this post, I’ll talk about how to write effective email that gets a reply, while adhering to CAN-SPAM laws.

What are CAN-SPAM laws?

According to the Bureau of Consumer Protection, there are a slew of things you can’t do, and a heap of stuff  you must do, in order to comply with the law when you send email to people in a business context.

Each email that doesn’t comply with these laws is subject to a fine as high as $16,000, so listen up.

Basically, there are seven golden rules that comprise the CAN-SPAM act.

  1. Don’t misrepresent who you are. Your “from” / “to” info needs to be accurate and not spammy.
  2. Don’t misrepresent what you’re pitching. Don’t lie in your subject line. It can be cute, funny, curious — but it can’t be inaccurate with respect to the content of your larger message.
  3. If it’s an ad, say so. You have to disclose explicitly that your email is advertising, if in fact it is such.
  4. Include location info. You must include your physical address, though it can be a PO box if you like.
  5. Offer a clear opt-out. There’s got to be an unsubscribe option. If it’s just you sending a note, one-on-one, to someone else, you can simply mention, “let me know if you’re not the right person to discuss this,” or a footer, “to unsubscribe from future messages, simply reply & say so!”
  6. Make sure opting out works. If someone does decide to opt-out, be sure you have a bulletproof process so they never get another email. There’s nothing more frustrating than unsubscribing unsuccessfully.
  7. Know what’s being done on your behalf. If you have an agency, consultant or employee doing your bidding in the email marketing arena, monitor what they’re doing. If they fudge the rules, you can be held responsible.

Those are the guidelines you have to adhere to. Pretty simple, right?

Now let’s talk about making your message sexier while keeping the content within those parameters.

How do I write an effective email pitch?

Take a look at the cold outreach you’ve written over the last year and evaluate it based on these criteria.

Would this subject line excite me? There are two types of emails. The ones you open as soon as you get them, and the ones you dread reading, probably never get to, and eventually delete. Which category does your subject line put your email into?

Customization is key.

Bad: “Partnership opportunity”

Better: “Clever Zebo + Rocket Lawyer: ideas for teaming up”

Much better: “Clever Zebo + Rocket Lawyer: ideas for making $1M/mo together”

2. Would I read this entire email? Nothing requires more than a few sentences to explain. I promise. If you’re finding that your proposition is making the reader scroll more than, say, once — you’re doing it wrong.

3. What’s my call to action? There are strong ways to end an email, and there are boring ways. An easy close is to ask a question: “Are you the right person to talk to about this?” or “Does your company ever consider this type of partnership?” Another nice close is to get really specific about when you’re available, and for what. For example: “Can we find 5-8 minutes to chat about this next week? I’m available all day Tuesday or Wednesday, just name a time.”

It’s weaker to say a whole ton of stuff and end with “Let me know what you think!” That’s a big commitment, spilling all of my thoughts. It’s a much smaller commitment to answer a yes or no question.

4. Is there enough benefit to the recipient? Make sure the person you’re emailing will actually get something out of fulfilling your request. Here are some possible benefits:

  • You’re highlighting that they have an opportunity you’re mutually interested in
  • You’re willing to give them something tangible in exchange for their time
  • You’re willing to do something in return
  • They will learn something interesting from the interaction
  • They will feel good / smart / fulfilled / like “the expert” if they help you
  • They will create goodwill

5. Be funny. People are bored at work. They’re serious. Make them smile. If you can get a chuckle, go home for the day,  you’ve won. If you have a sense of humor about your note — if your language is playful — your response rate is going to skyrocket. I promise.

6. Be persistent. You don’t want to inundate people, but you do want to make sure your email is, in some ways, the squeaky wheel. Couple things you can do when you send that follow-up note a week later:

  • Make a dumb joke in your follow-up note (“I know you were busy skydiving in Borneo last week, so I thought I’d say check back.”)
  • Mix up your message. Don’t just send the same email again, or ask “Did you receive this email?” — that’s lame.
  • Try a new approach: “Maybe that wasn’t the most exciting pitch. Here’s a couple other ideas I’d love to run by you.”

7. Give good context. Does this person know anything about you or your company? Help them understand why they’re getting an email from you, and why they should care.

If you can’t positively say that three or more of these best practices are in play when you look back at your message… work them in or rethink your approach.

Here’s a real email I got a few months back, which I’d like to tear apart in this blog post because it breaks several of the rules that I’ve seen work so well.

Why is this email pitch so terrible? Here are a couple of reasons.

  • The subject line “Quote Request” not only gives me barely any information, but promises a super boring email
  • There’s no context here — I have no idea why this dude is writing me about “a new promotion” — what kind of promotion? What does your company do? Sales meetings? Huh?
  • Why is “Add 4 free meetings” in red? Are the 4 free meetings doing something wrong?
  • Why is the word “contract” so prominent? Does that strike you as a word that makes someone at ease when reading an email from an unknown party? Entering into a contract with someone I don’t know is just about the last thing I would want to do in a business context.
  • “Let me know if you would like to lock in this promotion…” is a weak close. The promise of becoming a “long term sales partner” is a bit quick to jump in the sack. How about dinner first?

Here’s a cold email pitch that works very well for Clever Zebo. It follows most of these rules (hey, nobody’s perfect).

The close could be stronger, and the subject line could be more enticing — but this is also a soft pitch seeking mutually beneficial partnerships, where the objective is not a sale, but to attract interested potential partners without coming off desperate (when we overreach to find partners, they under-commit and the webinar doesn’t go off as well).

If you ask nicely, we’ll consider sharing with you our cold email pitch for new business, which is crushing it.

What are the best (and worst) email pitches you’ve ever received? Tell us in the comments!


  1. jay2010master says:

    Igor – I like your post and have book marked. I have never done cold email marketing before but I did set up an email that I can change around quickly for each person to individualize (yes more then just the greeting) lol. I was confused by all the rules of the CAN SPAM act until I read your 7 points up above. I wish the government would do that instead of having a 1,000 page law to explain 7 simple things. uggg. Anyway I incorporated those into my email – and yes I was missing a few of them. You also said if we ask nicely you would share an email that is a killer. I would like to see it either publicly or sent via email.

  2. Igor B. says:

    Hi Jay, thanks for your feedback & for reading. Drop me a note — you can find my contact info on my LinkedIn profile — and we can discuss the pitch strategy per your request.

  3. VizFact says:

    Outstanding & useful information. We send lots of emails and are always looking for ways to stay in compliance with regulations & law.