How Not to Be a Dirty, Rotten Spammer

Email is an incredibly effective way to nurture prospects and leads, and pave the path for those folks to make a purchase. But so much marketing email goes horribly, horribly wrong. Here’s how to get a whole lot better at it …

If there’s one thing nearly everybody hates, it’s spam. It wastes our time, it insults our intelligence, and sometimes it can even trick or scam us.

But not all spam is created on purpose. Lots of well-meaning businesses are creating ugly, hated spam with their marketing, without intending to at all. This session talks about how to create email marketing that your prospects, leads, and customers will actually want to open and read.

In this 22-minute episode, I talk about:

  • The two definitions of spam, and why you have to avoid both
  • Why spam sent one at a time is still spam (everyone hates this, don’t do it)
  • The right time and way to make an offer in your email marketing
  • What to do if your list has gone cold
  • What to do if you’re doing everything right and you’re still getting marked as spam

The Show Notes

How Not to Be a Dirty, Rotten Spammer

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free, 14-day trial at

Sonia Simone: Hey, there. Greetings, super friends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules as long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people. This podcast is your official, pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

And today, I’m going to talk about spam. More specifically, how not to be a dirty, rotten spammer.

The Two Definitions of Spam, And Why You Have to Avoid Both

There is, of course, an official definition of spam. It’s unsolicited, bulk email that has a commercial or a malicious intent.

The United States 2004 CAN-SPAM Law, as well as other laws in countries all over the world, make it illegal to send commercial email with a misleading header or without some kind of a postal address, without a way to unsubscribe, etcetera, etcetera.

The definitions vary somewhat from law to law, country to country, but theoretically, if you’re sending email marketing to somebody who asked for it and you’re not defrauding them, then it’s not technically spam.

That’s all good and well, but there is another definition of spam that you need to know about, and it’s what I call “The Aunt Frances Guide to Spam.”

Go ask your Aunt Frances what spam is.

Or your favorite, perhaps not-so-technologically-savvy relative or friend. And you’ll get something like, “Ugh. It’s those awful messages they send me from that place.” You could finish that sentence with any one of a hundred companies — Amazon, eBay, GoDaddy, the Thanksgiving turkey farm, the place that she bought a fruitcake from last year, etc. The list goes on and on.

And these companies probably have legal permission to send her email because she either agreed to it once upon a time, or because she’s already a customer.

Technically, this is not spam. Aunt Frances was hip enough to register “” with GoDaddy, but she’s not hip enough to know or care about official definitions of spam.

If it’s getting on her nerves, it’s spam. That’s how she defines it, and that’s how we have to define it.

She’s not going to unsubscribe, because somebody told her that she’s going to get more spam if she does. But she will very triumphantly “mark it as spam” with her email provider.

Then, the email provider will start to look at the sender like, “You know? You’re getting a lot of complaints here.” If a high enough percentage of the subscribers mark the messages as spam, then things start to automatically go to junk filters, even though there are raving fans out there waiting breathlessly for the latest message from that company.

And there are some email providers — Hotmail is notorious for this, Yahoo is notorious for this, Gmail has been observed to do this — that will just throw the messages away. They won’t even put them in the spam filter, they’ll just get rid of them. The senders are following the letter of the law, but they’re still road kill.

Now, if you’re GoDaddy, you can afford this. Besides, if you’re GoDaddy, I don’t care what happens to you because I can’t stand you.

But if you’re a small business you have to behave better than GoDaddy, which is fortunately not setting the bar all that high.

As a business that sends out email — and you should send out email, it’s a fantastic medium for your marketing message, and it’s a fantastic medium for creating better rapport with your audience. But if you’re going to send email, you have to really hold in your head two definitions of spam.

One involves that complex set of legal regulations and loopholes and all the rest of it that apply to email marketing. You have to know what the laws are for your country, and you have to know what the laws are for the countries that you tend to send email messages to.

The U.K. is a little different from Canada, and Canada’s a little different from the U.S., if you’re sending email in English. The probably more important definition of spam is “Crappy email I don’t want.” If you want to send out email to more than a handful of customers, you’ve got to live up to both standards. Just complying with the letter of the law isn’t enough. You have to be better than the law.

Here are my thoughts on being absolutely white hat, aboveboard, and super-duper ethical and effective with your email marketing.

Why Spam Sent One at a Time Is Still Spam (Everyone Hates This, Don’t Do It)

I’m going to start with the first one. If you send spam one at a time, it’s still spam. I did an informal Twitter poll, and that showed that 1,000% of people detest being cold-emailed by salespeople who have taken no time to learn anything about their company.

For example, I get email from salespeople who have no idea what my company does. I get email from salespeople who try and sell me solutions that we have repeatedly written about being ethically opposed to. I’ve talked to a couple of people on Twitter who get cold email from salespeople to sell them something that their own company already does.

These are salespeople that have a list of emails that they’ve gotten somewhere, and it’s just like cold calling. They’re just taking a shot into the darkness.

I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. She used to be an in-the-field salesperson. I won’t tell you what for, because I want to protect her privacy, but she had a certain number of people that she sold to. This was a product that you would sell in multiples to the same office. It was a product used by professional services offices. She sold about three times more in dollars than the next most successful salesperson.

Her sales manager called her into the office and said, “I noticed that you make half the sales calls that the next most successful sales person does, and I want you to make at least as many sales calls as he does.”

She said, “Did you miss the part where I sold three times as many dollars as he does?”

He said, “No, but just think of what you could do if you made as many sales calls as this other guy in the office.”

She said:

Think about how much he could sell if he spent as much time understanding our clients, understanding what they need, and working on their relationships, and nurturing the relationship with each individual office the way that I do.

She was making half as many sales calls because the sales calls were taking twice as long.

She was getting to know people. She was involved with them. She understood their office. She understood what they needed, and she bonded with them about the topic of their business. She made a lot more money because she put a lot more thought and attention into each individual person that she sold to.

In the email world, this means don’t send out 100 cold spam email messages even though you craft them one at a time. Send out 25 (or 5) that are actually well researched and are actually thoughtful. You’ve looked through that company’s website, and if they have a blog you’ve read their blog. You actually understand what they do and what they sell, then you’re going to have some kind of a meaningful conversation with them about what they actually need.

Yes, sales is a numbers game, but you have to play the numbers game intelligently.

Now, I understand that sales professionals have managers looking over their shoulders who want them to hit certain metrics. If you have a sales manager who doesn’t agree and who thinks that you need to just do the email equivalent of dial-and-smile, then you might want to considering switching companies and organizations.

Or you might want to consider maybe putting a copy of John Jantsch’s latest book on selling into their hands to get some smarter approaches going.

Email that you craft one at a time — “Dear Business Owner,” or even “Dear Sonia” — but then it goes on to reveal you know nothing about what I do, it’s still spam. I hate it. It’s gives a horrible impression of your company. It gives a horrible impression of you, and it doesn’t work. I just mark them as spam. I hate them.

Smart Things to Do in Your Bulk Email

Now, we’re going to move on to what we would normally talk about with spam, which is email that you send to a list of people. This is normally handled by a service. Some places do it in-house. A service does a lot. It can do a lot of things for you to just manage your deliverability and all that good stuff.

The first thing that matters is you need to make yourself useful in your email.

I’m going to bet that you’re probably already working toward this in your communication in your marketing, and it’s a cornerstone of content marketing. If it’s not useful and relevant and meaningful to your audience, don’t send it, because it’s not going to do anything. It’s not going to get you anywhere near your business goals.

If everything you send benefits your readers, they’re a lot less likely to get cranky with you and click that dreaded spam button. It’s that idea that you train people every time they click through on something you send them, that there’s something worthwhile on the other end of the click.

It’s a good article. It’s an interesting recipe. It’s some tips. It’s maybe well written and funny. It makes them smile. It makes them think about something.

I think the reason that my friend was so smart in her sales position is because she happens to be an incredibly skillful dog trainer and she really understands behaviorism. And she understands that everything we do with the dog, or member of our family, or a colleague, or a vendor, or a prospect — every action we take is training that other being in some way.

You expect something from us in training and shaping a certain behavior, so you want to shape the behavior in the people who get your email and get all of your marketing, that there’s something beneficial on the other side of it. It’s a reward.

You can very quickly train your audience to not look at your email anymore. And you can do that by sending them a lot of irrelevant material. You can do that by only sending them pitch after pitch after pitch. You can do that by making your content not that compelling. It’s just not interesting. It might be difficult to read. Your font size might be tiny, and people might get a headache reading it. There are all kinds of ways that we train people to ignore our email.

I’ll give you an example. I signed up for an email list about what I would consider to be serious issues, like protecting net neutrality. This was a political list. This was a list that was calling on me to take action in a political arena around the issue of net neutrality.

And then they bug me with piddling stuff like Facebook retargeting ads, and they try and work up the sense of outrage over pretty, trivial, silly things that are not very important.

What that does is it trains me not to open their email, because I start to think of them as silly, trivial, and time-wasting. They haven’t spoken to what they originally talked about doing: protecting a position that I care about.

Every email you send has to have something valuable for readers, otherwise, don’t send it. If you’re just going to send it to pitch your stuff and benefit yourself, then that’s not going to work. Just think about it. Think about the email that you open. Now, that’s a very good exercise.

Look at your own email in-box. Scan it every day, and watch for, “What are the things that actually get me to open the email?” And, more specifically, “What got sent to me today that I clicked on even though it’s not from a colleague, it’s not about a work question, it’s not from my mom or my sister who I might want to talk to? What commercial messages actually managed to capture my attention and make me click and intrigue me?”

An Important Note

Very important here: I am not telling you to be afraid to sell.

Business solves problems. A relevant offer is valuable for readers.

When the Goulet Pen Company sends me an email about a new color of ink for my fountain pens, they’re trying to sell me ink. Right? That’s a sales offer.

It’s also highly relevant. I am definitely all over that. I want to know all about it.

When Sephora, the makeup company, sends me a pitch, because of the nature of that business — and this would be similar for art, shoes, any kind of purchase that’s made for pleasure — the offer is valuable.

I’m like, “Oooh, shiny! A new color of light pink lipstick that can join the 42 others in my drawer! Yeah, sign me up.”

Even if that’s not the kind of business you’re in, an email list exists to ask an audience to do something — vote, sign a petition, buy something, what have you.

The Right Time and Way to Make an Offer in Your Email Marketing

You actually do want to make an offer to take that action pretty early and keep your offer visible. Otherwise you run the risk of turning into “free guy,” and then it’s jarring when you do make the offer. It won’t be as effective and it will irritate people because they’ve come to expect that you give everything away for free and you don’t ever make offers.

Do make offers. Make them regularly. They should be a regular part of your mix, but they shouldn’t be the only thing you email. You shouldn’t be a jerk about it, and you should always honor the original intention that person had when they signed up for your list.

Incidentally, if you want to ask a question about email marketing or pick my brain on any aspect of email marketing or content marketing, drop a comment into the blog post for this episode, and I would be happy to answer it in a future podcast.

If you go to Pinkhairedmarketer.FM, you’ll see the whole list of shows, and you can leave a comment and I’d be happy to answer it for you.

Going back to honoring what you originally give them permission to do, email marketing is what Seth Godin called “Permission Marketing” in his book by that name.

The idea is, you convince somebody to say “Yes. Please send me marketing,” and then you go ahead and do that. You don’t ask permission to send information about auto maintenance and then use that permission to send marketing messages about an escort service. Right? Obviously uncool.

What to Do If Your List Has Gone Cold

If you promise useful tips and tricks, then at least 80% of what you send should be tips and tricks. Then you make an offer on top of that. But there’s got to be enough goodies to make the sales messages taste good.

Another way that you can become an accidental spammer is that people can forget you exist. This happens a lot with smaller businesses, because we get really busy, and we maybe don’t send our email out as regularly as we should.

Just this week, I had three promotional emails that were sent to my Gmail account. If I was a normal person I would have marked them as spam and moved on, because I can’t for the life of me remember signing up for these lists.

Now, I might have. That’s the thing. I might have signed up for these lists, and I just didn’t remember, which is why I unsubscribed instead of marking them as spam.

First and foremost, there are some marketing automation services out there that will let you essentially buy a list. That will let you buy a list of email addresses and then send to them. Just don’t do this. It’s just a bad practice. It’s just a terrible, bad practice.

There is a big marketing automation company that I’m not going to name, but they are sending me an awful lot of unsolicited email from people I do not know and I know I didn’t sign up for. It’s a horrible idea. Don’t do it.

Assuming, therefore, that these are people who did opt in to get messages from you. The first antidote to this is to email your list often enough that they don’t forget you.

No matter how compelling you think your messages have been in the past, your audience is paying a lot less attention to you than you are to them, so they forget you if you don’t email pretty regularly. You absolutely need to email new folks right away after they sign up, and make enough of an impression that they’ll still remember who you are later.

My favorite tool for this is what’s called an autoresponder. That’s an automatic sequence of messages. It goes to the first subscriber, it goes to the millionth subscriber.

It doesn’t get tired. It doesn’t get busy. It doesn’t go insane at tax time and become unable to function like I do. That just gets a string of strong, useful messages into every email box on your list.

I always get asked the question, “How many messages should be in the sequence?”

Four or five is awesome. One is better than zero. I like longer sequences myself. I like a ten-message sequence, even a 20-message sequence. And this should go fairly regularly at first. Maybe twice a week at first, and then you can taper them off to once a week.

Then, if you have a lot of them, you can actually taper them to maybe every other week if you just a ton of messages to send out. These are evergreen, content heavy, they’ve often very heavy on tips, tricks, strategies, easy wins, things like that. Good, evergreen, useful stuff that people who are interested in your topic are going to find valuable. And obviously use your common sense for your business.

If you are an orthopedic surgeon, you’re going to have a real short sequence, because the person will probably make that decision or not make that decision within a tight window of time. They’ll either go to you for their knee surgery, or they’ll go to somebody else for their knee surgery, but they’re not still thinking about knee surgery in two years. So use common sense and fit it to your business.

On the other hand, there are some kinds of business that have a very, very long sales cycle, like if you’re in real estate. If you get someone who’s interested in relocating to your city, that’s not uncommon to have a one-to-two-year window between the time they first start thinking about it and the time they actually complete a transaction. That’s the case when you want to have a very long sequence to just keep people taking over and keep your identity, your usefulness, your good personality in front of that person.

What to Do If You’re Doing Everything Right and You’re Still Getting Marked as Spam

Sometimes, you do everything right but you’re still getting more spam complaints than you would like to get.

You will always get some because there are just a lot of people in this world who think that the spam button is what they do to unsubscribe from a list. A small percentage of those is okay and is normal, and you shouldn’t get too stressed out about it.

But if you’re getting more than you think you should — and your email provider will tell you if you’re getting more than you should — then one thing you can do is go ahead and jog their memory about when and why they signed up for your list in the first place. Create an automatic signature that reminds the person when they signed up, and what the list is about, and what to do if they don’t want to get messages anymore.

By the way, I don’t recommend being really passive-aggressive about that message. I know some companies, and you unsubscribe, and you get this kind of whiny like, “Bummer. We’re so sorry you’re going. God, that’s just a drag.”

Just let people go, okay? If they want to go, let them go with some dignity. Don’t whine about it. Just say, “It’s been a pleasure having you, and perhaps we’ll see you again,” and leave it at that. Be pleasant. Don’t be a whiner.

Your reminder signature goes something like this:

“You’re getting this email because you subscribed on June 17th, 2014 to Sonia Simone’s free content class. If you don’t want to get these messages anymore, just click the ‘Unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of the page, and you’ll be immediately removed from my list.”

Most of the email providers will have an automatic field that can populate that sign-up date to remind them when they joined up, and that makes it simple. If your email provider doesn’t have that, it’s no big deal. It works just fine without the date.

Now, if you’re getting a lot of false spam clicks — this often happens when you wake up a list that’s been cold for a while. Like you’re normal business owner and you got really busy with stuff, and you didn’t email your list for six months, which happens all the time. It’s not a good thing to do, but it’s a thing that happens all the time.

If you’re getting a lot of false spam clicks, you put these at the top of your messages. If you’re getting just a few, put it at the bottom underneath your signature.

That little reminder is often enough to jog Aunt Frances’ memory that she did actually want to receive your “101 Meatball Recipes” newsletter. That was something she signed up for. It helps her feel reassured that there are not gangs of email marauders who are going to come down on her if she does go ahead and unsubscribe because she’s not interested anymore.

If you’re getting spam complaints or, even worse, if people just don’t seem to do anything when you email because they’ve just trained themselves not to read it anymore, put this into place and always remember good old Aunt Frances. If she thinks that what you’re doing is annoying and offensive, it probably is.

Thank you so much for your time and attention. I hope this has been of interest. If you want to hear more about email marketing and how to make it more interesting, more compelling, more useful in your business, let me know. Drop me a note in the comments. Again, if you’re listening to this on iTunes, I would love, of course, a rating or a review. It would be wonderful.

If you’d like to leave a comment, you can find us over at Pinkhairedmarketer.FM, and there’s a complete list of the recent shows there. You can just find the one that you like. Always love to hear your comments, and I would be happy to answer questions in future Q&A podcasts.

The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer are brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free, 14-day test drive at Thank you, guys. Appreciate you so much. Take care.