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Marketing 360® Blog

Put SPAM in the Can: How to Create Targeted, Opt-In Email Lists

Post By Scott Yoder | Email & SMS Marketing

In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission was tasked with enforcing the federal CAN-SPAM Act.  In essence, the purpose was to prevent people from getting too much of what they didn’t want, aka spam.

Spam is not an acronym for a technical concept.  It actually originated from a Monty Python skit where the menu includes a bit too much of the canned meat product:

In 2019, we all know what email spam is:  an unwanted or inappropriate message that came because we ended up on an email list we didn’t sign-up for.

And we agree that spam sucks.  It overloads our already full inboxes with content we don’t want.

But despite this, many businesses getting started with email marketing want to use a tactic directly related to spamming:  buying email lists.

Few marketing tactics are so counterproductive.

Here are some details on why you shouldn’t buy emails, and how you can build a legitimate list so your emails are more like steak than spam.

Cold Calls and Canned Emails

Why do businesses still buy email lists and spam?  Why do they hire telemarketers to make 200 cold calls per day?

Two reasons:

  1. They are desperate for sales.
  2. They are willing to interrupt and annoy many people in order to randomly connect with a few who will show interest in their offer.

Let’s acknowledge something here.  Spamming can work.  If you are willing to make 200 cold calls a day and take the abuse 99.9% of people will spit back at you, you’ll win some business from the .01% you happen to catch at the right moment.

It’s what sales managers call playing the “numbers game”.  By spreading your message out to as many people as possible, you will occasionally hit on someone with an active need for your offer.

But this is a cumbersome, imprecise tactic that is a grind to execute, particularly on the phone.

But what about email?  All a person has to do is delete it if they’re not interested, right?  No harm, no foul.

And what could be easier than email spamming… you hit one button and your marketing message goes out to thousands of people.  It’s heaven for the numbers game.

Or so you think.

There are just a few hang-ups.

The first is that it doesn’t work.  Email spam is almost totally filtered by email systems, and the few that get through are obliterated by the recipients you annoy.  Today, spam email open rates are virtually zero.

Second, consider that businesses which sell email lists don’t just sell them to you.  These emails have been hit by multiple businesses, meaning the people will not only be less receptive, but also doing email blasts to them can trigger signals that your email account is sending spam.  Because of the CAN-SPAM act, egregious spamming tactics can lead to stiff penalties.

The third is it hurts your reputation.  Think about it.  Would you work with a company you’ve never heard of that sends you spam emails?  What are the chances you’ll convert?

When you preemptively force email on someone – even if they totally fit your target demographic – you forfeit their trust and actually risk losing future business.

You want to get them on an email list.  You just have to get their permission.

Permission-Based Marketing and Opt-In Email

Today, there is only one effective way to execute email marketing.  Develop a strategy where your earn people’s trust and get their permission to send material.  This means your audience must opt-in; they give you their email in exchange for something of value.

What that value is depends on your offer and what’s required to motivate leads to become customers.

Newsletter Lists

The most common way to get email opt-ins is to offer informational content via an email newsletter.  This works well when you must educate buyers in a longer sales cycle.  Tie this into your blog, where you have a call to action like this one from Shopify:

blog email sign upHere, you must earn people’s trust so they feel your content is worth getting periodically.  It needs to be good enough that they’ll feel they don’t want to miss it, so they’re willing to get it in their inbox.

Gated Content

Another way to get emails on your website is to have content like a white paper, eBook, webinar, or video series that people can only access with an email opt-in.  If possible, create a variety of content for this tactic so you can meet the needs of different people.

Software Tools and Apps

If applicable for your business, you can offer a free service (or free trial) of a software tool or app in exchange for a lead’s contact info.  For example, at Marketing 360® we offer our CRM software on a free trial basis, asking for leads to fill out this form to get started:

free crm trial email form

Coupon Codes and Special Offers

If you’re selling an eCommerce product or have a service where informational marketing is unnecessary,  you can send special offers and coupon codes via email lists.  For example, New Vision Nutrition uses this offer as an exit popup:

email exit popup

Automated, Personalized Emails

So what happens when you get someone on your email list?  What do you send them?

First, you send them exactly what you told them you would.  Another thing that will get you in trouble with CAN-SPAM is gaining emails with an offer you don’t honor, then sending them advertisements instead.

If you’re sending information, make sure it’s of the highest quality.  Do a great job providing info and answering questions.

After you’ve sent your discount offer or established interest in your email, you can begin to tuck some promotional material into your email series.

The best practice is to create different lists based on how you initially got the email, and send subsequent emails that logically build off the content you already sent.  This personalizes the experience for each person, increasing the chances they’ll stay engaged.

Use email marketing software to automate this process as well as track where each lead is in your CRM.

A mix of useful info, news, special offers, and promotions will keep people engaged and move them further down your sales funnel.

Customer Retention

Should you create an email list of current customers?  Absolutely.  Email marketing is a very important customer retention tactic.

Keep in mind that your customer emails also need to be opt-in.  When you get a new client (and already have their email) send an introductory email saying you send periodic messages to existing clients with news, tips, and special offers.  Indicate that as a client they’ll receive this email, but also make it easy for them to opt-out.

Be sure to create a separate list of existing clients with content created specifically for them.  The idea is to maintain a touch point and remind them that you care about their ongoing business.  This along with a few other customer care initiatives can be enough to build a fence around your best clients, keeping aggressive new competition away.

Forward to a Friend

Another important tactic is to put an automatic forward to friend link within each email.  That way if someone has a friend they think would be interested, they can forward the email to them, putting them on your list.  This is still considered an opt-in email.

Unsubscribe Link

With CAN-SPAM regulations, you must also make it easy for someone to leave your list if they choose.  This is done by putting an unsubscribe link at the bottom of each email.  You can also increase sign-ups by noting your unsubscribe and privacy policies.  The links appear like this:

email unsubscribe


It’s important that your emails get sent to all your lists with the appropriate frequency.

For most businesses, anywhere from weekly to quarterly works well, but it depends on your audience, sales cycle, and content.  Email automation will let you send a series of emails in a shorter cycle at first, then spread out the frequency later.  Use your judgment and even run some tests to see what works well for most people.

Likewise, don’t go too long without emails to an active list.  People often forget what email lists they signed up for, and if you don’t send anything for six months, they’ll forget you and think your email is spam.

If you have contacts in your database that have gone stale, start them anew with a re-engagement campaign.  Reintroduce yourself and regain interest with a new offer.


Spam spam spam spam spam, lovely sp…well, let’s not belabor the point.

Leave it to Monty Python to do a comic skit about canned ham (all apologies to Hawaii, where spam is a popular, traditional cooking ingredient) and have it become the official term for unwanted solicitation.

Today, spam is on nobody’s menu.  Internet empowered consumers cut it out with filters, blockers, and by their own choice.

Buying email lists – including targeted lists that fit your ideal client – is a useless shortcut.  Most of your emails won’t even reach people because of spam filters, and what does will incite irritation instead of interest.

Email marketing remains effective when used as a permission-based tactic.  If someone wants your help or special offer, they’ll let you know that emailing them is fine.  There’s no other way to do it.

Buying lists is the tactic of the desperate and the bottom feeder, much like cold calling.  It’s a last resort where the potential for reputation damage is greater than the hope of return.

Doing it the right way by building an opt-in list takes time, which is why – like all thing of value – it works.

Steak or spam?  That’s an easy choice.