News and tips from the industry leaders in email compliance.

We’re back with part two in our email compliance article series taking a deep dive into some of the key facets of CAN-SPAM compliance. Last time, we focused on the requirements around email header information. That topic was fairly technical, but in this article, we will look at a part of the law that relates to one of the most important marketing aspects of an email, the subject line. 

What does The CAN-SPAM Act say?

15 U.S.C. Sec. 7704. Other protections for users of commercial electronic mail 

(a) (2) Prohibition of deceptive subject headings

It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission to a protected computer of a commercial electronic mail message if such person has actual knowledge, or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances, that a subject heading of the message would be likely to mislead a recipient, acting reasonably under the circumstances, about a material fact regarding the contents or subject matter of the message (consistent with the criteria used in enforcement of section 45 of this title).

CAN-SPAM also discusses subject line contents in a few other places, related to how a recipient might interpret a subject line to conclude that an email is promotional in nature. 

(c) Commercial + Other: If an electronic mail message contains both the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service as well as other content that is not transactional or relationship content, then the “primary purpose” of the message shall be deemed to be commercial if:

  • A “recipient reasonably interpreting the subject line of the electronic mail message would likely conclude that the message contains the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service”; OR

  • “A recipient reasonably interpreting the body of the message would likely conclude that the primary purpose of the message is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.” Factors relevant to this interpretation include the placement of the commercial content at the beginning; the proportion of the message dedicated to such content; and how color, graphics, type size, and style are used to highlight commercial content.

From the FTC’s CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business

  1. Don’t use deceptive subject lines. The subject line must accurately reflect the content of the message.

What is an Email Subject Line?

This may seem obvious, but we wanted to make sure to lay things out for newbies, as well as more experienced email professionals. The subject line is the first text a recipient will see after the sender’s name when it reaches their inbox. The email subject line is now so engrained in our brains that most inbox providers don’t even label it. It’s just that first line of text that follows the sender name for each email in your inbox. 

The subject line of an email is arguably the most important few words in your entire email. It generates the first impression with the recipient and largely becomes the reason why they will choose to open your email or not. This also represents the first place that marketers can begin using their skills for grabbing attention, generating interest, and fostering engagement with email recipients. 

Email Subject Line Best Practices

CAN-SPAM requires that email subject lines not be deceptive and accurately reflect the content of the email itself. One of the best ways to remain in compliance with this requirement while also driving engagement is to adopt a set of best practices for email subject lines. Some common best practices include:

  1. Keep it short and to the point. This works in tandem with accurately reflecting the content of the email and doing it quickly.
  2. Consider personalization to grab attention and create engagement.
  3. Set expectations and then deliver. Give recipients a good idea of what to expect when they open the email and then deliver on it, by having the email content and the subject line match up.
  4. Use effective preview text to augment your subject line and foster engagement.
  5. Leverage audience segmentation to craft relevant subject lines and email content.

The Legal Disclaimer

Nothing in this text should be construed as legal advice. We highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the various information sources regarding CAN-SPAM on the FTC website. Additionally, you may choose to obtain professional legal advice regarding your company’s email compliance efforts, related to CAN-SPAM or other relevant regulations that impact email marketing.

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