Marketing: 12 Ways To Grow Your Email List, While Staying Compliant With Spam Laws


When suggesting email marketing recently to a colleague over lunch, she looked over her shoulder as if someone would catch us and whispered, “Isn’t that banned now?”

Like many businesses, her company had stopped sending promotional emails to clients and prospects under the wrong impression that email marketing is now illegal. Indeed, since 2018 when anti-spam laws such as CASL (Canadian Anti Spam Law) and Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) went into full effect, many businesses and organizations have been left rightfully fearful of email marketing.

The huge potential fines have also succeeded in putting the big chill on many companies’ email marketing plans, especially those whose target market includes Canada and the EU.

But contrary to common fears, you can still use email marketing to communicate with your past, current and potential clients. Thousands of businesses in the U.S., Canada and the EU are still successfully using email marketing, all within the bounds of the law.

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With the old U.S. CAN-SPAM laws, you could pretty much put anyone on your email list, so long as you allowed them to opt out by unsubscribing. But under GDPR and CASL, you are required to ensure everyone on your email list has opted in by getting their express consent.

In Canada this means getting written/digital or oral consent documented and maintaining records of the consent. In Europe, express consent is only written/digital, and must be documented and recorded. With GDPR, you are also required to provide more disclosure over how the collected contact information will be used and allow someone to be fully purged from your database forever, known as “the right to be forgotten,” if they so request.

As you can probably tell, the laws range in severity from CAN-SPAM as the most permissive to CASL, which is more “middle ground,” to the most robust and restrictive GDPR. These laws also carry significant penalties. While enforcement action is still relatively rare, a consumer complaint can trigger a government investigation. Companies have been investigated by the Canadian Government and fined up to $150,000 for violations in recent years. GDPR carries even heftier fines for violations (up to $20 million Euros, or nearly $22 million USD).

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CASL gives businesses a way to “ease into” compliance as it allows “implied consent” permission for up to two years, at which point you need to ask your list member for their express consent. Implied consent means you can email some people who didn’t give you written permission, but only for a limited time and within specific circumstances.

Implied vs. Express Consent— Get Permission
The key to staying in compliance with CASL and still running an effective email marketing program is understanding when you have implied or express consent to email your customers or prospects. You can send commercial messages to current, past or potential clients when you have implied consent. This means they’ve either a.) made an inquiry about your products or services, b.) purchased from you in the past, c.) their email is conspicuously published (this could mean it is public on their own website or in a printed directory), or d.) you are emailing them in their professional capacity (this covers most B2B emails). You can, of course, also email someone once you have express consent. This means they have expressly given you permission to email to them by digitally signing a form on your site or indicating their permission in writing through other means (i.e. you can make it part of your regular service contract or quote request form).

For more on complying with this legislation, check out the Canadian Government CASL site (http://bit.ly/CASL2020) or the EU Site (http://bit.ly/GDPR2020) or consult your legal advisor.

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The EU’s anti-spam legislation, GDPR, takes these permission requirements yet another step further; GDPR also doesn’t recognize implied consent. Your GDPR compliant subscription forms need to show clearly how the person’s contact information will be used and for what types of messages (i.e. email, mobile, direct mail, etc.). Additionally, you need to install an “accept cookies” consent form or pop up on your website if you are doing any kinds of site visitor tracking or monitoring, which includes using Google Analytics, Google Ads or Facebook Ads retargeting/remarketing on your website.

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The good news in all this legislation talk is that you can still do email marketing, grow your list and communicate with clients and prospects, all while steering yourself and your organization clear of complaints and scary fines.

As a Mailchimp Expert agency doing email marketing for many U.S. and Canadian businesses, we’ve compiled these 12 tips to help you build up express consent opt-ins and be aware of implied consent relationships and opportunities to email (within the U.S. and Canada). Once you’re aware of the rules around consent, you will see there are still many opportunities to develop effective CAN-SPAM, CASL and GDPR compliant email marketing programs that get results.

Get permission to email in creative ways. Provide multiple opportunities to join your opt-in list through your website. While it seems obvious, most businesses are very passive about using their website to grow their opt-in email lists. If a customer called you, you wouldn’t get off the phone without asking for their phone number for future correspondence. Similarly, you want to make sure your website asks for an opt-in email on pages that get the highest web traffic, and converts that prospect by getting their email address, before they exit the site.

The top four areas of your site where you should be asking for an email address and permission to opt-in to a list are:

  • Your Contact Us page (with a checkbox where people can indicate their permission to be emailed when they contact you)
  • An e-news sign-up form at the top of your website
  • An e-news sign-up form on your blog
  • The Check Out page of your website if you have an ecommerce business

Ask for emails and permission in your offline transactions and communications. If your company takes part in trade shows and events, starting an email list can be as simple as setting up a contest draw-box (with clear signage on the contest form or collection box indicating that the contest they’re entering enrolls them in your email list).

Another method is having your phone reception service and salespeople always ask for a customer’s email when providing a quote.I recently got about five quotes to repave my driveway. Driveway paving services are very aggressive competitors because each asphalt company essentially provides the same type of service and paves with the same equipment. But I did notice one thing: none of the salespeople or contractors who came to my house to quote ever took down my email address or followed up by email. Most were in touch by text or phone. This is typical for the renovations industry and for home service contractors who work out of their car or truck and don’t turn on their computer on a day-to-day basis. It’s a texting world when it comes to home renovators, and I get that. But by ignoring email, home service business owners are missing a huge opportunity to market to already qualified clients.

These small businesses spend so much money attracting qualified leads, advertising in flyers and in weekly direct mail, running Google AdWords and eventually sending a salesperson to the house to provide a quote. But they then fail to take down contact information they can leverage in the future. A promotional email to advertise seasonal specials, to request an Angie’s List review (after a job is done) or to keep in touch for future business and referrals, is much more valuable to the business than a text message in a salesperson’s phone. Even without getting express consent, under CASL, you are also allowed to email clients for up to two years if they have indicated interest in your services with a quote request. So why not take the opportunity?

Do include photos, images and videos in your email. Once you do have their email address, make the email marketing you send out engaging and interesting with images and video. While some businesses and professionals have done quite well with text-only email, we would advise that unless you are building a “guru-based” business, where you and your personality are the “brand,” most businesses can benefit from having images on their email. Note that we differentiate between emails used by salespeople and emails for marketing and lead generation. Sales follow-up emails can be basic text-only emails or only contain a logo with the salesperson’s signature at the bottom. But most marketing emails benefit from at least a header image. A more visually engaging email will get more opens and pass-alongs and will help grow your list organically.

Do make your emails mobile responsive. As a Mailchimp email marketing and web design shop, most of our clients’ emails are automatically responsive due to using the Mailchimp platform. However, I still get asked regularly by clients to email out a PDF attachment or a flyer the client had developed for print advertising use. Not only will these trigger spam alerts intended to keep out virus attachments, but many recipients will not be able to open your promotional email properly on their cell phone if it isn’t mobile optimized. An email that your current subscribers can open easily on their mobile devices is more likely to get clicked and passed along to others who may become subscribers.


Do customize your email to the recipient. Addressing an email with the recipient’s name (Hi Bob!), as cheesy as it seems, still vastly improves opens and click-through rates for the email marketing campaigns we work with. You can improve your results even further by keeping targeted list segments or groups in Mailchimp and publishing email content specific to your different customer groups. Relevant, personalized emails mean higher open rates. And higher opens mean higher engagement and pass-alongs, which bring more subscribers.

Do have an opt-in content giveaway on your site. Email addresses are a precious and rarified gift nowadays and must be earned before prospective subscribers turn them over. One of the best ways we’ve found to grow email lists is with a content giveaway, such as a short book with free tips on whatever your expertise is in, which provides value for your prospect. The ebook on my site (https://napkinmarketing.com/free-email-samples-book) has allowed me to passively grow my list into thousands of subscribers. A content giveaway can give access to an exclusive video, a webinar invitation, a downloadable ebook or guide, or access to an automated email series “course.” Once it is set up, you will be able to collect email subscribers as people will be incentivised to sign up for your content giveaway.

Install a live agent/ live support chat on your site. Take advantage of real-time traffic by engaging visitors online with a live agent on your site. Most live support software can be set up to ask for a client’s email address and permission for further contact at the start of a chat. This, in turn, changes the conversation into an inquiry, which can give you the express consent necessary to add them to your list. 

Add opt-in forms on your most popular blog posts. Dig into your web analytics and find out which of your blog posts and pages are most popular. Next, leverage those pages by adding in an offer at the bottom of each one where the visitor can join your email list.

Don’t be afraid to email B2B contacts. For B2B marketers, CASL provides some flexibility to email business contacts whose email addresses are both a.) published online in a conspicuous place, such as your LinkedIn contacts and b.) their profession relates to what you’re emailing them about, such as a business buyer and supplier. Under CASL this constitutes implied consent to contact them.

 Use a CRM system. Keeping track of prospects and opportunities with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software can be one of the best ways to grow and maintain an email list and keep track of sales opportunities. If someone is in your CRM system because they made an inquiry about your service or because their email is conspicuously published, and your message relates to the recipient’s functions or activities in a business or official capacity, this constitutes implied consent under CASL, and you can email them for up to two years. However, make sure you maintain permission records to back this up and always respect unsubscribe requests.

Build your list with social media. Think of social media followers as customers “flirting” with your brand, while the ones on your email list are the ones with whom you have a more serious relationship. Encourage your social media followers to become email subscribers by promoting your eBook, email sign-up form or blog post with an email permission form at the bottom in your social media posts.

“Rent” an opt-in email list by having a publisher email on your behalf. While buying an email list is not recommended, there are many reputable publishers that maintain clean, opt-in email lists. If you don’t have your own list and want to send something out quickly, you can investigate using a service like Scott’s Directories that can email your promotion to their list on your behalf. Note: Always make sure the publisher is following CASL and GDPR laws. Ask to see examples of their previous mailings to check for unsubscribe messages, etc. This works best for B2B email campaigns where the publisher takes the names and emails of businesspeople and trade contacts from public directories and sources.

NOTE: The above article offers general marketing strategies but should not constitute legal advice. I am merely a digital marketer, not a lawyer. Always check with your legal advisor on your specific circumstances to ensure your organization and marketing activities are in compliance with spam and privacy laws.

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Adina Zaiontz is director and founder of napkin marketing (napkinmarketing.com), where she is responsible for setting the overall direction and product strategy for the company. napkin marketing is a Toronto-based advertising and web design firm, specializing in helping businesses reach new customers online, by effectively sharing their business and brand story, and leveraging social media, email and search marketing.

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