Spam, by definition, is unwanted e-mail (usually of a commercial nature) sent out in bulk.
Is e-mail marketing commercial? Check. Sent out in bulk? Definitely. Unwanted? That’s usually not the case.
We can see that e-mail marketing – more or less – differs from spam in one key point, and that aspect is permission to send emails to the recipient. That’s why you should only send e-mails to people who’ve subscribed to your list. Also, spam is illegal, too.
However, permission is a subject specialists argue about. Seth Godin states that “permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went”. And what Seth Godin says is ultimately the general consensus of what is what in email marketing.
How does the permission work?
A permission is what it is, and a permission works like a bond between you and the customer.
The customer has agreed to receive* e-mails from you, but you have agreed to actually send e-mails. On the surface, that’s pretty much everything. However, there is mch more to permissions than that.
The client’s agreement to receive e-mail is simply a statement of initial trust – that you’ll send things that you should send. And you better do what you can to keep the trust, or you’ll lose the customer.
How do I acquire permission?
It’s pretty easy. You ask for it. For example, you can place a “I want to receive XYZ’s weekly newsletter with articles and information about new products” checkbox at the site’s registration. The user then confirms his/her willingness to receive e-mails by clicking an URL in his e-mail.
This ensures that it is the client – not someone else – who subscribed to e-mails. Double opt-in also eliminates invalid e-mail addresses, so you won’t see @gmial.com addresses in your mailing list.
Please keep in mind that the clients should be able to revoke the permission to mail them. And you have to respect this. Placing the unsubscribe link in a clearly visible place will build trust, and won’t cause problems (read:spam complaints) if the user decides to unsubscribe.
Also note that you should use the permission only to do what you said you’ll do. For example, you shouldn’t “lend” a permission to someone else; neither should you send irrelevant e-mails. It will destroy the trust you worked hard to earn.
Is there anything else I need to know?
Yes. Always remember that each of your clients is different. Which means that they’ll think of e-mails you send differently. For example, if your site focuses on fishing equipment, you advertising a fish grill kit will be deemed legitimate by most of your subscribers. But a fraction will think: “Damn, I thought [your company] focuses on fishing, not cooking. Spam!”.
These cases are where good practices of e-mail marketing kick in. Although you got all clients to subscribe to the same list with the same terms, it doesn’t mean that you have to send everyone the same stuff. Segmenting (splitting clients into groups based on their activity, location, products bought, etc) is a good practice, and will ensure that the clients won’t become frustrated when you send them e-mails.
Lastly, be patient with your clients, and they’ll be patient with you. Before introducing something new, never put the client below the “profit” you expect, because the client ultimately is the profit.
Although you can get “cute” from time to time with e-mailing special promotions and all that jazz, sending merely the content that clients subscribed to… is a very solid marketing practice.