Innovation

Are You Prepared for New Anti-Spam Laws?

The feds will soon finalize regulations dictating how you can contact clients electronically. Prepare now and get ahead of the stampede of firms who'll be scrambling next year

Written by Jim McElgunn

Emailing or texting potential customers doesn’t sound like a crime. Yet, once the federal anti-spam law comes into force, you could be nailed with stiff fines if you contact prospects without their consent.

For now, your firm isn’t at risk of incur- ring a fine of up to $10 million under Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL). That’s because the law, although passed in 2010, will take effect only once Ottawa has final- ized the associated regulations and set an implementation date. Best guess for when: fall 2014, followed by a not yet finalized grace period for complying with the law.

Ask your contacts for approval soon to get ahead of the stampede of firms doing the same in a year

The feds crafted the CASL to hammer major spammers, not to make life harder for legitimate businesses. Matt Vernhout, chief privacy officer at Inbox Marketer, a Guelph, Ont.-based digital-messaging firm, speculates that regulators first will go after a few big fish to show they’re serious.

But the law applies to every firm. If yours fails to comply, a lone complaint to regulators could trigger an investigation that could disrupt your operations and harm your reputation—even if you aren’t convicted. Spam-law blogger Barry Sookman, a senior partner at law firm McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto, considers the law overkill: “You don’t need legislation this punitive and onerous just because there are a few bad actors.”

Read: From Zero to 7,000 Prospects in 3.5 Weeks

Will things really be so bad? Ottawa may soften the regulations due to lobbying from the business community but is wary of looking “soft on spam.” In other words, you shouldn’t put off complying with the law on the assumption that the regulations will be gutted. And there’s an upside: compliance means focusing your marketing on people who want to hear from you (read: those who won’t be annoyed by your messages).

Whatever form the law takes, it will be illegal to send emails and texts without clear and explicit permission from recipients. For most companies, that rules out business as usual with existing and potential clients.

The new rules of contacting clients:

Almost no one has an explicit OK from everyone in their customer database to send emails and texts. And implicit consent will no longer cut it. That includes stating in the privacy policy on your website that you’ll add people who provide information about themselves to your email list. Also out are pre-checked consent boxes. Instead, you’ll need a manual “Yes, I want you to email me” checkbox that specifies the kinds of messages approved. You’ll also need a user- friendly “unsubscribe” option on every message—and you’ll have to develop the ability to execute all unsubscribes within 10 days of receiving them. In addition, you’ll need to provide clear options to contact your firm by phone, email or a “Contact Us” web page.

That’s the easy bit. Your main chore will be converting your customer database to create a full audit trail that would satisfy a regulator seeking proof that you have received explicit consent from everyone on your list. Many, maybe most of your exist- ing consents won’t suffice, says Sookman: “You know that you have a consent, but not whether it’s the right kind of consent.”

You can subscribe to tools to manage this tiresome task. For instance, 1,000 businesses use Montreal-based Taarga’s CASL-compliant unified platform to manage their emails, texts and voice messages to customers. Taarga president Fritz Nykamp suggests a straightforward approach to the vital task of getting explicit approval from those who’ve given you only implicit consent or none: “Email them to say, €˜There are new regulations and we want to maintain a good relationship with you,’ then ask for their permission.” And do it soon to get ahead of the likely stampede of firms bombing consumers with such requests a year from now.

The new rules of contacting prospects:

Ottawa originally wanted to ban any messages to prospects who haven’t given explicit consent, even ones referred by a third party. Now, the proposed rules would OK texting or emailing them—once.

You’ll need to get creative to comply with this tight limit on contacting prospects. Vernhout says you can you can buy advertisements targeted to people that fit your target audience from the huge “permissioned” databases that media giants like the Toronto Star have of people OK with receiving third-party offers.

Vernhout also suggests another option: social media. You could offer something valuable to current customers who have given you explicit consent to message them—think: a white paper (for B2B clients) or a high-value coupon (for consumers)—and invite them to share this offer with their Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn connections. Then, ask anyone who responds to these forwards to give you permission to message them, says Vernhout: “That’s still OK under the CASL.”

Read: Are You Losing 97% of Your Web Prospects?

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com