Management May 27, 2014 Last updated September 18th, 2018 6,213 Reads share

Customer Surveys And CAN-SPAM: What You Need To Know

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Disclaimer: I will preface this post by stating that I am not a lawyer. The information below is my understanding from having worked in this industry for a number of years but is provided in good faith and with no warranty of any kind. You should check with your legal advisors for your business.

If you’re in business (anywhere in the world) you have probably heard about the US CAN-SPAM Act. The goal of this federal law was to control the unsolicited marketing email imposed on individuals and companies.

For any company that is keen to actively collected customer feedback, and that should be every company, this issue is: how does this law, and other versions across the world, apply to inviting people to respond to a customer feedback survey?

In general it doesn’t, but in practice you should follow similar guidelines.

Background to Anti-Spam Legislation

While there are a myriad of country based legislations the two big ones are the US and Europe.

In summary the US law:

The CAN-SPAM Act covers commercial email messages, the primary purpose of which is the advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service. Source

As is usual the European law is somewhat more stringent

The EU directive covers all direct email marketing messages, including charitable and political messages. Source

Explicit Opt-In

One of the myths around anti-spam legislation is the idea of opt-in. Many people believe that you need to obtain explicit opt-in to send marketing or customer communications emails. In fact, CAN-SPAM does not require explicit opt-in for marketing or other communication. It does however, require an opt-out ability.

On the other hand, European law does require opt-in but with this important proviso in Article 13: where customer details have been collected in the “context of the sale of a product or a service” they can be used for marketing purposes so long as an opt-out process is provided in the communication.

So long as it’s done correctly, neither legislation requires opt-in for marketing to existing customers. This is important because customer feedback surveys should only be going to customers.

Surveys are not Unsolicited Commercial Email

It’s easy to lump surveys and marketing email into the same bucket but they are different.

As you can see by the two definitions above these laws apply to the “direct marketing” or “the advertisement … of a … product”. Your customer survey should not contain direct marketing or the promotion of products or services.

I know that many surveys do so but this is poor survey practice and you should not follow the crowd on that score.

So Where Do You stand

So lets summarize the position at this point;

  1. Customer survey invitations are, by definition, only sent to existing customers;
  2. Customer surveys should not solicit a sale or involved direct marketing.
  3. Thus they do not require opt-in

So you do not need to gain explicit opt-in to send your customer survey to your customers.

What you should do in practice

While we may have made a good case for customer surveys not being marketing email, customers are not so knowledgeable. To avoid getting them offside you should follow good commercial email practice when sending your email survey invitation.

  1. Include an opt-out or unsubscribe process in the invite email.
  2. Use an accurate email subject line
  3. Use a real person as the from address
  4. Include an accurate postal address in the email.
  5. Use the information you collect to improve your business (not a legal requirement – just good business)
  6. (Optional) Let customers know that you might survey them during the transaction process
  7. (Optional) Include some terms and conditions on your website that deal with the fact that you survey customers and link to it from your email.

In summary you should feel comfortable to reach out to your customers to seek their input. It will make your business stronger and their experience better; a win/win outcome.

Images: “Hand sketching Online Survey Concept with black marker on transparent wipe board./


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Adam Ramshaw

Adam Ramshaw

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