You know when you get an email in your inbox that makes you go, "Wait...why is this in here? Did I sign up for this? I don't remember signing up for this." That's an email marketing FAIL that usually happens because a company or person is doing shady things behind-the-scenes.

The point of permission marketing is to have obtained permission from your market to communicate with them. Marketing is more effective if it's going to people who want to hear from you. 

When you cheat the system, you not only make it worse for the rest of us, you also cheat yourself and your company because these techniques ultimately backfire. 

If you're nervous you're participating in some less-than-kosher activity, I've made a list of the "ambiguous" activities that are quickly being flagged by email service providers and causing your prospective customers to click "mark as spam."

If you want to avoid getting in trouble, avoid the following:

  1. Adding people who haven't opted-in. Adding people to your list who haven't given you explicit permission or opted-in themselves is the quickest way to build an apathetic audience. Plus, this actually is illegal. (This includes friends and family, btw.)
  2. Emailing people who have unsubscribed. Or putting them back on your list. I shouldn't have to explain this one...
  3. Not doing your due diligence when buying lists.Claiming ignorance isn't going to work for much longer. Importing names and emails you've paid for without knowing where that vendor got those names (aka: if they were acquired legally) is not worth the risk.
  4. Scraping emails from other platforms you're on. This one is "technically" legal to do on some platforms. For example, a lot of people use LinkedIn for this. But importing those emails into an ESP they never opted-into is where you get into a legal gray area (you can put them into a CRM, however). 
  5. Counting fake emails as real emails to boost your numbers. Claiming bots or made-up email addresses are part of your "email list" is a shady way to inflate your numbers. It also doesn't help your business. The point of email is to sell. You can't sell to people who aren't real.
  6. Telling advertisers or sponsors you have a huge list when your open rates are consistently low (and your engagement is lower). Industry gold standard is to scrape your list of inactive readers every 3-6 months. You risk burning bridges when companies realize you don't have the reach you've claimed to have. 
  7. Using another company's leaked list. Importing names and emails that have been leaked from another company because of a hack and putting them on your list is - do I really need to say this? Don't do this!!! 

To avoid getting in trouble (or just irritating people - especially prospective customers!), avoid engaging in any of the above behaviors. 

"List building" is when a human being, interested in your company, brand, or offer, knowingly offers you his email address. You want people on your list who want to be there. That's how you create email marketing that's actually effective

My rule of thumb: If they didn't sign up, don't add them to your list.