Beware the Spam Catchers

August 1st, 2003


Originally published in Unlimited

Every day, scores of legitimate emails get blocked by email filters and corporate firewalls. In fact, market intelligence company RoperASW estimates 38% of permission-based emails are wrongly blocked by filters and firewalls. Your all-important email campaigns and newsletters, and even personal correspondence, may be getting blocked too.

CIO Magazine, in its WebBusiness Insights e-newsletter made the mistake of saying, “We honour all removal requests”. The New York Times in its “News Tracker” service specifies the message’s content type as “TEXT/HTML” in caps instead of lower case. Intuit, in a recent QuickBooks promotion in the US, sent the campaign from an email address that included the word “offers”. Seems harmless, but such things determine whether or not your email gets through to the intended recipients.

Typically, the way these filters and firewalls work is with tests that assign a number of points to your email. Your message is run through each of these tests before it is delivered to the recipient. If the cumulative score reaches a certain threshold, your email is binned.

In most cases you’ll never know the message wasn’t delivered, although some filters or firewalls will send a “bounce” reply making it appear that the recipient’s account has been closed.

Your email message can also have points deducted. Losing points is a good thing, since you want to avoid reaching the threshold at which your message is considered spam. For example, if your message contains “quoted” email text from a previous message, you can score a fair number of negative points.

To avoid the email black hole, try these measures:

  • Avoid spammy-sounding words like opportunity, incredible, targeted, and offer, and phrases like save up to, big savings, full refund, limited time only, money back, credit card, satisfaction guaranteed, no cost, now only, for free, opt in, or please forward.
  • Avoid language that states the recipient was on a list, registered at your site or with one of your marketing partners, or opted in. Don’t claim your message isn’t spam, that you obtained the recipient’s address legitimately, that the recipient may have received the email by mistake, or that you respect all removal requests.
  • Don’t explain why the recipient is receiving your offer.
  • Include a real name in the “From” address, not just an email address.
  • Never include in the subject line words like now only, hello, free, buy, or exclamation marks, white space, strings of numbers, or words in all caps.
  • Don’t send attachments. Even if your email message gets through, the attachment will often be stripped.
  • If sending an HTML email, specify a character set, include a title, and employ text (not just images). Stay away from coloured backgrounds, JavaScripts, and thick table borders.
  • Send your email campaign to several test accounts and see if they get through.

But remember this whole area is a constantly moving target. The threshold scores of firewalls and filters keep changing as spammers continue to find ways around them.

By Stephan Spencer. This article first appeared on Unlimited in August 2003.