Watch Your Language!

November 1st, 2004


Originally published in Catalog Age

When it comes to breaking through to your customers’ email inbox, it’s getting to be less about what you say and more about how you say it. The spam net that i.merchants must circumvent is getting ever more sophisticated and, dare we say, overzealous. In fact, recent surveys indicate that more than one-third of permission emails that consumers want to receive from trusted sources are being blocked by email filters and corporate firewalls.

Typically these filters and firewalls run email messages through “tests” that have certain numbers of points assigned to them. If the cumulative points score reaches a certain threshold (usually set by the email server administrator), the message is trashed rather than delivered.

You can lose points as well as gain them. Losing points is a good thing, since you want to avoid reaching the threshold value where 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, or credit, points.

More likely than not, you’re innocently racking up spam points for seemingly innocuous words, phrases, styles, and layout. There are thousands of “rules” to abide by if you want to get past the filters. There are rules for the “from” line, the “to” line, the subject line, the HTML source code, and of course the copy in the message body.

To avoid the email black hole, you would be wise to adhere to the following guidelines when crafting your email campaigns:

  • Don’t greet your recipient with a salutation beginning with “Dear.”
  • Don’t claim that the recipient was on a list.
  • Don’t claim that the recipient registered at your site.
  • Don’t claim that your message is not spam.
  • Don’t claim that you obtained the recipient’s address legitimately.
  • Don’t claim that the recipient gave you permission or opted in.
  • Don’t claim that the recipient was registered with one of your marketing partners.
  • Don’t claim that you respect all removal requests.
  • Don’t claim that you comply with various regulations/House bills/Senate bills.
  • Don’t explain why the recipient is receiving your offer.
  • Don’t suggest that the recipient might have received the email by mistake.
  • Don’t use “click here” links.
  • Don’t link “remove me” to an email address.
  • Don’t link your opt-out to a page that contains the word “remove” in the URL.
  • Include a copyright notice.
  • Avoid “spammy”-sounding words and phrases, such as “opportunity,” “money back,” “incredible,” “targeted,” and “offer.”

As you can see, the spam filters penalize for a lot of innocuous expressions that are commonly used by i.merchants, simply because spammers use them with greater frequency. (For even more of these phrases, see “Get Out Your Thesaurus” on page 26.) It’s difficult to totally avoid using these phrases, but use them sparingly. Consider it a chance to show your creativity and add personality to your email by avoiding standard sales phraseology.

Feeling overwhelmed yet? We’ve just scratched the surface!

In the “from” line:

  • Include a real name, not just an email address.
  • Include lower-case characters.
  • Don’t end it with a number.

In the “to” line:

  • Make sure the recipient’s email address is listed.
  • Never use “CC” or “BCC.”

In the subject line:

  • Don’t include the recipient’s email user name. (Note: Incorporating the recipient’s first name into the subject line often increases open rates. It may, however, also trip the spam filters and email firewalls when the recipient’s email user name and first name are one and the same.)
  • Don’t include “Now Only” or “Hello” or “Free” or “Buy.”
  • Don’t use all caps. (Retailers are notorious for this. As tempting as it is to scream out your promotion, you need to calm down. Don’t forget, spammers are excited too.)
  • Don’t pad it with extra “gappy” white space – anywhere.
  • Don’t include a unique ID.
  • Avoid using exclamation marks.
  • If it’s a regularly scheduled newsletter, include the date or month of the issue (e.g. May 2003) and “newsletter,” “news,” “list,” or the frequency (“daily,” “weekly,” “monthly”).

Then there’s the litany of spam-catching rules governing the HTML source. To avoid tripping these, we advise:

  • Don’t use Frontpage to create the message HTML.
  • Make sure the title tag doesn’t contain the word “Untitled.”
  • Don’t use thick table borders.
  • Don’t include a form that sends an email (a “mailto form”).
  • Don’t define the content type as “TEXT/HTML” in all caps.
  • Don’t have a low ratio of text to image area. Especially don’t have image-only emails, currently the number-one tactic employed by spammers to get past the filters.
  • Pay careful attention to the percentage of HTML contained in the message. The assumption is that HTML = spam.
  • Avoid the use of scripts, such as Javascripts.
  • Don’t include any Javascript statements that open new windows.
  • Avoid incorporating tracking ID numbers as much as possible.
  • Do specify a character set.
  • Use a white background, not a colored background.
  • Do not use “invisible” text.
  • Avoid red or blue textual colors – spammers’ colors of choice.

Regarding attachments:

  • No attachments! Period.

Some things help convince the spam filter or email firewall that your email is personal communication, such as:

  • An “In Reply To” line in the email header.
  • A long signature in the message body.
  • An attribution in the message body (e.g. “On Tues Jan 1, 2003 John Smith wrote:”).
  • “Quoted” email text (e.g. with a “>” in front of certain lines).

Bear in mind that this whole area is a constantly moving target. Not only are the rules and threshold scores of firewalls and filters constantly changing as spammers continue to circumvent them, but the recent passage of the Can-Spam law (see “Can-Spam’s Nasty Side Effect,” bottom left) has added a new dimension to your choices of words and creative options.

Can-Spam permits unsolicited commercial email. But it requires any such emails to include “ADV” advertising tags in the subject line, a valid postal address, and a functional opt-out mechanism, among other features.

Since the sending of “unsolicited commercial email” is precisely the definition of spam, complying with the law by including ADV in the subject line – and especially leading off your subject line with ADV – is enough to cripple your unsolicited campaign before it ever leaves the gates.

The lesson? First, make sure you have either affirmative consent (verifiable opt-in records) or implied consent (proof of customer history or failure to opt out). If you do not have proof of either of these forms of consent, then you must include the prescribed tags or risk lawsuits for not complying with the law.

Of course, an alternative option is to include your postal address and unsubscribe verbiage in image form to circumvent filters. But then your ratio of images to text may well put your emails over the tipping point as well.

How to cope? Run every campaign through a predictive spam analyzer before you send it. This will not only alleviate the need to keep abreast of all these rules, it will also ensure higher deliverability and response rates. If your email deployment software does not provide this service, you can find a free spam scoring tool at

Afterward, you’ll want to gauge the success in getting your campaign through. Certainly review open rates and click rates, but these are only indicative and not totally reliable. If your campaign is tagged as spam, you will see increased bounce rates in addition to decreased open rates.

In addition, consider signing up for 25 email accounts on Yahoo! and 25 on Hotmail and seeding your recipient list with these addresses. Be sure to intersperse them throughout your list rather than cluster them. Then, after sending your campaign, check the Yahoo! and Hotmail accounts to see how many messages got through.

Words may be the foundation of civilization, but for email marketers, they have become a minefield.

Can-Spam’s Nasty Side Effect

Direct mailers breathed a collective sigh of relief when the national Can-Spam legislation was approved in mid-December. Effective Jan. 1, it preempted California’s more restrictive permission-based email legislation. But since Can-Spam allows marketers to make the first contact and places the burden of opting out upon the recipient, it has the effect of legitimizing spam, rather than curbing it.

Although consumers can exercise their right to opt out from spam, there is nothing preventing the spammer from selling that list of unsubscribers to a fellow spammer, who has the right to make first contact, and so on down the daisy chain. As a result, we can expect the amount of spam to increase, rather than decrease. That means our reliance upon spam filters and their ability to judge an email by its cover will only increase as well.

Get Out Your Thesaurus

This list of words to avoid for fear of being caught by a spam filter is not comprehensive. There are many seedy or unseemly words and phrases that could be added to this list, but as a legitimate marketer, we assume you are not using them.

  • 100%
  • aging
  • amazing
  • best rates
  • big savings
  • breakthrough
  • call now
  • checks
  • completely free
  • consolidate (bills)
  • coupons
  • credit card
  • discounts
  • exercise
  • for free
  • forward to a friend
  • free consultation/free access
  • freedom
  • full refund
  • great offer
  • guarantee/guaranteed
  • income
  • increase
  • incredible
  • investment
  • limited-time only
  • marketing solutions
  • mobile phones
  • money back
  • money order
  • mortgage information
  • no cost
  • now only
  • one-time mailing
  • opportunity
  • opt in
  • please forward
  • quote (no obligation)
  • refund
  • remove/removed/removal
  • risk free satisfaction
  • save up to
  • special promotion
  • this is not spam
  • urgent
  • what are you waiting for
  • win
  • wrinkles
  • your own

Stephan Spencer is the Founder & President of Madison, WI-based Netconcepts, a full-service emarketing agency. Brian Klais is Netconcepts’ vice president of ebusiness Services.

This article first apeared on Catalog Age in February 2004.


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