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Don't Mention Oprah: Some Surprising Things Spam Filters Look For...And How You Can Avoid Them

It's hard to imagine life without email. Email has become one of the primary ways we do business. Unfortunately, email has a major flaw: there was no built-in way to stop spam. Because of this flaw, more than 97% of all emails sent over the net are unwanted, costing Internet users in the U.S. roughly $21 billion in lost productivity.*

To try to solve this growing problem, nearly every email service provides a way of filtering out the unwanted email. These spam filters try to avoid false positives, but it's impossible for a computer to automatically determine what someone would consider to be spam. Inevitably, some legitimate email is caught by spam filters and never reaches the intended recipient.

SpamAssassin, a popular spam filter, has an online list of some of the items it considers to be indicators of spam. There are some funny ones in there, such as "talks about Oprah with an exclamation point" and "gives a lame excuse about why spam was sent" and the ever-present "information on getting larger body parts."

Many of the items on that list are clearly designed to find anything that reads like an advertisement. As marketers, many of us are trained to write advertising copy, which is one of the worst ways to write an email. It's important for email marketers to understand this so our legitimate marketing emails aren't blocked as spam. Here are a few examples of some of the things that SpamAssassin will penalize:

  • Subject contains the word "FREE" in all caps or begins with the word "Free"
  • Subject contains GUARANTEED or starts with a dollar amount
  • Font size is large or tiny
  • Asks you to CLICK BELOW (in capital letters)
  • Offers a full refund, a one hundred percent guarantee or money back guarantee
  • Contains an "urgent matter"
  • There is "no catch" or "no obligation"
  • Offers to "receive a special offer"
  • Talks about "lowest price" or a "free sample"

As you can see from this list, the normal rules of advertising writing almost serve as a list of things to avoid in email. The reason for this is that most people don't want to receive advertising messages by email. Email is meant for relevant, one-on-one communication, and it isn't appropriate to use as a bulk advertising medium, unless users have given you explicit permission.

In a future article, I'll go into more detail on how to be sure you aren't actually sending spam, even if it might be tempting. There are some pretty clear and simple rules to follow. But, for now, keep in mind that email marketing needs to be planned and managed differently than traditional advertising. It can be a powerful tool when used correctly, but can backfire if you're not careful. By understanding the things that spam filters are looking for, you can make sure that you write your e-marketing messages in a way that increases the likelihood your audience will actually receive them.

* according to the 2004 National Technology Readiness Survey

Filed Under: advertising

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