Laura Neville, Esq.

Laura oversees content for law firm SEO clients at Sagapixel. Ms. Neville has practiced law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey since 2006. She graduated from Temple University, Trenton State College, and Rutgers School of Law – Camden.

How To Make Sure Your Emails Don’t Go to Spam

Table of Contents

2020 Guide to Avoiding Spam Filters

If you run email marketing campaigns for your clients, you’ve been focused on growing a high-quality 100% permission email list, designing great-looking emails, and delivering engaging and relevant copy for your readers.  You might think, that’s all you need to do to avoid being reported as a spammer, right?

You’d be wrong.

According to ReturnPath, “one out of every five emails never reaches the inbox.” That’s 20% of your effort wasted. More importantly, you need to know what you must do to stay on the right side of the laws governing email marketing and spam, which vary by country.

The only way to make sure your emails survive spam filters and that your email campaign is compliant with applicable law is to understand what spam is, how spam traps and filters and firewalls work, and then avoid making the mistakes email marketers commonly make, which we list here.

You may already be sending perfectly legal and engaging emails, but if you don’t have a basic understanding of spam you will never be sure that your emails are reaching your list members or that you are operating within the law.

What is Spam, Legally?

Spam is unsolicited email sent to a list of people – in other words, emailing people a boilerplate message without their permission. Spam emails are not only annoying, but can be dangerous – they might also contain a virus or some other malware.

By way of contrast, if you write a personal, unique email to an individual, that is not spam.

It is estimated that 70% of all email sent globally is spam. Because spam has become so problematic, every major country world-wide has anti-spam legislation. In the U.S., the CAN-SPAM Act became law on January 1, 2004. The FTC reports that each violation of the Act could result in a fine of up to $42,530 – meaning, multiply $42,530 times the number of people on your recipient list. That’s costly!

This isn’t legal advice, but if you are an email marketer we urge you to read up on the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and understand the rules. If you have a lawyer, consult with him or her.

In the meantime, here are some tips from the FTC website:

  • Don’t use false or misleading headers, from-names, reply-tos, or subject lines.
  • Identify the email as an advertisement.
  • Always provide your physical email address.
  • Always provide a conspicuous unsubscribe link.
  • Remove unsubscribed recipients from your list within 10 business days.

How Do Spam Traps and Spam Filters Work?

Spam Traps

The major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use email addresses that identify and track spammers.  These are called spam traps. If you send an email to such an address, you may be flagged as a spammer by the ISP, which means your IP address and “from” domain get blocked.  It can take up to a year to restore your “good sender” reputation. This is certain death for any email marketer.

“Pure” spam traps are email addresses that have never been used by anyone, therefore, no one could have given an email marketer permission to email them there. Any email received by those accounts is, without question, spam. ISPs place pure spam traps strategically where spammers typically harvest email addresses – and they are often found in the bulk email lists available for sale. Be forewarned!

There are also “recycled” spam traps. These are dormant email addresses of your subscribers, who for whatever reason no longer use those addresses. If your email is sent to a dormant address, your ESP will send you notice of the bounce.  At that point you would be wise to immediately remove that email address from your list, because ending multiple emails to a recycled spam trap, that then bounce, will result in being flagged as a spammer.

Spam Filters

ISPs also use outbound and inbound spam filters, which are much more sophisticated today than when they were first created. The simplest, earliest filters were programmed to mark any email with certain words or terms in the subject or body as spam (think “CLICK HERE!!!” or “YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THIS, STUD!”).

These simple filters returned a lot of false positives back then. Today spam filters, Bayesian and other heuristic and algorithmic filters, are programmed with a long list of criteria to weigh in deciding whether your email is spam or not. The criteria include aspects and attributes of the email’s subject, body, header, and whether you’ve been blacklisted before. Points are assigned when one of the criteria is present, and certain criteria get more points than others. If the email’s total “spam score” exceeds a certain threshold, then it is filtered as spam and sent to the junk folder.

This list of “spammy” criteria is constantly growing and adapting as spam filters learn from the emails that cause readers to click their spam buttons. Spam filters even talk with each other to share what they’ve learned.

Email Firewalls

An email firewall is a type of spam filter that scans and files inbound and outbound email to protect a complex network or an individual. Just like spam filters, they communicate with one another and their spam criteria is constantly evolving.

There’s no magic formula for legitimate email marketers to avoid being reported as spammers, unfortunately. However, you can avoid the common mistakes that send legitimate emails to recipients’ junk folders. Read on!

How Can I Keep My Emails From Being Flagged as Spam?

According to SpamAssassin, legitimate senders can avoid false positives by adhering to the following:

Sender, Email Service Provider, IP Address

  • Use a recognizable sender name, such as your personal name or brand.
  • Use a reliable Email Service Provider (ESP) such as Gmail, Yahoo!Mail, or Hotmail.
  • Use a domain name which is identified by a verifiable IP address.
  • Use SPF identification for your domain.
  • Check to see if your IP address is blacklisted – there are online tools for this..

The Body and Subject of Your Marketing Email

  • Use email composition and mailing tools correctly.
  • Avoid encodings. Avoid base-64 encoded text.
  • Do NOT include a disclaimer that your email is not spam.
  • Use normal language and correct spelling and grammar.
  • Do not use “cute” spellings or s p a c e out your words.
  • Avoid inappropriate charac!ers in words.
  • If using HTML, no invisible text or web bugs. Include a text version.
  • Do not put the word “TEST” in the subject line.
  • Use black text and the same font throughout.

Managing Your List

  • Remove bounced email addresses promptly.
  • Although asking for subscription once all that is legally required, use double opt-in.
  • Include a permission reminder in each email (“You are receiving this email because…”).
  • Make it easy to unsubscribe – make your “opt-out” link prominent.
  • Do not send promotions to your newsletter subscribers – they may mark it as spam.  Ask in your newsletter if they’d like to subscribe to the promotions list, and provide a link.
  • Do not purchase email lists. They are likely rife with dormant addresses (spam traps).
  • Always ask permission to subscribe – never subscribe someone because they attended your workshop or bought something from you or your friend.

How Can I Tell if My Emails Were Marked as Spam?

First, look at your open rate. Sudden drops indicate you’ve been spam-filtered, as does a high bounce rate. Examine your SMTP replies to see what’s going on.

Second, check your ESP account. Most established Email Service Providers (ESPs) like MailChimp and CampaignMonitor have been accepted into feedback loops with the major ISPs like AT&T, Comcast Xfinity, Time Warner Cable, Verizon Fios, Charter Spectrum, and others. When a recipient on any of these ISPs reports your email as spam, the ISP sends an alert to your ESP which stores that alert under your ESP account. That’s how you will know whether you’ve been filtered as spam.

A bonus – your ESP will also automatically remove those recipients from your email list for you.

Is There a Way to Check My Campaign Prior to Sending It?

Yes. Your ESP should have a spam-checker tool. For example, MailChimp comes with Inbox Inspector which will scan your email campaign for spam criteria. You can also test your emails prior to sending with something like Mail Tester.

Taking the time to run just one test before you send your campaign can save you lots of time and money later, and perhaps your sender reputation.

Preventing False Abuse Reports

These days ISPs wage all-out war against spammers because the volume of spam is at an all-time high. As a result, legitimate email marketers with 100% subscription email lists are being reported for spamming, even if by mistake, such as when an inexperienced user clicks on the spam button to unsubscribe from an email list.

Getting reported for abuse has serious consequences. If a major ISP gets even just a few complaints about your emails, then the ISP will start blocking all email from your server. Worse, if you use an ESP, that means your emails can affect the deliverability of thousands of other legitimate marketers’ campaigns who use that same ESP. Ouch! One bad apple spoils the whole bunch!

When you’ve been reported as a spammer you are “guilty until proven innocent.” All the major ISPs want is to reduce the amount of unwanted, irritating spam email reaching their customers. But as long as you collected your email list legitimately and can prove without a doubt that any complaint you received is a simple mistake, you’re in the clear.

Using double-opt-in for subscribers and avoiding purchasing email lists will help you a lot.  Purchased lists generate too many complaints, even when they’re technically legitimate in that someone at some time got permission to send email to those folks (or say they did!). The bottom line is, if there’s anything questionable about your list-collection practices, you will likely be blacklisted.

Last, in the unlikely event you believe you can send junk email, get reported as a spammer, then just switch to a new email server and continue on as usual, you are mistaken. The report also contains your company name and domain, so spam filters know to block all email from you regardless of where you are emailing from.

The best way you can protect your sender reputation, make sure your message is getting to your subscribers, and stay clear of violating the law is by always sending clean emails to clean lists. It’s that simple.

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