SPAM, the luncheon meat made famous by Monty Python, got its name from the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But the word had new life breathed into it when it came to be associated with junk email in 1993. The classic Python sketch had the players repeating the word “SPAM” over and over until everything else was drowned out, and “spam” became synonymous with meaningless junk — well before email was part of public domain.
It took the rise of the World Wide Web and the internet in general for spam to fully take flight, and it’s been a blight on our inboxes ever since. Global spam email volumes hit record levels this year.
To make matters worse, spammers are constantly finding new ways to trick the uninformed and avoid spam filters:
- The overall volume of spam emails with malicious links has experienced a significant rise of late.
- Security-breaching schemes like spear phishing, ransomware, malware propagation, and botnets are prevalent and on the rise.
- Social media spam has become a haven for scam artists who either want to make a buck or wreak havoc, or more usually, both.
So why am I talking about spam? Well, because it affects all of us, in more ways than one. We’ve had to deal with the nasty stuff for as long as we’ve used email. But as marketers, we’re innocent casualties in the ongoing war on spam, and we need to find ways to avoid spam filters.
To avoid spam filters, we need to understand what they do. Like antivirus applications, they used to be reactive — that is, they contained signatures in a database that targeted popular spam techniques like hidden links and other deceptive practices. Spam filters also looked for certain patterns, and hackers and spammers always found new ways to confound them.
But spam filters have become more sophisticated, evolving into trainable systems that learn over time. All the email software that we use on a daily basis – Outlook, Gmail, and Yahoo, for example – have baked-in anti spam technology, and there are many companies that have experienced great success creating enterprise-level anti spam solutions.
Are We Spammers?
As I said earlier, the problem is that we as marketers have become casualties in the war, and that’s because, like it or not, we’re spammers. Now before you stop reading, hear me out. We’re spammers in an overarching sense of what spam is. So what is spam? Well, it’s usually at least some of these things:
- Difficult to differentiate
Spam is other things, too, but let’s just deal with these four items:
- The frequency of spam is what makes it such a pain. As I look in my junk folder, I can see 30 or 40 new spam emails that came in overnight. On a weekly basis, that’s hundreds of messages, and it doesn’t even account for the emails that made it past my spam filter.
- It’s often unsolicited, meaning the user didn’t ask for it. One might argue that I did ask for the lion’s share of the spam messages in my junk folder by giving away my email address somewhere along the way, and that would be correct. The spammers have to get email addresses somewhere, and I’m sure that I’m on plenty of lists.
- It’s difficult to differentiate, meaning that when I have to look at hundreds of potential spam emails each week, it becomes a serious chore to determine if some of those emails are legitimate emails that I might actually want to read.
- Finally, spam is irritating. Often I suffer from spam exhaustion, quickly browsing the headers before committing the messages to the ether, and yes, I may be deleting messages I might normally read. It’s safe to say that most people know the feeling.
It’s Not Our Fault
So why are we, the marketers, (in a sense) spammers? Because we’ve been lumped into those hundreds of messages, either by users, by spam filters, or both. Marketing took a major leap forward in the mid-90s with the insurgence of the World Wide Web, the popularity of email, and the eventual inception of new opportunities like social media. But like everything else in life, not every marketer is created equal.
Seth Godin posits that sending email is a privilege (not a right) and spam is binary — you either have the recipient’s permission to send it or you don’t. When trying to define the difference between what we do and what other, less honorable, people do, I like the term “legitimate” to refer to marketing email — because it does have legitimacy if done right. That means:
- The user requested it
- It contains useful information the user wants to see
- It doesn’t contain deceptive information
- It gives the user the choice of opting out
Be Targeted, Be Focused
Look, it’s not complicated. Marketing, although it is a numbers game, is also surgical. Nobody wants to spin up a campaign and hit a million potential customers if only a fraction of those are, in actuality, potential customers. I don’t want to try to sell you a widget if you don’t need widgets. It would be a waste of my time and yours. I’ll politely say “my mistake” and wish you well. There’s no benefit in trying if the user really wants my hard work in the junk folder.
But I have customers who really do want to see what I have to offer, and unbeknownst to them, my offers are landing in their junk folders, which (if they’re anything like me), they probably skim and delete. That’s why you, I, and everyone else who has something legitimate to sell need to be better at what we do and avoid spam filters.
The Mind of a Spammer
So how can you increase your chances of getting your message to your customers and avoid spam filters? Before we go there, I want to get into the minds of spammers for a moment, because it helps to understand what they do and why they do it.
Have you ever stopped and read a typical spam message and thought just how dumb it sounded? For example, the Nigerian prince story: the one about getting millions of dollars out of the country, from which you’ll miraculously benefit by providing assistance, which is also known as the Nigerian 419 scam (named after the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraudulent activity). It might surprise you to know that it’s intentionally dumb. You see, spammers make tons of money, but like marketers, they have no interest in wasting your time or theirs if you’re not going to bite. They don’t want savvy people who recognize the scam. Rather, they want people who are gullible or susceptible to their scams.
How about emails that contain lines of gibberish or entire passages from books? Ever wonder why someone wasted their time creating and sending those, just so it would end up in the junk folder? This is known as a “spam blizzard,” a scheme concocted a few years back to confound spam filters and distract users or ISPs from the real scheme, usually a hack that would net them financial gain.
Spammers, whether individuals, part of criminal organizations, or state-sponsored, have a very deliberate purpose that’s not readily apparent to us, and that’s why we need to avoid spam filters — because we’re getting caught in the crossfire.
So How Do I Do It? 9 Ways to Avoid Spam Filters
There are several popular techniques that can be used to avoid spam filters. They range from form to technique, that is, some involve a mindset and common sense, and some involve dos and don’ts:
1. NEVER USE ALL CAPS
First and foremost, you should never, in your message subject or email body, use all caps. It’s a surefire way to send your messages to the junk folder. Besides being irritating and redundant, all caps are a popular method developed years ago by spammers to get the attention of the more gullible.
Personalize your emails, simple as that. The technology is there to tailor your message to each user in your list, so don’t be shy about talking to them directly. Besides being good form, this helps avoid spam filters because it will improve your message score and your chance of avoiding the junk folder.
3. Keep It Simple
This is a universal truth no matter what you’re writing to a potential customer. Modern users, especially in business environments, are inundated every day with messages and pitches. Their time is limited, and if you try to get clever with your content by making it wordy or extensive, it won’t matter if the spam filter catches it or not. You’ll help your chances of avoiding the junk folder because spam filters will increase your score based on simple language and users will be less likely to mark your message as spam.
4. Speak as if You Were Speaking in Person
Again, good common sense, but the less complicated you make what you’re saying, the more likely that the user won’t flag you as spam — making it more likely you’ll avoid spam filters. Be authentic in marketing and messaging and write your emails as if you were speaking to your readers in person.
5. Never Use Attachments
Adding attachments to your marketing emails is a quick way to get relegated to the junk folder. Keep in mind that users are often coached by IT to never open attachments if there’s the slightest bit of doubt. Furthermore, anti spam developers and security professionals are far more concerned today about the constant uptick in malicious attachments. So, if in doubt, the spam filter will dump your message in the junk folder.
6. Understand the Legislation
Most countries today have some type of anti spam legislation, like the United States’ CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Understanding this is important for several reasons. First, many countries are getting tougher on spammers, and if you send messages that violate a country’s laws, even innocently, you could be subject to stiff fines. This is important when avoiding spam filters because the specific types of violations associated with anti spam laws are often included in anti spam software. At very least, you should:
- Avoid deceptive headers
- Include a physical mailing address
- Provide an unsubscribe link
7. Ensure Opt-In
Inarguably the most important practice is making certain your users have explicitly asked to receive promotional emails. While this isn’t strictly something a spam filter would know, it ensures that your users aren’t marking you as spam because they didn’t ask for it.
8. Remain Consistent
Finally, it’s important to maintain an air of consistency. This can mean many things, but consistency in frequency, design, message, and form are crucial.
For example, for an ongoing campaign, consistently choose a small, manageable number of messages that won’t leave the user frustrated. If it’s once or twice a week, keep it at that. Consistency in delivery is not only important for users — inconsistent or sporadic bursts of marketing is also one of the three MSP and VAR marketing strategy mistakes you need to avoid.
Consistency in form means that you have a specific look to your messages, with specific elements always being the same. This includes the use of HTML vs. plain text, including images and logos, and maintaining the way you write the subject line and the body.
It doesn’t hurt to work with existing customers who are willing to let you use them as guinea pigs, to see how successful your email uptake is as you strive to avoid spam filters.
We’re Here to Help
Spam is a four-letter word for users, but it’s also a headache for marketers and companies alike. Legitimate email offering valuable solutions for customers should be getting to the inbox, but spam filters aren’t that bright and they can’t always determine whether your email is the real deal or not.
There are ways you can tweak and shape your email campaigns so that you stay in front of your customers and improve your chances of landing in the inbox every time. For more information on how we can help you avoid spam filters, contact us today.
And if you’d like to read more great email tips, check out our post How to Increase Your Conversion Rate in Email Marketing.