What To Do to Avoid Being Flagged as Spam?

By: Kevin Gao, CEO & Founder of Comm100

Ensuring that your email is delivered to the inbox instead of the spam folder can be a significant challenge. As email spammers get smarter and find new ways to slip through spam filters, email service providers have responded by improving their spam filters. What's the good news? If you follow the rules and build a good, quality email program you will most likely not have a problem getting flagged as spam. What's the bad news? You'll need to consistently work to ensure that your email is inbox-ready. In this section, we'll tell you how to get your email into the inbox as consistently as possible.

Understand What Email Service Providers are Checking

Flagged as Spam

To begin, you'll need to fully understand the list of factors that go into an email service provider's algorithm when it decides if your email is spam or not. Much like the Google search algorithm, the factors of an email service provider's spam filter algorithm are a secret. Why is that? If you knew what they were, you would simply follow the rules! That, of course, is the problem. You would follow the rules, and so would thousands of malicious spammers. By identifying factors that indicate that a message is spam and then keeping those a secret when checking inbound email against them, email service providers keep a "leg up" over malicious spammers. Why are we telling you this? The information contained in this section is the most reliable and up-to-date information available. However, email service providers constantly tweak and update their spam filters. You'll need to regularly test and stay aware of trends to make sure you're inbox-ready and won't be flagged as spam. As a general rule, email service provider spam filters will look at all of the following:

Are you on a Blacklist? Not only do email service providers keep an internal blacklist of domains and companies that they will automatically filter out of the inbox, but there are also several international email blacklists that email service providers also refer to for determining spam email. If you are on a blacklist, it is game over for you and it's time to begin your email marketing program from scratch. You don't end up on a blacklist unless you are a serious spam offender.

Are you on a White List? Unlike the blacklist, a white list is a good thing to be on! White lists are maintained on the individual email service provider level and are lists of domains or senders that are automatically approved for inbox deliverability without being subjected to spam filter review. If you can get on a white list, your email deliverability will improve dramatically.

Sender Reputation: Your sender reputation is a number or score assigned to your sending IP or source. It's believed that it's also combined with domain name and several of the factors listed below, but the actual algorithm remains a secret. If you are using a third party email marketing platform such as Comm100, it's important that you select a service that has a high sender reputation and that protects its sender reputation by ensuring that its clients don't send spam emails.

Domain Reputation: In recent years, email service providers have started tracking domain reputation as well. This created a bit of a struggle for many companies who had avoided the spam or junk folder delivery by consistently switching servers and IP addresses when sending email. Most email service providers at this point have developed software that also identifies the domain associated with the email and assigns a spam score or penalty based on that domain's email history.

Previous Spam Complaints: One of the greatest marks against you if you're having trouble getting into the inbox will be if your email content has been previously flagged as spam by your subscribers. While a certain number of spam complaints will be unavoidable, if the number begins to escalate you can find yourself removed from a white list and watching your email land in the spam or junk folder without any hope of remedying the problem in the short term. That's why so many best practices offered up in this book have been about reducing spam complaints.

Activity of Your Email List Subscribers: Another more recent development in spam filters is to apply a score based on the activity of your email list. If your emails regularly get incredibly small open rates or are deleted without being opened, then that indicates to email service providers that you are sending low quality email that is potentially unsolicited. While it won't automatically get you blocked from the inbox, it will combine with other scores that may reflect unfavorably on you.

Content of Your Email: The content of your email is a significant factor in making it through spam filters. Image use, text content, and subject line can all create spam problems for you. Writing and designing email has to be as much about deliverability as it is about email performance.

The above points are the primary items that email spam filters will check for. Now, the question is, what can you do to avoid being flagged as spam and make it past those filters and into the inbox?

Start By Building a Great Email List

The very first and most important thing that you can do to ensure great email deliverability and avoid being flagged as spam is to build a great email list. This means that you are not purchasing or renting lists that you can't trust the source of and it means that you are not sending your customers or subscribers unwanted email. Make sure that the email leads that you have generated for your database came from email sign-up boxes where the users clearly opted-in to your email program. For ideal security, use a double opt-in process where users must then click a confirmation link on an email they receive after they sign up in order to activate your email sends.

It may seem as though making it more difficult for your subscribers to sign up will actually cause you to create a smaller email list. That may be true. However, if you begin sending email to users who do not want your email and, as a result, get a high number of being flagged as spam, you'll risk not being able to email to your most valuable clients.

While it may seem as though users who do not want your email will simply unsubscribe from your email list, the reality is that they are far more likely to hit a "Report Spam" button. Most email service providers make the spam report functionality quick and easy to use, and therefore subscribers will often hit the spam button even if they simply want to stop receiving your email but know that they signed up for it. Every step that you can take to reduce the number of spam complaints that you get will help you out in getting into the inbox regularly. That may mean a more "slow and steady" approach to building your email list rather than a quick approach!

Apply for White List Acceptance

If you are using an outsourced email marketing platform such as Comm100, the good news is that your marketing email will be kept separate from your corporate email and your marketing platform is taking care of managing its sender reputation as a significant part of its business. However, if you are building an in-house system, you'll want to ensure that you're recognized by as many email service providers as possible as a reputable, white list email sender. Yahoo!, AOL and several other major email service providers have white list applications processes that you can find online. Unfortunately, many other email service providers create their white list internally and do not allow actual submissions for it. There are also a number of outsourced marketing companies that will manage your white list submissions for you. While ideal solution is to use a third party email marketing solution, if you are creating your own in-house sending solution, be sure to actively get on as many email white lists as possible.

Get Users to White List You

Regardless of whether you are using a third party email platform or an in-house solution, your derivability to the inbox is assured for every subscriber who actively adds you to their address book or contact list. It's up to you to encourage users to take that action. The most effective way to accomplish this will be to ask them to add you to their contact or address book in the welcome email that they receive when they sign up for your newsletter or email list. It also doesn't hurt to remind them to do that in the body of every email that you send. After all, it may take several emails before you've proven yourself to be "inbox-worthy" content that your new subscribers really want to receive.

There's only so much that you can do to encourage subscribers to add you to an address or contact book, but every subscriber whom you can convince to do so is one more email that you are assured will get directly to the inbox.

You've most likely seen the type of copy that is used to encourage users to add an email to an address book or contact list. In case you haven't, here's a good example of how it's typically phrased. "Take a quick moment to add the email address (insert the email address that you send your mass mail from) to your address book or contact list. That way, you'll always be sure that you aren't missing important information or offers from us!"

Every effort that you can make to have users individually white list you will pay off in improved sender reputation.

Make the Unsubscribe Link Prominent

We've discussed several times that it may seem counterintuitive to you to make your unsubscribe link prominent and to place it at the top of your email. In the end, though, it's always better to give users an easier way to unsubscribe from an email than it is to have them mark your email as spam. The reality of the situation is that if people no longer want to receive your email, they are going to remove themselves from your email list one way or the other. When that happens, you want for the method that they choose to be to unsubscribe rather than to tell an email service provider that you are spam.

Most email service providers, as well as email marketing platforms, have a fairly low tolerance for the number of spam complaints that they'll allow before you start to be penalized. It's typically based on a percentage of your list, and may be as low as one percent. That means that if you send a hundred emails, you can only afford for one person to mark you as spam! One of the single most important steps to staying out of the junk or spam folder is to reduce the number of active spam complaints from users. By providing an easy-to-use and easy-to-spot unsubscribe link, you can reduce spam complaints significantly.

Manage Your Subject Line

When Flagged as Spam

Subject line will be a huge determinant to your email's ability to get into the inbox. We've previously discussed that it's the first thirty-five to fifty characters of an email subject line that users see. The reality is that you should not write an email subject line that is significantly longer than that because the longer your email subject line is, the more likely it would be flagged as spam.

Earlier in this book, we devoted an entire section to writing subject lines. For the purposes of spam control, you'll just want to remember three primary rules:

  • Shorter is better! (But not less than five or six words)
  • Don't rely on words that are included in the "spam words" list in the next section of this book.
  • Avoid using all caps or special characters in your email. They may end up resulting in having you flagged as spam.

You can get away with using "spam words" in your subject line if you have a great sender reputation and use them with moderation. However, if your test email goes to the spam or junk folder and you have a spam word in your subject line; your first test fix should be to remove it.

Control the Use of Your Domain

Because email service providers have tightened up algorithms in the recent past to track not only sender IP but also the domain name, it's important that you protect your domain name from getting a bad sender reputation. You may be running a perfectly legitimate email program, but if you have affiliate partners, advertising partners, or even malicious competitors that send mass spam messages using your domain, you could find yourself on the blacklist. How do you protect against this?

To a certain degree, you can't. After all, you can only act upon what you know, and it's possible that many anonymous people are sending email referencing your domain name as the sender. What you can do is protect against this so that you're able to stop it when it does occur and discourage it when possible?

  • Be sure that your domain and company name are protected and trademarked as needed
  • Be sure to include terms in any affiliate deals or advertising deals regarding the use of your brand or domain in email marketing campaigns

As a business best practice, you should want to maintain control and ownership of the use of your domain. However, this becomes even more important if you are relying in any way on email marketing as a significant part of your marketing strategy.

Write Content that Isn't Full of Spam Words

This rule, as well, may seem fairly obvious. However, you'd be surprised how many emails are sent daily and then end up in the spam or junk folder because they were loaded down with words like "free" or "credit." Writing content for email marketing can be a very specific process that's not different from writing for a Search Engine Optimization page in the fact that you need to write to a certain algorithm. There are many free online tools that will scan your email content and give you a score or a color-coded rating regarding the likelihood that you will be flagged as spam. While these tools are imperfect, they can give you a red flag if you are clearly in the danger zone.

The basic rule of thumb is to understand the words and types of language that most email service provider spam filters will consider likely junk mail. Then simply write in a manner that doesn't incorporate those words or style. It may mean that you need to think a little harder while writing your copy, but that effort will be worth it when you hit the inbox. After all, it doesn't matter how persuasive the word "free" would be with your subscribers if they never actually see the email.

Avoid Emails that Are One Large Image: Minimize Images Overall

Emails that are one large image have a high chance of being flagged as spam if you don't already have a good sender reputation. Using a large image to encompass the entire email is a frequent trick of email spammers. If the entire content of your email is in an image file, then the email spam filters have nothing to spider in terms of content and can't figure out if your message is junk or not. We've all seen emails get delivered to our inbox that are one large image. However, your deliverability chances decrease if your email is one big image. As we noted earlier, even if you hit the inbox, your conversion percentage will be decreased as well.

While images are an important part of any email template, the more images you use the more you may experience spam filter issues. If you are having a difficult time making it into the inbox, then one of the first steps you'll want to explore is to reduce the number of images in your email template.

Minimize the Use of Red Fonts and Huge Headline Size Fonts

Red fonts and huge headline size fonts have also been shown to cause spam filter issues, though not as frequently as many of the other issues noted here. As a general rule, it's just a better idea to avoid using red fonts (pick an off-red color), huge headline fonts of more than sixteen pixels or a combination of both. There are plenty of design options that still give you great flexibility without using those font sizes and colors.

Summary: It's Not that Hard to Avoid Being Flagged As Spam

While getting into the inbox instead of the spam or junk folder often seems to be one of the biggest challenges of email marketing, the truth is that it's just not that hard. The single best solution will be to use an outsourced email marketing provider such as Comm100 so that you don't have to devote a team of experts to managing your sender reputation. Regardless, the simple solution is to use a good quality list of authorized contacts, create quality email that doesn't read or look like spam and then provider users with content and offers that they will actually care about so that they don't mark you as spam, unsubscribe from your email, or just stop opening your emails.

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