Spam Prevention: What to Do If You're Marked by an ESP as Spam

By: Kevin Gao, CEO & Founder of Comm100

Perhaps you feel as though you've done everything correctly and your email is still hitting the spam folder instead of the inbox. Alternatively, perhaps you already had a deliverability problem with your marketing emails and were reading this ebook in order to learn how to fix your problem. Possibly, you've never had a problem before and suddenly a specific send hits the spam folder. What should you do? There's actually a great tried-and-true process for attempting to determine what sent you to spam and how to fix it. In this article, we'll walk you through a spam prevention course.

Spam Prevention Step 1: Test Addresses and Spam Deliverability

Spam Prevention

Hopefully, you took the prior advice in this ebook and tested your email send to a group of seed addresses or test addresses before you sent the entire email. That means that you were able to identity that your email had a spam problem long before you sent it to your entire list. If you didn't do that, then solving your problem may be more difficult than the process that we are about to describe. Also, identifying and fixing your spam problem after it's been identified in your pre-send tests means that you haven't wasted an email send and you can, hopefully, correct the spam issue and still deliver your email to the inbox of your subscribers. If you only realized the spam problem retroactively, then you've most likely wasted an email send that landed in the spam folder of most of your email list.

In addition to knowing if you have a problem for spam prevention before you send to your main list, sending to your seed or test email addresses prior to sending the email as a whole can tell you if you will be marked as spam in just one email service provider or in multiple email service providers. This can help you make better decisions. If you're ending up in the junk folder in Hotmail, for example, you certainly need to remedy your spam issue because Hotmail accounts for huge portions of most email lists. However, if you are ending up in the spam folder in a less important email service provider, it may be worth your time to simply send anyway and fix the spam issues retroactively.

Seeing if you have a email deliverability problem in all email service providers or just one can also make your "fix process" different. You may be experiencing a black list issue with just one email service provider. Or, you may have one email service provider whose spam filters are more sensitive than others. If you are lucky, you are caught as spam in an email service provider who has a streamlined contact for email marketers to request clarification, such as Hotmail. You can also make decisions, such as segmenting your list by email service provider and sending your multi-part html message to anywhere that did not flag you as spam and a text-only version to places that did flag you as spam. Regardless of how you proceed, the first step is to identify where you landed in the spam folder and then focus your testing efforts on perfecting that email template for that particular email service provider.

If you ended up in the junk folder in multiple email service providers, you may want to go back and start from scratch with your template. Alternatively, you may be in a scenario where you have recently had a high number of spam complaints or email list quality issues. While it's important to go through the entire spam testing process described below, it's equally important to take a moment to take a three-hundred-and-sixty degree look at your email marketing program and explore if you've violated enough spam prevention best practices over the recent past that you may simply need to "wait it out" until you can return to the inbox.

Spam Prevention Step 2: The Subject Line

The subject line is often the biggest culprit in sending an email to the spam filter, and spam filters prioritize email subject line content highly. Begin by making sure that your subject line follows basic spam prevention best practices:

  • Is it too long? Try to make sure it's thirty-five to fifty words
  • Have you used ALL CAPS? If so, remove them.
  • Have you used excessive punctuation?!!? If so, remove it.
  • Have you used any of the spam-filter trigger words detailed in this section?

After you've checked your subject line for any of the potential spam triggers above, try resending the email with a completely safe subject line. It's probably a good idea to send one test with the subject line that you used simply modified to remove any of the potential spam triggers above and a second test with an entirely different subject line. If you now get into the inbox, that's great and you've fixed your spam problem. If not, continue to use the "safer" subject line and proceed to step three of this test.

Spam Prevention Step 3: The Content

The next most likely portion of your email that may cause you a spam problem is the actual content of your email. This can be time consuming to test, but we have a recommended method that can speed it up.

Take a look at the body of your email. Break it up into four or five "sections" of content. Begin by removing the first section of content. Send the email. Does it still go to spam? Then the offending content is in a different section. Remove the next section, and then send the email. Are you still in the spam folder? Then that section was not the problem either. Continue removing sections and sending the email until you finally hit the inbox. When that happens, you'll know what section of the email included the words, links, or html code that set off the spam filters. You can go back and begin to rework that content and then reinsert it into the email until you find a version of it that no longer sends you to spam.

It's important that when you begin to replace the content that you stripped out of the email, you replace it one piece at a time, just like you took it out, and resend the email each time. You may have more than one problem area, but it was how the areas worked in combination that sent the email to spam to begin with.

If the portion of your email that is causing you to go to spam is in the content, you'll identify it using this process. If you do identify it, then you can fix it and send your email. If you don't, then move on to step four of this testing process.

Spam Prevention Step 4: Images

In step four, you'll want to remove all (or as many as possible) of the images from your email and then resend the email. Email images, particularly when heavily used, can increase your score in a spam filter since so many spammers use images to hide viruses, spyware, and even inappropriate messages that they don't want spam filters to be able to read in the text of their email. Start by removing all images from your email template and seeing if you then make it into the inbox. If you do make it into the inbox, you can begin adding images back into your email one-by-one until you've reached a "tipping point" and land back in the spam or junk folder. If you want to be entirely safe, it is probably better to send your email without any images at all if images turned out to be what was causing you to go to the spam or junk folder.

If stripping out or removing images solves your deliverability problem, you can now send your email. If not, continue on to step five of this process.

Spam Prevention Step 5: Text Only

Before you try the unlikely source of your "from address" or have to start looking at more drastic and complicated reasons why your email may be hitting the spam folder, attempt to send the text-only version of your email. Why would you want to do this? If the text only version of your email makes it into the inbox, then you have ruled out the health of your email list or a blacklist or sender reputation problem with your IP or domain name. List health and sender reputation issues are difficult and time consuming to remedy. If the text-only version of your email makes it into the inbox, then you know that if you simply strip down and sanitize your HTML version, you can get into the inbox. Of course, make sure that your text-only version also uses a clean subject line and content free of spam-trigger words. If the text-only version also goes to spam, you'll need to proceed to step six of this process.

Spam Prevention Step 6: The From Address

Step six is the fastest test, and it's also the least likely to be the cause of your problem of deliverability and spam prevention. However, it's certainly worth testing just in case. Change the "from" address of your email and try sending again. It's likely that if you're experiencing a deliverability problem due to something bigger than your subject line or your content, simply changing the "from" address on your email won't get you into the inbox. However, at this point in the process it's certainly worth testing. The reason that you're experiencing deliverability problems if you aren't able to solve your junk or spam folder issue with a change to content, images, or subject line can be much larger and much more difficult to fix. It's certainly worth the ten minutes to see if changing the "from" address will solve your problem! If it does solve the problem, then you can continue with your email send. If not, continue on to step seven of this process.

Spam Prevention Step 7: Email List Health

Email Spam Prevention

If you are using a third party email marketing platform provider such as Comm100, then your email marketing list is most likely in great shape given that most thirty party email marketing providers automatically prune and clean your list and ensure that unsubscribe requests are handled properly. However, it may be surprising to you how many times in-house email management systems fail to do this. If you have built an in-house system, then any small piece of change to your website code or server configurations, among other technical elements, can result in bounces not being pruned from your email lists, unsubscribe requests not being properly removed, and even bad addresses being mailed to repeatedly. If an error such as this has happened, then email service providers will begin to black list you. Spammers commonly don't take the time to clean or manage their lists, so if for some reason your list management techniques have failed, you will appear as though you are a spammer.

List management and cleaning is one of the greatest arguments for using an outsourced email marketing provider. Managing the process in-house leaves a great deal of room for error and can be downright challenging.

If you discover through the course of investigation that you have made an error in email list management, you'll want to take the following steps:

  • Immediately correct the error
  • For any email service provider that allows an inbound channel for questions from companies that send email, send a communication admitting your error and asking to be reinstated to inbox status
  • Be prepared to wait things out. If you've made a critical list management error, you may just need to be prepared to "wait out" your penalty phase.

If you discover that you've made a significant list management error, then you may not be able to remedy it in time for your next email send – or even your next several emails. However, you now know what the issue is and you can move on with correcting it. If, however, your list appears to be clean and healthy, you'll unfortunately need to consider step eight of this process.

Spam Prevention Step 8: Your IP or Domain

Unfortunately, if you've now tried all of the other steps on this spam prevention check list and have still not identified why you're going to the spam or junk folder, it's likely that you've taken a hit to your sender reputation score and that "black mark" is now associated with your IP or domain. While it's possible to test this by attempting to send from alternate IPs or domains, most email spam filters are fairly smart and will still be able to recognize it as you. If you have alternative IPs or domains available to you, you can try sending from them. If they do end up in the inbox, you know that you have a sender reputation problem. You can make a business decision at that point as to whether it's worth it to you to attempt to send your marketing email via your alternate domain or IP. However, whether you do that or not, you'll want to consider steps nine and ten as well as the last resort in this process. Repairing your sender reputation can be challenging, can take time, and won't always be successful. That's why it's so important to follow all email marketing best practices from the very beginning of your email marketing program.

Spam Prevention Step 9: Contact the Email Service Provider if Possible

If you believe that you have a sender reputation problem or have been blacklisted and our content is valid, your list is opt-in or double opt-in, and you haven't made list management errors or experienced high user unsubscribe or spam complaints, then you can proceed to contact email service providers where possible. Hotmail offers a contact form, as do several other email service providers. However, be aware that the response time may take quite a while and the burden of proof will be on you to prove that your email is both high quality and desired by your subscribers. If you have developed a sender reputation problem, there is likely a reason for that and you will have a difficult time convincing an email service provider otherwise.

Spam Prevention Step 10: Reduce the Size of Your Send

You can also try reducing the size of your email send to only the most engaged users. Remove anybody who doesn't regularly open and respond to emails from your email list. Then send to only your highest value, highest activity subscribers. This will improve your email metrics with email service providers because it will demonstrate high open rates and low unsubscribe or spam complaints. A smaller list also means a higher chance of making it into the inbox. It's not an ideal fix, but because you're most likely in a situation where you'll need to use the last resort described below, it at least allows you to continue emailing on a regular basis with limited results.

Last Resort for Spam Prevention: Attempt to Wait it Out

Your last resort is simply to wait it out. If you've gotten a damaged sender reputation, the only thing that can ultimately heal it is time. Continue to send email, but make sure that it's email with very few images and absolutely no questionable content. As described above, send it to a smaller segment of your list. Your email marketing results will be minimized, but it's a necessary step in order to repair the damage that you've done to your sender reputation. Depending on the reasons for your sender reputation issues and the severity of them, you may return to the inbox in a month or in six. If it is longer than six months, your infractions must have been quite severe and you most likely need to explore alternatives to email marketing for the near future.

The best defense against significant spam and junk folder problems is to use all email marketing best practices in this book, and of course particularly the best practices of spam prevention described in this section, from the beginning of your campaign and in all sends. If your users respond well to your email and email service providers subsequently identify you as a trustworthy email sender, your campaigns and email marketing program will be successful.

No matter what email marketing strategy you are taking, the first step to ensure a successful email campaign is to choose a reliable bulk email software solution. Comm100, who provides this article, offers you powerful email marketing software, which is both a great long-term and short-term solution to improving your newsletter marketing to a new level.

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