Not a Nigerian prince? 20+ step comprehensive blueprint to avoid the spam filter and get your email read

You tweaked the margins until they were perfect. You rearranged the images several times to achieve the perfect flow. You proofread it for the 3rd time just to make sure. Then you slammed the “Send campaign” button and whoosh, your labor of love went out to the world.

Tick tock. 7 hours pass and you nervously check the stats. Only 3% opens? That’s weird. You’re used to hitting at least 15% in that time frame. You recheck. The open rates stay the same. The bad news is in: looks like your email was sent to spam.

The good news is, there are many preventative steps you can take to avoid this terrible fate. Here’s a comprehensive step by step breakdown of what you can do to make sure your email goes straight to the inbox every time.

The why

What happens when an email gets caught in a spam filter anyway? ISPs (Internet Service Providers) screen incoming emails. If it detects any red flags, your email gets spam points based on the seriousness of each offense. If your email’s total spam points exceed a certain level, ISPs automatically banish it to spam. A recipient can also manually mark your email as spam, casting all your future emails to the black hole of doom.

Your subscribers

1. Only send emails to subscribers who have given you the explicit permission to contact them

Build your email lists ethically. This means only adding people who signed up for your email list or checked a box that gave you permission to contact them.

While it may be tempting to triple your numbers overnight by buying lists or scraping the web, people who are not expecting your email are far less likely to open it and are far more likely to mark it as spam. Low open rates scream “this person/company sends sucky emails”, lowering the chances your future emails will make it to someone’s inbox.

The other danger with purchased lists is, it may contain what’s called a spam trap. This means that if you try sending an email to that address, you will automatically be flagged as a spammer. Instead of wasting money on buying lists, invest that amount toward creating valuable content so people want to receive updates and more material from you.

If you are capturing emails in a way where it’s not explicitly clear they will also be added to your general mailing list, make it explicitly clear. Add a line below the signup form explaining that by providing their email address, they will also be added to your general mailing list but can unsubscribe anytime. This is all about setting the expectation your subscribers will receive emails from you at some point so they actually read it or at the very least, don’t mark it as spam.

Ways to ethnically grow lists

Host a giveaway
Offer a whitepaper, ebook or valuable content packaged in a digestible format for download

Offer a free webinar
Offer your content/product/service as a bonus to someone else’s product
Set up email signup forms on your website
Welcome gate landing pages

Partnerships with other influencers

Unifying theme: offer valuable content for free. A lot of people think “but if I give away all my best stuff, who’s gonna pay for my products?” Well here to prove you wrong, Ramit Sethi over at IWT gives away 98% of his A+ material and still has over 25 000 paying students. Think of giving away free stuff like those food samples they pass out in grocery stores. One bite, two bites and soon you’re hooked and buy 3 packs to take home. Basically…people don’t trust what they can’t try first.

2. Make your unsubscribe option prominent in your marketing emails

Your unsubscribe link should exist in a line of its own. Not lost in a jumble of other links.

Good:

Bad (it’s like playing a game of Where’s Waldo):

Don’t try to make it difficult for your subscribers to leave. Why? The whole purpose of emailing and marketing is to engage with your audience. If there are people who do not hear from you, they will not read any of your content anyway so there is no point in forcing them to stay. Bonus: By pruning unengaged subscribers from your list, you no longer have to spend extra money to send emails to these people.

3. Double opt-in

Another way to make sure someone really wants to receive emails from you? After your user subscribes, send them a confirmation link to verify they want to be added to this list. This double opt-in process weeds out people who made an impulsive decision to subscribe, leaving you with only people who really want to receive emails from you. This will do wonders for your open rates, a major boost to your sender score. Double opt-in also ensures people provided you with a valid email address and did not sign up someone else without their permission.

On your page, show your readers a reminder to confirm their email address after they subscribe. Don’t forget to ask them to check their spam folder. Your first email to a new recipient may very well end up there.

Here’s the default double opt-in email Mailchimp sends asking someone to confirm their email:

4. Don’t make people log in to unsubscribe from your transactional/lifecycle emails

If you send transactional emails to users after they perform a certain action on your website or lifecycle emails to check in with your user, let them unsubscribe from it without having to log in. Why? Because some users may have signed up for your service to try it out and decided it wasn’t right for them.

After a period of time, if they receive your email, they will be frustrated they have to go through several steps to unsubscribe. Especially if they cannot remember their login to do so. And what are frustrated users more likely to do? Report your email as spam.

Extra precaution:
Set a behavior rule for your lifecycle emails dictating that if an user has not been active on your site for over X weeks, they will no longer receive any lifecycle emails. You can still send them 1-2 emails inviting them to come back with a special offer.

5. Ask subscribers to add you to their whitelist

In your first welcome email to subscribers, ask them to add you to their whitelist or contact list. This guarantees all of your emails in the future will go directly to their inbox. Easy peasy!

To make it easier for your subscribers to follow through, provide picture instructions on how to whitelist your email address for the most popular email services.

Gmail:

6. Only send emails to active lists

If you haven’t send an email to a list for over 2-3 months, these people may have already forgotten about you. So when they suddenly see your name/company name pop up in their inbox, many of them may end up just ignoring it. This sucks for you because ISPs deem low open rates as a sign of spam. If you send several campaigns with low engagement rates, all your future emails may get booted to the spam folder.

The key to avoiding a long email drought is to set a schedule for your email campaigns and stick to it, no matter how busy you are. An effective way to keep your pipeline full for new subscribers is to create a drip campaign out of your best performing previous emails. This way, they won’t hear crickets for weeks.

You know that well worn chestnut of quality versus quantity? Well, you can send an email to your subscribers as often as once a day provided that it is quality content. It is much better to have a longer delay in between emails than to send out a low quality one. One dud is all it takes to kill people’s excitement toward receiving your emails and train them to glance over it next time.

Another good practice is sending a welcome email to subscribers immediately after they confirm their email address to establish the value of subscribing to your list so they are more likely to open it down the road.

There are even some companies who unsubscribe people who haven’t opened several of their previous emails:

Instead of letting inactive subscribers drag down your email engagement rates and sender score, let them go first. While a “-20 subscribers” message stings almost as bad as “I want to break up with you”, unsubs are actually a blessing in disguise.

As mentioned, low open rates hurt your sender score. It’s better to lose a dozen subscribers here and there but enjoy a 5-10% higher open rate than to let yourself sink to single digit open rates just so you can brag about your massive (aka massively unengaged) email list. Also, +/- 200 subscribers can bump you up or down an entire pay tier in your email marketing service. Saving hundreds of dollars to not email people who don’t want to hear from you anyway? The stuff good deals are made out of.

The prevailing theme of all these methods is: make it incredibly easy for subscribers to leave you if they want to. Treat it like a relationship. Don’t force someone who has lost interest in you to stay.

By the way, if a subscriber does decide to unsubscribe from you, don’t bother sending them a “Sorry to see you go“ email. You can display some variation of that message when they go to your page to unsubscribe. Sending another email after the fact leaves you open to the risk they may mark your email as spam. People don’t need a reminder they unsubscribed from you. And no, they did not accidentally leave their email open, letting their 6-year-old go on a crazy unsubscribing rampage that they may need a way to undo this horrible mistake.

You can however link to a few recent articles on your unsubscribe page to remind people the value you offer. It may not change their mind but they may still click through to discover some of your other content.

7. Segment your list

If you are capturing subscribers from multiple sources (regular email signup forms, ebook offers, partnerships, etc.), you should be segmenting them into separate lists based on where they signed up. For example, a subscriber who gave you their email to download an ebook on a specific topic would have different interests and different expectations of email frequency than someone who signed up specifically to receive updates from you.

Segmentation ideas:

  • Separate into their own list: super engaged subscribers who open most to all of your emails
  • Separate regular subscribers from paying customers

The goal of segmentation is to boost your engagement rate by sending emails at a frequency and containing topics best suited for that specific subset of readers.

The Email Itself

1. Use spammy sounding words very sparingly.

Here is an exhaustive list of high risk words that may trigger your recipient’s spam filter as compiled by Hubspot: http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/30684/The-Ultimate-List-of-Email-SPAM-Trigger-Words.aspx These words also make your audience’s defenses go straight up. Good luck getting your message through when your audience fears you’re trying to trick them into buying something they don’t want. Remember, the goal of email marketing is not to make any hard sells. It’s to create trust and establish value first so your audience wants to receive more from you and are eventually willing to pay for the privilege.

Here are the top spammy sounding words to avoid:

Free
Available now
Download
Discount
Guarantee
Sign up now
Offer
Win
Order now
Thousands

The common theme behind all these words? They convey something almost too good to be true to grab your reader’s attention. You should not be relying on making hyperbolized claims to get your subscribers to do something. A good rule of thumb to know when you’ve gone too far in rhapsodizing your product/service is when you start peddling a dream outcome only 1% of your audience can achieve.

Take zero risks in your subject line. ISPs look at that first when deciding whether or not to let your email through. Don’t use any words that sound remotely spammy or salesy. This actually works to your advantage because non-salesy non-spammy subject lines get more opens.

Here are some safe alternatives to common spam words if you want to convey a similar meaning in your subject line/email:

Instead of free:
My gift to you
A lil’ something special
Thank you gift
Giving back
Hooking you up

Instead of download:
Your copy of [Title of downloadable file] is one step way
You’re 30 seconds from [learning/seeing/some other verb] [Title of downloadable file]

Instead of sign up now:
Save your spot
Grab your spot
Join us

Instead of win:
Describe what they are winning instead
Example: What would you do with [prize]?
Instead of offer:
You’re special to us and here’s how we’re showing you
VIP treatment

Instead of order now (you shouldn’t be asking for a sale in your subject line at all), what you can do is simply announce your product/service is now available (implying it is ready for purchase).

About [Product name] … big news
[Product name] has just landed!

Basically, get creative. No, I don’t mean looking up synonyms in the thesaurus. Computer algorithms can trade millions of dollars in a second now, they’re not that dumb. What you can do is think of unrelated phrases/words that convey a similar meaning.

Here are some non salesy non spammy subject line formulas:

1. Talk about a major outcome your audience can achieve with your content/product/service

Example: Want to work anywhere in the world?

2. Answer a burning question your audience has

Example: What really happens when your prospect “goes dark”?

3. Start telling a story – create curiosity

Example: Who’s bringing the wine? This guy

4. How [someone authoritative] [achieves this result]

2. How many images?

According to tests run by Email on Acid against 23 of the most popular spam filters, if your email contains over 500 characters, the number of images it includes does not affect its deliverability. If your email has less than 500 characters, make sure you do include an image or chances are high it will be caught in a spam filter.

3. Include a text version of your email

HTML only emails trigger spam filters. Why? The rationale behind this is, a spammer wouldn’t take the time to create a plain text version. It is also good practice to always include a plain text version since some email clients don’t render HTML properly.

Moreover, some people prefer to read emails in plain text so make sure you give them that option. All email marketing services let you automatically generate a text only version of your email so this step is pretty much a no-brainer. Make sure you do review the text version in case there are any formatting issues.

4. Avoid large images and executable files

If you are sending an email marketing campaign, minify your image as much as possible without significantly impacting quality. Remember that these days, 45% of people open their email on their mobile devices (Source: Adestra March 2015) so if your images take forever to load, they will just swipe away.

If you have to attach a .pdf file, upload them to your server and provide a link to it instead.
Avoid executable files including .exe and .zip unless you are sending them to one single recipient and they are expecting it.

5. Your style and spelling matters!

For your subject line, don’t capitalize anything more than the first word. Spam filters associate too many capitalized letters with spam. Plus capitalizing every word of your subject line makes you sound Way Too Corporate and Professional and your open rates will suffer. Before hitting send, make sure you go over your email to correct grammatical and spelling mistakes. Spelling mistakes can trigger spam filters (yes Nigerian princes ruined it for everyone) and they just look plain unprofessional.

Also…did you just win the lottery? No? Ok, then no need to use more than two exclamation marks to express your excitement. In a similar vein, it’s not best to use emojis in your subject lines. As with much of life, just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.

Many times emails containing emojis land in the Promotions tab of my Gmail:

6. Avoid colored text

This one may be a “duh!” but it still bears repeating. Don’t get creative with text colors. Stick to black text. Everything else is not only difficult to read but also screams “Hi, I’m spam. Nice to meet you.” You can use a non-white background color, just make sure your text is readable against it. You’re not exposing state secrets. Don’t expect your readers to strain and squint to read your text.

7. Limit links

Don’t sprinkle links throughout your email like a blackhat SEO site. Cap it at 2-3 links. Link stuffing is a major red flag to spam filters you may be up to no good. If you want to share a lot of links, create an article on your website containing them and share a link to that article instead.

8. Use clean code

Design your email in your email marketing service using their drag and drop tools or if you are hand coding the HTML, make sure that it can be rendered properly by all major email clients. Services like Litmus show you previews of how your email will look in every major email client.

Why go through the trouble? Spam filters can view sloppy code as a red flag. You can also avoid this problem entirely by just sending plain text emails. They have the benefit of facilitating higher engagement rates simply because it doesn’t look like a marketing email. Even if it is one.

9. Provide valuable content in your emails

Don’t just sell, sell, sell. Email should be used to build a relationship with your audience so they trust you and your expertise. If you are constantly asking them for money, your engagement rates will drop, lowering your sender score. Stick to the 80/20 rule. At least 80% of your content should offer something valuable to your audience for free. 20% of it can be used to ask your audience to do something for you.

What’s valuable? Let’s say your company sells home care products. Valuable content can include step by step guides on how to do deep cleaning, on how to create homemade cleaning solutions and much more. You get the idea. Just as you would set up an editorial calendar for your website content, it helps to do the same for your email content. Except you should 10x the value you deliver in your emails because the people who give you their email addresses are often your best prospects. After all, they took that extra step to hear from you again.

Every once a while, to recalibrate your email campaigns to your audience’s tastes, you can ask them to fill out a quick survey. You can incentivize survey fill outs by promising a prize to 1-3 people who submit their answers.

Some examples of good questions to ask are:
Which aspects of [your field] do you struggle with the most at the moment? What can we help you with?
What content are you most excited to see? [You can turn this question into a multiple choice poll]

10. A/B test your subject lines

Since open rates are a factor in your sender score, A/B testing your subject lines before sending an email to your entire list improves its chances of being opened. When A/B testing subject lines, don’t just use a few different words in your B version. Create a completely new subject line. For example, if version A asks a question your audience wants to learn the answer to, version B of the subject line can mention a highly coveted result instead.

11. Track the performance of your emails and note trends

Analyzing data. Oh so trendy. Oh so effective. You should be actively monitoring the performance of your sent emails and noting trends like open rates, clickthrough rates and unsubscribe rates. From these numbers, figure out: what topics interest your audience the most? What type of subject lines have performed the best? Use this information to get better at writing emails your audience actually wants to read. It not only boosts your sender score but also your value to your audience and thus their willingness to buy from you down the road.

You the Sender

1. Use a trustworthy sender email

Avoid untrustworthy and obscure ‘from’ emails like 3ab5y67@email.com or no-reply@email.com. The most effective approach is using an employee email address or a real company email address to send mass emails. The benefits are twofold. Seeing an actual company or person’s name makes it more likely the recipient will open your email and these email addresses are also less likely to trigger spam filters. ISPs also like it when you provide a ‘from’ email people can actually reply to, instead of that awful no-reply@company.com.

2. Use a reliable ESP (email service provider)

ISPs (servers that receive emails) evaluate the reputation of ESPs based on the reputation of all their clients. ESPs who service too many bad apples will affect the deliverability of all their users – including you!

Criteria for choosing a reliable ESP
Is your ESP actively monitoring the reputation of the IP address you’re sharing with others to send emails? A spam complaint against another sender using the same IP address as you will affect you as well.

3. Comply with the CAN-SPAM ACT (US national standard regulating commercial email)

If you are sending an email to advertise or promote a commercial product or service, you must comply with these 7 main requirements:

  • Your “from” email must clearly identify the person or company sending it
  • Avoid spammy sounding words and too good to be true claims
  • If it is one, clearly identify your email as an ad
  • Provide an address for your company
  • Allow recipients to opt out of future emails
  • Quickly unsubscribe people who want to – your unsubscribe link should instantly remove them from your email list

4. Be consistent with sending frequency

If there is a very long delay between your current email and previous email, chances are your subscriber may have already forgotten about you. An effective way to avoid long droughts is composing emails/campaigns ahead of time and scheduling them to go out on preset dates. If you’re constantly struggling to get ideas, subscribe to the email lists of other influencers/heavyweights in the same industry. Get inspired by what topics they cover and how they write about it.

5. Stagger the delivery of your messages

Some mail hosts like Hotmail notice it when the same message is being sent to a large number of recipients. It’s a good idea to take advantage of batch delivery (sending your email to only a certain number of people at a time) if your email marketing service offers this.

6. Track complaints/spam labels from your subscribers

If one of your subscribers clicks the “this is spam” button, you will get a warning from your email marketing service. (bote: their identity is not be revealed to you.) Most email marketing services understand that you may get a few of these spam complaints. However, if one of your campaigns is receiving a lot of complaints (according to Mailchimp, more than 0.1% of your email list is on the high side), you should stop all of your email marketing immediately to run an audit of what could possibly be going wrong. Is your unsubscribe link prominent enough? Did you make it explicitly clear to your subscribers they will be added to your email list? Is your email content relevant to the interests of your subscribers?

After receiving a spam warning and fixing up your emails, only send your new and improved emails to 20-30% of your email list to test the waters. If your spam complaints go down significantly, then proceed to send your email to the rest of your list. If not, go back and make more changes to your email capture system and the emails themselves until your spam complaints fall down to under 0.1% of your email list.

Tools

1. Which Gmail tab do you land in?

Ever since Google introduced tabbed inboxes to Gmail, you now have to jump through a few more hoops if you want to land in your recipient’s main inbox. (Mailchimp crunched the numbers in December 2013: Gmail’s tabbed inboxes lowered their email campaigns’ open rates by 1.5%).

So how do you land in the Primary tab? Litmus’ Gmail tabs tool tells you ahead of time where your email may end up so you can tweak it until it lands in the Primary tab.

List of quick steps to land in the Primary tab:

  1. Address your recipients by their name. If you never collected this information, a casual greeting like “hey” helps.
  2. Send a normal plain text message, instead of an elaborate HTML design.
  3. Use as few images as possible. Basically, don’t send a picture storybook unless you have to.
  4. Include as few links as possible.

2. How trustworthy is the IP address/domain you’re sending from?

As mentioned above, if you share an IP address with other senders, hits to their reputation may also affect you. Sender Score tells you how ISPs rate the trustworthiness of your IP address. Most email marketing services regularly monitor the health of their pool of IP addresses and boot out bad apples so for the most part, you should be fine sharing IPs. However if you are a high volume sender where every opened email can mean $$$, look into getting a dedicated IP. They are ideal for companies sending more than 50 000 emails per month.

Basically…

Avoiding the spam filter is not too far off from being a good email marketer in general. Now that you’ve learned the mechanics of avoiding the dreaded spam folder, here’s an underlying mentality you can adopt to get a gut feeling for what makes a good email and what doesn’t.

1. What value does my audience get out of this email?

Understand your audience. Understand their problems, their questions and their desires and send them content that addresses these. When you feel confident you are sharing something helpful with your readers, you will no longer feel the need to make hyperbolized claims to draw their attention.

2. I only want to speak with people who are interested in my content.

Numbers are for your ego. What really matters is having an audience who is interested in and looks forward to what you have to say. So make it extremely easy for people who are no longer interested to leave.

3. Emails is about building relationships, not making asks

First and foremost, email is about building relationships with your customers and gaining their trust. Would you exaggerate, deceive or mislead to gain someone’s trust? No!

Happy emailing! If you have any other tactics for avoiding the spam folder, love to hear it in the comments below.

Published by

Ksenia Chabanenko

Ksenia Chabanenko

BizDev & Communicator at My.com

  • Krystle Burnside1

    Interesting blog post . I learned a lot from the points , Does anyone know if my assistant would be able to access a sample IRS 706 version to complete ?

    • Ike Dalley2

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  • Niraj Ranjan Rout

    Excellent article, folks. Absolute gold mine this one, found numerous tools and tips to improve open rates! Thanks, Niraj (Founder at hiverhq.com)