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Are You Getting to the Inbox and Avoiding the Spam Trap?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Learn how to avoid being labeled a spammer,  plus tips and tricks on ensuring your mail is delivered to the inbox.

[This is the sixth article in the List Building for Bloggers #LBB series]

In this article you will learn about:
  • What is spam
  • What it takes to be labeled a spammer
  • What happens if you are labeled a spammer
  • Getting to the Inbox every time
    • Permission
    • Respect
    • Relevance
    • Compliance
  • Improving the odds
    • White listing
    • Proactive subscriber management

What is Spam?

Spam. We all hate it. It is frustrating and wastes everybody’s time. As a result, the technologies that have evolved to try and stop spam from getting to the inbox are imperfect, causing desired emails to be misrouted to junk or simply deleted altogether.

As bloggers using trusted services and valuing our subscribers – they’re not just a "list" to be "blasted" – we know that our emails should reach the inbox. But sometimes they don’t, and this post is my attempt to help you understand why and how you can influence inbox placement.

What Happens if you are Labeled a Spammer?

The good news is that one person screaming "spam" when you mail them won’t affect anything. But the ISPs take note. If many people start screaming "spam," however, or you do other bad things (like persistently sending email to deleted accounts), then your email will be routed to junk, or your email might not even be accepted by the recipient’s email servers at all. All of the recipient’s on that domain or domains will go dark for you. You might even be black listed, and it takes just one black list entry on a major black list provider to effectively shut down your entire list.

So avoiding being called a spammer is very, very important.

What does it Take to be Labeled a Spammer?

Now you can’t stop complaints. People are lazy – they will hit spam sometimes instead of clicking unsubscribe. People are also error-prone – they might have your email selected when they click "spam" when they meant to flag the email just above it.

So the question is: What does it take to be labeled a spammer? For complaints, industry norms say well managed lists should well be under 0.3%. AOL takes notice at complaint rates over 0.1%. If your mailings consistently generate complaint rates greater than one in a thousand, you risk being labeled a spammer. This is why list quality is so very important.

Email service providers (ESPs) like FeedBlitz also monitor your complaint rates to ensure greatest deliverability. For example, FeedBlitz can and does automatically shut down any list that exceeds conservative industry norms for complaint rates for any single mailing – we’re that zealous about ensuing the best deliverability for our clients. So keeping complaint rates (i.e. people clicking "spam" in their email app) down is essential to getting your word into the subscriber's inbox.

Getting to the Inbox Every Time

The keys to consistently landing in the inbox are pretty basic:
  1. You must have the recipient’s permission to mail them
  2. You must treat that permission with respect
  3. Your mailings must be relevant
  4. Your mailings must comply with ISP best practice and technical rules
Just because the keys are basic, though, doesn’t mean they are necessarily easy. And failing on any one of these will quickly get your emails routed to junk and dramatically increase the risk of your being labeled a spammer.

On the other hand, do all of these and your email will land in the inbox pretty much all the time.

It’s important to note one item that is not on this list: Legality.

While your emails should be legal (i.e. in the US, they should be CAN-SPAM compliant), simply being legal is not nearly enough (think about it – the law isn’t called CANT-SPAM). It’s also the case that many emails sent by reputable providers are, unfortunately, not compliant with CAN-SPAM, and will nonetheless make it to your inbox. Here’s an example from hot hyper-local news site patch.com, funded by AOL no less, and AOL has very stringent email policies. And yet, this:

It violates CAN-SPAM because there is no physical address to send written unsubscribe requests.

So even the big guys can make mistakes. Not that that excuses you, but it goes to show that compliance with the law is fundamentally irrelevant in determining whether or not an email is going to make it to the recipient’s inbox. Compliance is still required to avoid legal jeopardy of course.  

Who Decides What is Spam?

Not you.

Got that?

I’ll say it again. Not you.

Ultimately, only the recipient of your emails gets to decide whether your email is spam or not. That said, however, the ISPs (internet service providers) also get in on the act. When enough of their customers declare your email to be spam (and also for other reasons; I’ll get to them later), they will decide that what you are sending is spam before it ever reaches the subscriber. Your email may not even make it onto their networks, let alone the recipient’s junk folder, and less likely their inbox.

To get to where you want your email to go, you have to get past various ISP filters, servers, blacklists and filtering technologies. And then you have to get through the recipient’s personal email app’s settings, filters and local security tools. It’s quite the gauntlet your blog’s message has to run through.

Most importantly, it does not matter AT ALL that you believe that you have permission to email the recipient and you believe that your message is not spam. Spam is the recipient’s call only.

So let’s look at the four keys to avoiding the spam trap and how you as a blogger can succeed with your mailings. 

You Must Have the Recipient’s Permission to Email Them.

Always use confirmed dual opt in for new registrations where a recipient must click a link in an email to activate a subscription. Do not settle for less if you want to lower your risk of being junked.

Do not buy or rent lists. Permission must be granted to you directly and explicitly. Bought or rented lists often contain “spam trap” addresses which are, basically, fake addresses that have never been used by a real human being but are visible on the web to be “discovered” by spam bots. Mailing a trap proves that you have not got permission (because that address could never have given you permission) and that you’ve bought the list from a spambot source, which marks you out as a spammer by definition. Don’t take that risk with your blog.

Do not add subscribers to a list they didn’t sign up for. So if a subscriber signed up for your world-leading blog on widgets, don’t add them to your list about fine French wine simply because that’s what your other blog is about. You don’t have permission to mail them about your taste in claret.

Tip: Stay on topic and always, always use confirmed dual opt in. 

You Must Treat Permission with Respect

When someone grants you permission to email them, they are effectively inviting you into their inbox. So be a good guest; don’t abuse the privilege and their attention.

For bloggers this is fairly easy to do; as long as we’re mailing posts out. Our subscribers know how often we post and therefore how often they should expect to get a mail from us (although it absolutely helps to tell them that they should expect to hear from you once a day or weekly or whatever is appropriate for you).

When you deviate from the norm – by increasing your mailing frequency, for example – then you risk upsetting your readers. The more upset they become, the more likely they’re going to complain (i.e. hit the spam button). This is also true if you start blasting them with less relevant content, so be careful with, say, dedicated sponsor mailings. If you do up your mailing rate, offer a "slower" alternative for those who feel overwhelmed, such as a weekly summary.

There is also great risk in mailing too little. If you start to collect subscribers for your blog, offer or whatever, but don’t start mailing them until weeks or months later, they will likely have forgotten they signed up or simply lost interest in the interim. Result: spam complaints. So if you don’t plan on mailing people for a while once they sign up, send an autoresponder and set their expectations. If you can, send a brief weekly update, even if it’s a variation on “hey, we’re making great progress, you’ll hear from us as soon as we’re ready.” It keeps you in their mind and doesn’t waste the attention and permission they granted you when they were excited enough to join your list.

Tip: Stay in front of your audience regularly.
Tip: Use guest posts if you can’t fill the content yourself at the expected rate. 

Your Mailings must be Relevant

Permission and relevance are key to email list building success. Both are necessary; having only one is not enough.

So your emails must be relevant; again for bloggers that’s easy to do since we write about our passions. But if your blog changes course and goes from, say, widgets to French wine, by changing topic you’ve effectively transitioned them to a new list. You don’t have permission for that topic and so spam complaints will rise. This doesn’t mean that you can’t go off-topic for a post or two at times; after all, a blogger’s audience likes the blogger and is by definition interested in what she has to say. But say your piece and then return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Now there is some debate in some aspects of the email marketing industry about whether relevance trumps permission. And in the case of a personal email which you craft by hand to a specific individual addressing a specific need, I’d say ok, yes. As long as you’re timely, relevant and are responding to the recipient’s articulated need, then you can mail them. But it has to be a personal email from your email app, and not a bulk email or mail merge or similar – even if that mail merge runs through your desktop email software. It’s much like the approach I promote here, here and here for using Twitter to deliver real-time sales and customer service. And I think that’s OK.

But for bulk emailing – where you send email to multiple subscribers at once, automated or otherwise – the answer is emphatically NO. You MUST have permission to deliver automated mailings from a blog (or any other source) to a list.

Tip: By all means detour – it can keep things interesting – but be quick about it. 

Your Mailings must Comply with ISP Best Practice and Technical Rules

Without going into too much technical detail here, the major ISPs (in most markets the cable, phone and satellite providers) and the major email account providers (e.g. gmail, hotmail, yahoo) all have very similar technical rules about bulk email (which is what you’re sending as you build your blog’s list).

ISPs track reputation, spam traps, sending behavior (e.g. persistently emailing accounts that bounce), complaint rates, email structure, black lists and more to determine whether your email should even be allowed onto their networks, and then whether the mail should be sent to junk or the inbox. If some of these terms are unclear, revisit the “terms and terminology” section on the second article in the List Building for Bloggers series “Lists, Email Marketing and your Blog” here http://blog.feedblitz.com/2010/11/lists-email-marketing-and-your-blog-lbb.html

How you send email from your blog to your subscribers can greatly affect how your emails are treated by the receiving ISP networks. In order of increasing risk (i.e. best to worst):
  • Best: Use a reputable third party email service provider (ESP), such as FeedBlitz (of course!)
  • Maybe: Using your own dedicated email server
  • Worst: Using a shared email server or an email server on a shared web host
Reputable email service providers (ESPs) are the best solution unless you are a simply massive corporation with excess IT resources. Why? Because we structure the emails properly (e.g. adding authentication, text alternatives); we use a small number of high reputation IP addresses to send mail (using things like feedback loops and whitelisting to maintain that reputation); and we manage the lists in our charge properly (e.g. tracking metrics, logging subscriber activity, bounce rates and legal compliance) to comply with ISP policies. It’s best practice, and best practice gives the best results. Bloggers are typically not large corporations wth money to spare, so outsourcing to a dedicated expert service is absolutely the way to go.

For a dedicated email server on your own domain you can probably get access to feedback loop data as long as you own the public IP or the domain it’s on. So you can – with a lot of effort - get some of the quality data that ESPs do. Of course, you have to use that data, and have someone or something manage your lists and processes. Most bloggers don’t have the time or technical skills necessary, and failure to keep up can get your messages sent to the penalty box. Also, if you do get into trouble, it’s really hard to get out without an ESP’s resources to help. If you’re an email guru (or have one on staff) you can take this path. Since you’re a blogger, though, you aren’t and you don’t. Once your list gets to be any reasonable size this option gets to be a lot of work very quickly.

Email sent from a shared web server (or a shared email server) carries great risk. For starters, you can't get at the quality or feedback loop data from the ISPs: It's like driving in the dark wearing sunglasses with your eyes closed. As touched on in an earlier LBB post, just one badly behaved (or virus-infected) app using that web or email server will trash that machine’s reputation and get all your email blocked. You also risk incurring the wrath of your hosting service, which risks having your site taken down. Don’t do it.

Tip: Use a reputable provider for your bulk mailing, blog-driven or otherwise. 

Content Filtering

If your email has been accepted by the ISP and is coming from a reputable source your message is really likely to end up in the inbox no matter what you write about. Reputation and trust trump the content filters the vast majority of the time.

That said, some links or behaviors can be picked up by content filters and skew your otherwise bon mots into junk despite everything. If that happens, figure out why (your email provider should be able to help you with this, but you may have to pay for the privilege).

In my experience, the only content that will consistently override a reputation filter is when there is a link in the mail to a site the receiving ISP feels can’t be trusted. So, for example, if you’re linking to a known source of stolen audio files (or a site that looks like it might be), expect to be junked. If you're on a shared server and another site on that server is hosting "bad" content, expect to be junked. If you're hosting "bad" content, well.... you get the idea.

True story. We (FeedBlitz) had a client whose emails were being consistently routed to an ISP’s junk folder despite our being on that ISP’s white list. It turned out to be the fault of one link in one part of the mail. It was a legitimate link, but the domain’s URL just fell the wrong side of the "this link looks spammy" filter it was enough to route the mail to junk.

Remember that the ISPs are doing this to prevent malware running on otherwise trusted sources from getting spam to their users. It’s their job. If it happens to you engage you’re your email service provider to find out why, and (crucial, this) for crying out loud take their advice. When you find the root cause it’s usually a simple matter for a blogger to overcome it, which it was in this case.

Tip: Worry less about content, more about reputation, relevance and permission.  

Avoiding the Spam Trap

So, let’s review. Permission, respect, relevance, compliance are key. You’re a blogger and are putting all of these into practice. Can you do more? You bet! Two key areas are:
  • White listing
  • Proactive subscriber management

Whitelisting

The #1 thing you can ask your subscribers to do is have them white list you when they subscribe. This not only guarantees that the email will get to their inbox if the mail is accepted for delivery by their service, it can also positively influence the ISP’s global filters.

When you ask your subscriber to add you to their white list they may have to remember there are two locations where they should update their white lists: 

On their email service’s / ISP’s web mail portal.

Why: It ensures that the ISP knows the email is solicited and should go to your inbox at the ISP.

On their email app’s white list

Why: If the email is downloaded from the subscriber’s inbox at their email service to a dedicated email app (e.g. Outlook, Apple Mail, Entourage) then the email app will apply its filters too, (i.e. after the email service’s filters). Whitelisting here will ensure the proper routing of your mail to the inbox in the app once it gets there.

Your subscriber should add your and your service's email addresses to both white lists for the best results. 

Proactive List Management

Your email service will manage your subscribers as best it can, filtering out bounces and complaints. But you can help pre-empt complaints by proactively managing your list too. Some subscribers won’t hit unsubscribe or complain at first – they will reply to your mailing and say "remove" or "unsubscribe." As and when you get that email, go to the list and remove the subscriber. If you don’t and your blog’s mailing system reaches out to them again that subscriber is likely to complain. So help yourself by acting promptly to remove folks who don’t want your mailings from your list if they contact you directly. 

Next Up

Tips on optimizing your mailings for better response rates.

About List Building For Bloggers #LBB

Written by Phil Hollows, the FeedBlitz Founder and CEO, List Building for Bloggers (#LBB) is a series of posts to help you make the most of your blogging by harnessing the power and capabilities of email, the universal social network, with your bog and social media communications. No matter whether you're a novice or a more advanced blogger, there will be something for you to learn, apply and benefit from in this series. Click here to read more about #LBB

P.S. If you think your friends or followers would find this series valuable, please retweet on Twitter or "Like" on Facebook using the buttons below. Don't forget to use the #LBB hashtag when you do. Thank you! And if you have a comment, contribution or something else to say, please comment too. :-)

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Carrie Isaac from Denver Bargains said...

Question: does the email address that I put in Feedblitz's from: email feed affect anything, such as the likeliness an ISP will mark it as spam? Or, if a bunch of people were to mark my mailing as spam, would it affect other emails I send from that address (non list emails)?

3:41 PM, December 10, 2010  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

The from address doesn't affect things because it is the IP reputation that matters. From addresses are meaningless - that's why we can send it as you - so unless you are mailing as viagra@cialis.com it won't have an effect. Malware and viruses fake from addresses to fool people into opening their emails. Marking these as spam doesn't affect you because they're clearly malware and you're not actually sending them.

Now, if you get a lot of people (Over the 0.1% range) consistently marking legitimate emails from you or from us on your behalf as spam then it is possible that an ISP might consider emails from your site or links to it as suspect and route you to junk as a result. But really, don't worry about that detail (unless it is something lke viagra@ etc. Which I know it isn't :) )

3:50 PM, December 10, 2010  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

And the reason not to worry is because we don't service lists with excesive complaint rates anyway. They are dropped immediately if the metrics go south, well before anyone list can do any damage compared to all the emails we send. Since we know all the indiviudal lists we service have complaint rates below the industry standard, then everyone active is OK too.

3:52 PM, December 10, 2010  

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