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How SPAM filters work

by on Apr.22, 2009, under Email Marketing, Newsworthy, Website Promotion

Advice on not getting your email campaigns junked

Unfortunately, not every email you send in a campaign makes it to it’s destination.  You can expect 10-20% of the emails you spend to inevitably end up in SPAM filters and junk mail boxes, it’s the nature of the beast.  Even if you send email campaigns following all the rules and only to recipients who asked for them you can end up in SPAM filters.

Unfortunately, there are no simple ways to avoid this, best practice is to understand SPAM filters and how they work.

Believe it or not, SPAM filters do not *know* that your email is SPAM or NOT SPAM – they guess.  This sounds scary but they are surprisingly good at it.  However, they occassionally deliver what are known as false positives from time to time.  A false positive is when a message that is not spam is labeled as such and blocked.  This is demonstrated by the familiar conversation:

“I sent you an email, didn’t you get it?”

“No, I didn’t, are you sure you sent it?”

“Check your junk mail box”

“Oh, I don’t know why it went in there”

(the email probably had a subject “OMG!!!!!! DID YOU SEE HOW WE COULD SAVE $$$$ MONEY BY SIGNING UP ON TOTALLYFREESTUFF.COM?? ” )

SPAM filters operate on a set of rules that have been established by people in the know about people who send SPAM a lot.  The SPAM scanner (a program) analyzes each email as it comes into the system and runs a set of rules on it, if it accumulated too many ‘points’ it is labeled as SPAM and sent to the junk folder.  Here are a few samples of numbers that Spam Assassin assigns emails that it thinks look like spam:

  • Talks about lots of money (.193 points)
  • Describes some sort of breakthrough (.232 points)
  • Looks like mortgage pitch (.297 points)
  • Contains urgent matter (.288 points)
  • Money back guarantee (2.051 points)
  • Why Pay More? (1.249 points)

The number of points that send your email to the SPAM dungeon varies from server to server, it is configurable and ranges from very lax to very strict.  What people have their SPAM settings at is usually related to how much SPAM they get and how annoying they find it

What do I do then (or not do)?

Avoid these common mistakes:

  • Going crazy with the exclamation points!!!!!!!!
  • USING ALL CAPS WHICH IS YELLLING!!!!!! (exclamations thrown in to make it extra spammy)
  • Annoying bright colors and dubious offers like Click Here for a FREE VACATION
  • Intentionally misspelling ‘spam words’ like vi*gra FrEe HeRE, this might even work but it makes you look like an idiot.
  • Having a history of doing these things: a bad rap follows you and the server through organizations like spamhaus.org

How do I follow the rules?

Following the rules is easy – just don’t do anything to somebody else you wouldn’t want done to you.  Here’s a cheat sheet FYI:

  • Only send email to people who have agreed or signed up to receive from you.
  • Only send email that pertains to your business or something pertaining to your business (everybody hates those affiliate programs)
  • Send useful information or tidbits – if you wouldn’t want to read it, who else would?
  • Only send out to lists that have asked specifically for the material you’re sending.

And there you have it, SPAM 101

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