Email can be an incredibly effective way to connect with your customers and improve your business.
Chances are, you landed here because no one is opening your emails (or your “open rate” is low). Perhaps you suspect that your email campaigns are getting marked as spam, meaning they’re immediately sent where email goes to die… the spam folder.
So, how do you avoid spam filters? How do you get your audience to actually engage with your emails?
Breaking Down Spam Trigger Words
Back in the day, spam filters took it pretty easy on us. Basically, a filter would scan for “trigger words” that would automatically get your email flagged as spam. For example, say you were sending a marketing firm and used the following subject:
Increase Web Traffic!
The phrase “web traffic” would be dinged by the spam filter, classifying your email as spam. And so would ad, click, increase traffic, opt in, etc. In fact, Hubspot has a great list of traditional email spam trigger words that covers not just marketing words and phrases, but also commerce, personal, finance, and other spam word triggers.
It includes words like – As seen on, Meet singles, Home based, Subject to credit, More Internet Traffic & many more.
It used to be that by avoiding these words (and performing a few other simple steps), you could avoid spam filters.
And while these words are still good to leave out of your subject line, the process a bit more complicated than that in 2016.
Nowadays, spam filters are far more intelligent. They’re not just searching for spammy words in a subject line. They’re looking at email headers, processing language and scanning your actual email to make sure it’s giving your subscriber the best experience.
Email spam filters have gone from basic if/then detectors to context aware bots.
How modern spam filters work (today)
Spam filters look for a long list of spammy criteria in your messages and each one gets a different spam score. Your total score determines whether or not you’re blocked.
Typically, passing scores are determined by the individual server administrators, which means avoiding them isn’t an exact science — so like good modern SEO, there’s no magic formula.
And while there are obvious triggers (like spammy words in a subject line) there are actually a bunch of non-obvious triggers that can get your email flagged, for example:
Too many images, not enough text – Spam filters can’t read images, and spammers know that, so they take advantage of it. Instead of sending text-laden spam emails, they’ll send images instead. Well, spam filters know that. So if your email is image heavy, it’s getting flagged.
“You registered with a partner” – Including this phrase in your emails is a huge red flag for spam filters. This lets spam filters know your email isn’t permission-based – AKA, they didn’t opt in to receive your email.
The word “Oprah” – Apparently spammers are into Oprah. Who knew?
And obviously with so many random triggers and phrases, it’s nearly impossible to follow a magic “avoid spam filter” formula.
Looking for shortcuts here is a fool’s errand. Instead of trying to cut out all of your triggers and potential spam markers, you’re better off creating a great email campaign that connects to your audience and gives them valuable content.
So instead of focusing on how to avoid spam triggers, I’ll pose the question, “What makes a great email campaign?” with the idea that long-term – sending emails that people want to receive is the only sustainable way to avoid spam filters.
Avoiding Spam Triggers By Sending Better Emails
Building a better strategy can be drilled down into three main steps. We’ll look into each one to help you create a better email strategy to help you create a better email strategy that avoids shortcuts, that builds effective long-term campaigns, helps you connect with more subscribers, and meets your business objectives.
Step 1: Build Better Lists
A well-written individual email can’t get around a “bad” email address list. And by “bad” – I simply mean people who don’t want your email.
Bad campaign metadata triggers spam. That essentially means spam filters take it very seriously if someone hasn’t opted into your email. Did you know spam filters can deduct information by scanning the metadata in your email, such as the To: field, domains, and even the sending address?
In order to keep your meta from raising red flags, MailChimp recommends using merge tags to personalize the To: field, sending emails through verified domains, and even asking your recipients to add your address to their address book, so their server recognizes you.
What do these all have in common?
You have to know who you’re sending the email to, and they have to expect receiving your email too.
Never just assume you have permission to send someone a promotional email, whether they are a friend, colleague, or even a customer. First and foremost, it’s ineffective (not to mention rude). Secondly, it’s a surefire way to end up in the spam filter.
Instead, take your time to collect real emails from real people who actually want to receive your email. Not only will this help guard your email from the spam folder — it’ll help the open rate, too.
Most email marketing campaigns start with a subscription page, which is a great place to set expectations. Let subscribers know exactly what they’ll be receiving in your emails. After all, sending a message about the best sneakers on the market to someone who’s shown interest in the best leather loafers isn’t honest marketing anyway. Who wouldn’t mark that as spam?
You can also implement a double opt-in process to make sure all subscribers are truly qualified leads for your business. A double opt-in process simply means having users opt-in twice.
First, they enter their email on your subscription page.
Second, they click a confirmation link that arrives in their inbox to re-confirm they want to receive emails from you. You also have the option to use an opt-in reCAPTCHA form, where subscribers check a reCAPTCHA box to verify their subscription to your emails.
In doing so, you’re protected against spambots, who add fake data to your list, corrupting your audience and increasing the likelihood of emails getting marked as spam.
The more people on your list that explicitly opt-in to your emails and continue to open your emails after they sign up – the “cleaner” your list will be, and the less likely you’ll be to to get filtered by spam systems.
Step 2: Create Better Campaigns
Creating a great email campaign is key in avoiding spam filters. After all, random communication is bad communication. Once subscribers opt-in to receive your messages, they want what they signed up for: purposeful communication that fits their needs.
If you aren’t setting and meeting expectations for your subscribers, you’re not just looking suspicious to spam filters… you’re inviting your reader to click the dreaded “Mark as Spam” button.
Your subscribers should always know what they’re signing up for. It’s your job to set expectations for what your emails will entail. You can do this by defining what they should expect to receive clearly on your subscription page.
You’ll also want to set expectations with design. It may sound obvious, but your email should represent your brand, which means your design should replicate that of your website, to some extent.
You don’t want your audience to subscribe on your page and then receive an email that’s in completely different colors and not “on brand.” Not only does it look unprofessional — it can cause confusion on the subscriber’s part about who the email is actually coming from.
Segment your audience
Not all of your subscribers are going to want the same thing, which is where segmentation comes in handy. Segmenting your audience simply means dividing them into various lists.
For example, say you’re a realtor. Not all of your homebuyers are looking for the same information. Some may be first-time homebuyers, who want to know more about the home buying process, such as how to get a loan, what to expect in a mortgage payment, and how to qualify for a loan.
Other buyers may be looking for a second or third home, and will likely already know this information. By segmenting your audience, you can create campaigns that speak specifically to each audience’s wants and needs.
You don’t just have to segment audience by wants/needs. Check out MailChimp’s post about the effects of different list segmentations to see a variety of options.
Step 3: Write Better Emails
Now let’s dive into the actual emails that are sent. Often, it’s not an entire campaign or domain that triggers spam filters, but an email itself. In fact, a single email can trigger filters for an entire campaign.
Sending a bad email is a bit like like having bad presentation as a restaurant. Think about it – you’ve heard about a fancy new restaurant with a great menu, wonderful service, and the perfect location. But then you get a flier from them, and it’s in Comic Sans with typos and horrible photos. You’d think something’s up, right? Same goes for a bad email.
So how exactly do you write a better email? Let’s look at your subject line and the email body.
Tips for Writing Better Subject Lines
The difference between a mediocre and great subject line can be the difference between a conversion and a lost customer. Think about it:
When you get an email, what’s the first thing you do? Read the subject. If the subject line doesn’t capture your attention and spark your interest, that email goes right into the trash — or even worse, the spam filter, where the rest of the campaign emails end up for all eternity.
Don’t miss your chance to make an instant connection with your audience. Instead, use these tips to craft an effective subject line:
Use actionable language
The subject line of your email should let the reader know right off the bat what they can actually do with it. For example, can they buy something? Reserve a seat? Download a podcast? Your subject holds the promise, and the email is the delivery. Give your audience the reason they should be opening this email right in the subject, and then deliver on it.
Too often, people focus on being funny or unique in a subject line. There’s nothing wrong with a little catchiness–until you sacrifice it for clarity. Make sure your audience knows what your email is about, even if you can’t find a way to be creative with the delivery.
Clarity also applies to how the subject line aligns with the body copy. It should go without saying, but you’ll want to make sure your email message actually matches what you promise in your subject. After all, you’d be disappointed too if you opened an email thinking it was about the 10 best taco recipes to make on a budget only to find it’s really about the best taco restaurants to visit in your city.
That is a sure way to get click through rates and even open rates to drop rapidly.
Tips for Writing Better Body Content:
Now that you’ve got your subject line down, you can dive into the body copy of the email.
Too many emails are filled with generic, irrelevant and/or promotional content. But really, emails are your opportunity to create authentic connections with your customers and build your business.
As such, bombarding your users with promotional emails of “buy, buy, buy!” won’t do the trick. So instead of crafting a generic, sales-y email, try taking the following approach instead.
Personalize the email
Personalization isn’t just about using a dynamic tag to insert someone’s name. It’s about establishing relevancy to your reader throughout the entire email.
You can do this by reminding your reader why they’re receiving your email. As consumers, we get hundreds of emails a day. Your audience is far more likely to engage with your message if you remind them why they’re receiving it in the first place.
For example, take this email from “Be Yourself,” a collection on Medium. This isn’t the first email in the series, but the second.
Check out the second P.P.S.
You can also personalize your email by being purposeful about point-of-view. By using second person (i.e. we, you), you put the focus on the the reader and show that you have an established relationship.
*Hint: use more you’s than we’s, like this example from American Express.
Focus on benefits
When you send an email, you know what you’re offering customers. But your readers don’t have a clue. Even if you write a great subject line, that still doesn’t get to the value of what you have to offer.
Too often, email campaigns revolve around features, without ever communicating the benefit these features have to the customer, which is key in the why. Take a look at the email from Office Depot:
It’s great that I can get deals on paper, but what’s the benefit to me? Why should I take advantage of this deal? Is it because I’m a startup owner that needs to save costs on much needed office items? Because I’m a writer who is working on a novel? What’s the point?
Now, take a look at this one.
This Petco email starts off by letting me know the benefit right away. If I make a purchase, I’ll receive 5 Reward Dollars. I can use those Reward Dollars toward other purchases I’ll need to make in the future.
Do you read an email in it’s entirety?
Probably not; and neither do your customers. Your readers are scanning for the important details, such as the how they know you, and why they benefit from taking action on your email. So, get to the point quickly.
The point of your email isn’t to keep your audience reading all day — it’s to have them take some sort of action, whether that’s clicking through to a news article, downloading an asset, or even redeeming a coupon.
So, summarize your important points so your readers can take the action you want.
Speaking of taking the action you want… brevity also applies to your call to action (CTA). We already addressed the benefits of actionable language in a subject line, which applies to your CTA, too.
But what is perhaps more importantly is having a primary CTA. Focus on one action you want your users to take — the most important one. Then, highlight that CTA (and only that CTA) to make it crystal clear that you want your users to do that one thing, if nothing else.
Check out this Wantable email –
It does a great job of being brief in both the body and the CTA.
Keep it simple
It may sound counterintuitive given all the bells and whistles you can add to an email, but keeping your design and format simple is key to increasing your click through rate (CTR).
An overly designed email can look cluttered, causing subscribers to either mark it as spam, or delete without clicking through to wherever you want them to go. Plus, as I mentioned before, having more images than text can also get your email flagged as spam by spam filters.
Take the following example:
This Loaf Deals email looks cluttered with both text and images. My eye doesn’t know where to go first, or which deal I should really buy.
Now compare it to the following:
This email from Buzzsumo is clean, simple, and to the point. It’s not overly designed, but stays on-brand and lets me know exactly what I’ll be getting and what I should do.
*Hint: Make sure any images you do use have alt text, especially if the CTA is an image. Many subscribers won’t have images turned on, which means they won’t see them.
Now that you know how to get your emails out of the spam box, it’s time to start revamping your campaign! Here are some next steps to get started with:
- Define the goals & sequence of the campaign(s).
- Determine your opt-in strategy – offers, etc.
- Segment your audiences based on how they opted-in.
- Write clear, concise emails for each segment.
- Make tweaks based on what works and what doesn’t.
Don’t neglect #5 – the only long-term best practice in email marketing is to test and see what works for your business. If you want to read more about developing a full marketing plan, check out this marketing plan for ecommerce and this plan for local business.