Navigate Spam Traps for Email Marketing Deliverability

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“Navigate Spam Traps for Email Marketing Deliverability”

By Katharine Whipple, Marketing & Business Development Manager

1)  Email Marketing: Use and Abuse – Some History & Background:

Maybe it’s hard to imagine life without email, or email marketing.  But to get a quick perspective, we can look back at 45 years of e-volution.  In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, a MIT grad, and employee of a Boston tech firm, sent the first email to another computer and invented the use of the “@” symbol for email addresses.  This was the age of the big mainframe computers, when postal mail and telemarketing were the only options for direct marketing. Email Marketing was decades away, and Email Deliverability was yet to be an issue.

Then, in 1978, Gary Thuerk, a Marketing Manager at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), sent the first “Mass emailing” to 400 users via Arpanet.  It was a great novelty, to get an email marketing message in their computer inbox, and he achieved record sales results.

With the birth of the internet in 1991, following research marked by the publication of “The New World Wide Web Project” report by CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the whole game changed.  At first, the only internet addresses and users with access were students/university employees and corporate employees.  Then in 1996, Hotmail (originally named HoTMaiL, based on the HTML code) introduced free personal web based email addresses for individuals.  America Online (AOL), Yahoo and other ISPs quickly followed.  Now marketers had email marketing, a cheaper, faster way to reach their customers and prospects than postal mail or telemarketing. They began to blast away, with no limits or consequences.

At first email marketing was a novelty for consumers, but use can bring about abuse. As more and more marketers sent more and more unsolicited emails, email inboxes became cluttered with “junk email,” unsolicited, unwanted commercial marketing emails.  The term “SPAM” is rumored to have originated as a reference to a 1970 Monty Python TV skit, where unwitting diners were subject to a menu mostly based on Spam processed and canned luncheon meat. This ingredient, like junk email, was unwanted and everywhere, and was also promoted in an annoying chant, by other “Viking” diners. (See, Monty Python – SPAM)

2)  “Can SPAM” Regulation:

In 1998, calls for regulation of email marketing and unwanted SPAM emails caused the UK Data Protection Act to be updated to require that all email marketing include an opt-out option.

Then in 2003, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enacted the “CAN-SPAM” act:

Key requirements of the CAN-SPAM act for email marketing are:

  1. “Don’t use false or misleading header information. Your “From,” “To,” “Reply-To,” and routing information – including the originating domain name and email address – must be accurate and identify the person or business who initiated the message.
  2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines. The subject line in email marketing must accurately reflect the content of the message.
  3. Identify the message as an ad. The law gives you a lot of leeway in how to do this, but you must disclose clearly and conspicuously that your message is an advertisement.
  4. Tell recipients where you’re located. Your message must include your valid physical postal address. This can be your current street address, a post office box you’ve registered with the U.S. Postal Service, or a private mailbox you’ve registered with a commercial mail receiving agency established under Postal Service regulations.
  5. Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you. Your email marketing message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand. Creative use of type size, color, and location can improve clarity. Give a return email address or another easy Internet-based way to allow people to communicate their choice to you. You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of email marketing messages, but you must include the option to stop all email marketing messages from you. Make sure your spam filter doesn’t block these opt-out requests.
  6. Honor opt-out requests promptly. Any opt-out mechanism you offer must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after you send your email marketing message. You must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days. You can’t charge a fee, require the recipient to give you any personally identifying information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request. Once people have told you they don’t want to receive more email marketing messages from you, you can’t sell or transfer their email addresses, even in the form of a mailing list. The only exception is that you may transfer the addresses to a company you’ve hired to help you comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.
  7. Monitor what others are doing on your behalf. The law makes clear that even if you hire another company to handle your email marketing, you can’t contract away your legal responsibility to comply with the law. Both the company whose product is promoted in the message and the company that actually sends the message may be held legally responsible.”

Non-compliance can be costly, as each separate email in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act can be subject to up to $16,000 in penalties.


3)  “Sender Score” and Blacklisting – The Enforcers:

Sender Score ( is a non-profit subsidiary of for profit Return Path (, a New York City based data management and marketing firm that provides email marketing optimization, fraud protection and consumer data reports.

According to Sender Score, “Only 28% of all email messages sent worldwide ever reach the inbox.”  The rest are caught up by various filters.  A company’s Sender Score is “a number between 0 and 100 that identifies your sender reputation and shows you how (email) mailbox providers view your IP address.”  A Sender Score below 70 is a red flag that email marketing practices may need revision, as SPAM filters are being triggered; above 70 the email marketing program is basically on track, but could still use some review and upgrades.

A number of email marketing metrics are taken into consideration determining a Sender Score, including: SPAM complaints, Blacklists and Whitelists, mailing to unknown users, mailing to SPAM traps and level of subscriber engagement.  And Sender Scores are a major determinant for the SPAM filters the ISPs, such as Google, Comcast, Yahoo, AOL, etc. use on incoming emails.

4)  Email Sending Services Policies:

In response to this situation, bulk email marketing service providers, such as Constant Contact, Vertical Response and Mail Chimp have developed their own policies to prevent and curtail SPAM penalization, for their email marketing clients and themselves. Key considerations include:

  1. A) Only mailing to a permission-based, opt-in list. This includes Express Opt-Ins (i.e. recipients who have signed up in person, or electronically on the business’s website), and Implied Opt-Ins (Recipients who have done business with the company in the past, have exchanged business cards with company representatives at events, or given their business card at events, etc.)
  2. B) Banning certain industries with generally higher than usual email marketing abuse complaints, that mail services fear might damage their own email marketing system deliverability with excessive SPAM complaints. Some examples include:  escort and dating services, pharmaceutical products, work from home, make money online and lead generation opportunities, online trading or stock market related content, gambling, multi-level email marketing, mortgages and loans, nutritional, herbal and vitamin supplements, tax help/tax repair and online streaming TV.

 5)  Email Marketing List Development Practices to Avoid SPAM Triggers:

The best general email marketing practice is to focus on organically developing permission based lists, through business and personal contacts, that are either Express and/or Implied opt-ins. Avoid purchasing, or exchanging third party lists where there has been no direct or indirect contact with your firm.

6)  Subject Line Considerations:

  1. A)  The email marketing subject line is critical to creating interest, opens, actions and conversions.
  2. B) Select the keywords and techniques that will appeal to your specific target audience.
  3. C) Length of the subject line is a much debated topic. According to Sender Score, most subject lines are between 61-70 characters, and those with 61-70 characters had the highest open rate (17%)
  4. D) It helps to know if your email marketing message is to be read primarily on desktops (@ 60 characters for subject line display) or on mobile devices (@ 25-30 characters displayed)

7)  Take Advantage of Pro Expertise to Get it Right!

There are many complex and continually changing aspects to email marketing, and it’s a worthwhile investment to turn to a marketing professional for sound advice.  Whether you are just starting, or continuing to build an email marketing program as part of your marketing mix, now is a great time to find out how email can work for you!  Please contact Katharine Whipple,, 415-532-9196,  for more information.