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February 1, 2017 | Torrie Boggs

9 Ways to Avoid Getting Your Email Flagged as Spam

For years, marketers speculated about whether email marketing was on its way out. In fact, as early as 2010, VIEO’s own Holly Yalove was reassuring our readers that “email is still widely used” in marketing strategies. Well, it’s 2017, and email marketing is definitely still widely used—and I think we can expect it to be around for a while.But while marketers aren’t slowing down, spam filters have gotten more effective at weeding out unwanted emails. It’s only getting more important for businesses to make sure that they’re adhering to anti-spam regulations and best practices.

How can you keep your legitimate emails from getting marked as spam?

I’m sure you don’t intend to send irrelevant or inappropriate messages to large numbers of people on the internet, but it’s easier than you might think to do that by accident if you’re not careful. This is especially true if you’re working from a large list.

Most spam filters work by assigning your emails a score according to a list of factors that indicate spammy email practices. Having messages marked as spam hurts your sender reputation, which impacts all of the emails you send from then forward. Here’s a great explanation from HubSpot about why sender reputation is important:

Your reputation encompasses almost every single thing that happens to your message once you hit send. Examples include open rates, clickthrough rates, spam reports and high bounce rates. A really healthy reputation is much more likely to guarantee you entrance to your recipient's inbox. As your reputation declines, however, your recipient's spam filter may choose to route your subsequent mailings to the spam folder, or worse, deny it completely and drop it as a hard bounce due to a poor reputation.

Your email reputation is important. You can’t communicate with anyone if all of your emails go directly into the spam folder. Here are a few key things you can do to keep your emails from getting flagged as spam, either by a spam filter or by a recipient.

1. Don’t Buy Lists

Yep, number one on the list is avoiding purchased email addresses. If you don’t have the express permission to email someone, they are much less likely to open and click and much more likely to report your emails as spam, both of which impact your sender reputation. 

2. Avoid Spammy Language

Modern spam filters analyze the language of your email subject lines and other content to determine whether your emails are spam. Avoid using ALL CAPS, and take it easy with the exclamation points, dollar signs, and words like “free” and even “sale”. Industry-specific phrases like “increase web traffic” that have been heavily used by spammers can also get you flagged.

Another tip—be careful about emails composed mostly of images, even if the images include text. Since spam filters can’t read the text in the image, spammers sometimes try to hide trigger words that way. If your email is all images, spam filters may get suspicious. Be sure to include alt-text on all your images, not only to tell spam filters what they're about, but for people who have images disabled or who are using screen readers.

3. Offer Subscription Options

When you give people the choice of how often they'd like to receive your emails, they're less likely to unsubscribe or report you for spam. By giving your contacts the choice, you're ensuring that they don’t receive more emails than they bargained for. 

When people do hit "unsubscribe," it's not always because they want to stop hearing from you altogether; many would simply prefer fewer emails. By including these options both at the outset and on the unsubscribe page, you can recover many of those subscribers

You can also prevent unsubscribes by respecting each contact's expectations. Don't automatically subscribe people to your blog when they download an offer, for example. Sure, you'll have fewer people to email, but the recipients will actually want and expect to receive your emails. 

4. Provide an Easy Way to Unsubscribe

It is counterintuitive, but if you hide the unsubscribe option, your contacts are more likely to hit the spam button. To them, this has the same effect as unsubscribing, but it's much worse for you. You don't need to make the unsubscribe button the most obvious feature in the email, but it should be easy to find if someone is looking for it. 

When people do unsubscribe, it's essential to honor opt-out requests promptly so your business doesn't violate CAN-SPAM rules

5. Remind Them of Your Relationship

While this tip is more about preventing people from marking your emails as spam than avoiding the spam filter, it’s an important one. Depending on how long it has been since you were in touch, the recipients of your emails may not remember who you are.

Whenever possible, remind them of the nature of your relationship or your last contact. Personalization is a great way to do that, but you can also segment your list in ways that allow you to reference the lead source, last interaction, etc.

6. Consider Using a Double Opt-In

Widely considered a best practice, the "double opt-in" requires people to check their inboxes and confirm their subscription, ensuring that no one has been signed up against their will. While it may decrease successful sign-ups, you can trust that everyone on your list wants to be there (or did at some point). These more qualified leads are more likely to continuing opening and engaging with your emails, and ultimately to become customers.

Follow-up messages can actually boost your email reputation, especially if your new subscribers know that the email is coming. They can then look for the email, and even search their spam folder if they don’t find it in their regular messages, which can "teach" their spam filter that you are not spam.

7. Segment Your Contacts

There are several different ways you can and should segment your email list to avoid getting marked as spam. Start by creating a list of unengaged contacts who aren't really opening and clicking on your emails.

The parameters of what counts as "unengaged" are up to you. HubSpot is currently beta-testing a feature allowing you to automatically exclude contacts who haven't opened the last 10 emails you sent, but what works for your list may be different. No matter what you decide, it’s important to not keep filling the inboxes of contacts who are uninterested right now. You can easily create a list of these people and use it as an exclusion list during an email send, and send them a special re-engagement email later.

You can also create a list of people who are the most likely to want a particular offer or the product/service for which it's generating leads. Depending on your business, this list could be segmented by region, or industry, or even an entirely different buyer persona. You can do this for each offer, service group, or product line—whatever is most manageable for you and your contact database.

8. Constantly Analyze and Use Best Practices

Like I mentioned earlier in this post, spam filters and email clients look at both metrics and the content of individual emails to judge whether or not they're spam. Make sure your copy is succinct, has a clear structure, and is as typo-free as you can get it (yes, that matters!). Revisiting your email metrics frequently is a good way to identify problems with engagement or the general quality of your list before they have too much impact. Learn more about email marketing best practices here.

9. When You've Been Blacklisted

If you're having deliverability problems, you may have been blacklisted (click here for more on what that means). This can be caused by anything from being on the same email server as spammers to sending from the wrong email address. Luckily, we have a blog post all about that, and you can read it here.

Our email marketing checklist makes it easier to follow best practices!

Download our Email Marketing Checklist!

Editor's Note: This post has been updated. It was originally published on August 22, 2010.

Torrie Boggs

Torrie Boggs

As an inbound marketing project manager, Torrie gets to use her considerable management and organizational skills to achieve clients' goals, while her happy, laid-back attitude and the twinkle in her eye make every meeting, email, and conversation a joy.

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