Feb 17, 2007

Anti-Spammer Goes Ballistic (and how you can avoid this yourself)

There are a lot of classic anti-spam crusade stories out there. The Story of Nadine comes to mind.

Here’s a new one. You can’t help but drop your jaw in amazement when you read this story. Here’s what happened:

  1. Someone submitted Mark Mumma’s email address (probably as a dirty prank) to Cruise.com.
  2. Cruise.com sent him a followup email (screenshot after the link below).
  3. Mr. Mumma felt that the followup email was spam
  4. Instead of clicking the "unsubscribe" link in the email—well, you have to read the story (and interview) to believe it all.

Whichever side you’re on (and each side has good points), you have to agree all this is a HUGE headache for all parties involved. 

Anyways, here’s the back story, and then here’s the transcript of his interview with Ken Magill (Ken writes about "The Blunt Truth on Everything E-mail" over at Magilla Marketing).

Here’s a C|NET Article about it.

In all likelihood, it was a simple mistake.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned, and things email marketers can do, to prevent this kind of mess from happening to them…

  1. First of all, don’t just assume that "As long as I include an opt-out link, I’m safe." Obviously, people won’t trust your link if they’ve never heard of you before. They’re more likely to report you as a spammer (or sue you!).
  2. When people opt-in to your list, how are your followup emails written? Are they written like you just walked right into their living room and plopped yourself on their couch, and went straight into your obnoxious sales pitch? Or do you stay at the door and politely introduce yourself first, making yourself look trustworthy, so that if this was all a silly accident or prank, they’ll trust your unsubscribe link (instead of taking you to court)?

Here’s a screenshot of the email that started all the trouble (click for full screen):


I gotta admit, that’s pretty spammy looking. I mean, c’mon people. I know the courts sided with Cruise.com, because technically they didn’t break any laws. But I think they could have avoided all this trouble with a better design.

Let me count the ways their email looks like spam:


I probably wouldn’t spend $65,000 of my own money to sue them, but I know I definitely wouldn’t trust this email’s unsubscribe link. I’d report it as spam by clicking the "This is Junk" button.

How We’d Change The Design

First of all, how many people actually want cruise deals emailed to them every single week? I can understand if I’m planning a vacation. Weekly eDeals would be good research. But after I’ve booked my vacation, you can bet I’ll be unsubscribing.

Maybe vacation planners or agents of some sort could benefit from the weekly eDeals. If that’s the case, two separate lists might be in order here.

I’d definitely recommend collecting names on the signup form, and perhaps even "Date you plan to go on vacation," which could be merged into each email to create a subliminal sense of urgency.

Before sending eDeals to people on a very frequent basis, you better make sure they really want those emails. Double opt-in, while not 100% foolproof, will help keep your list clean, and will give you the "proof of opt-in" that you’ll need if someone reports you as spam.

But if you absolutely refuse to use double opt-in (because you just enjoy the risk of getting in trouble), you really need to make sure your email looks reputable. Like you actually care about your brand. Don’t make it look like a yard sale flyer you designed on your computer and copied onto flourescent pink paper at Kinko’s.

Here’s my suggestion for how they could re-design their emails:


The challenge with an email like Cruise.com is that it’s full of unavoidable "spammy" looking content like "Lowest Prices Guaranteed" and "$Dollar signs" and stuff like that.

The double opt-in process would probably help a little by forcing the recipient to confirm their subscription (thereby giving you the opportunity to "train" their spam filters to accept future emails from you).

Otherwise, you’ve got to make up for all that spammy content with good, professional  design work. Here’s what I changed:

  1. I have nothing against center-aligning things, but not the entire message, please.
  2. Politely say hello, and merge the *|FNAME|* into the content. Yeah, everybody knows about mail-merge now, but it shows you’ve actually got more data about them than their email ("Maybe I did sign up for this").
  3. I created a title graphic: "This Week’s eDeals" with the same font (and color range) as the logo, just to give the email some semblance of brand standards.
  4. Got rid of the bright red numbers, converted the prices to "hyperlink blue" and added cruise ship logos. Give them something fun to click. When everything is bright red and bright blue, it all cancels itself out. Just make the prices blue hyperlinks.
  5. Holy cow their email had lots of different fonts. I counted six (and some would only work on PCs). I’m just using one font in my version.
  6. If I were BBB or Disney certified, I’d definitely use their logos whenever possible in my footer. If you’ve been identified as a credible company, flaunt it.
  7. I’d collect opt-in IP addresses and date/time stamp for travel offer emails. That’s your best "proof" of opt-in. Include it in the email’s footer.

Your email design says a lot about your company’s reputation. If you don’t look reputable, why should anyone trust your unsubscribe link (let alone your content!)?