Apr 2, 2007

How Your Email Design Can Get You Blacklisted

One of our customers just got blacklisted by an anti-spam organization for his recent email campaign. The customer is a graphic designer, sending campaigns on behalf of his client. The list he was sending to was a list of his client’s customers.

They were basically offering a prize to their valued customers, as a "thank you" for their business. Nice, right?

It was a beautiful email. The font was well-chosen, the colors were balanced and harmonious. Oh, and the copywriting—very funny. Not the "ha-ha" kind of funny, but the intelligent tongue-in-cheek kind of funny. Seriously, this was the kind of content that could win a design award.

Problem was, all of that content was inside one big, giant graphic.

And since most email programs block images by default, this is what most of their customers saw in their inbox:


With images off, the only readable content for them was that "Yoo-hoo, click here!" line.

And that’s assuming any spam filters actually allowed an email with a big bright pink "Click Here!" to actually get through to the inbox.

So what happened after their customers saw that email? They naturally thought it was spam (and when I say "they" it was most likely one person—that’s all it takes). So they reported it, and a copy of the email found its way to the abuse desk at the anti-spam organization.

The engineer who received the report, to his credit, actually did click his "show images" button in his email program. But what did he see?

If he scrolled down in his preview pane to get past the 150 pixel high logo, he saw the first line of copy: "Challenge yourself today to see how quickly you can click your cursor on that little link at the bottom of this email."

Now I know that sounds extremely spammy, but you’ll have to trust me on this. It wasn’t spam. Because the following 5 sentences (if you scrolled down in your preview pane even more) went on to explain, in a very funny way, how they were giving away gifts to customers because they knew they were under a lot of stress, and they just deserved a little break. Basically a low-tech "game" where every customer is a winner. Cute. Trust me. I know it’s hard to believe, because the image is blocked. But really—if you clicked on "show images" and then scrolled down in your preview pane about 600 pixels, and you took the time to read the whole thing, you’d clearly see that it wasn’t spam. </sarcasm>

Problem is, that IT person in charge of the abuse desk didn’t have the time to sit there and read the whole email. He had about 93 bazillion other pieces of purported spam to review.

So he made a gut-level decision to block all future emails from that sender, or with that sender’s domain name in it.

We just worked with them to get the domain unblocked. Took 3 weeks of phone calls and emails. You see, when you get on a blacklist, even by accident, people aren’t exactly in a hurry to help you out.

So here are a few tips for anybody that designs or writes email marketing campaigns:

1) Assume your recipients will have images turned off by default. How does your email look?

2) Assume your recipients will only read your emails in their preview pane. Does enough content display in that limited slice of real estate? Here’s an email in AOL9’s preview pane.

3) Assume that your email will be reviewed by an IT person who will take all of 3 seconds to judge whether you are a trusted sender, or a spammer. Are you trustworthy in the blink of an eye?