Feb 2, 2008

Who’s Secretly Reading Your Emails?

There are people out there who are secretly reading and judging your email marketing campaigns. If you don’t take these people into consideration whenever you create your campaigns, you’re placing your company’s reputation at stake and you could get blacklisted. Who are these people, and what exactly are they looking for?

A Panel of Humans Tell Microsoft Which Emails are Spam

In the article above, Stefan Pollard describes how Microsoft randomly picks emails out of their "stream" and then puts them in front of volunteers to judge as "spam" or "not spam." Gulp.

Before you start writing another letter of complaint to Bill Gates, you should know that it’s virtually the same situation everywhere. Copies of your email could be sent to any corporate IT desk. Or to an ISP postmaster. Or your ESP’s abuse desk. It happens when your recipients don’t remember who the heck you are, because you took so long to email them. Or maybe you met your recipient at some trade show 3 years ago, and he doesn’t recall giving you his business card and saying, "Yeah, put me on your newsletter!" Or maybe you’re a creative agency, and your client gave you some big list of prospects, and you didn’t really ask them questions about how old that list was, or how they opted-in.

Whatever the case, those recipients get mad when they receive an email from someone they don’t recognize, and they report it as spam. A copy of your email goes to some overworked, underpaid geek with a chip on his shoulder.

In one split second, he will scan your email and judge whether or not he should block you forever (so that he doesn’t have to deal with anymore complaints about you). Here’s an example.

How To Design Your Emails

So take a look at your last email campaign. Pretend one of your recipients reported it as spam. It gets sent to their ISP’s abuse desk. Now some dude who has been dealing with about 10 billion pieces of spam (that day) is going to spend about 0.2 seconds judging whether or not your email looks like spam, or if it looks legit.

As Stefan Pollard asks, "Are you doing all you can to demonstrate your trustworthiness and value by sending relevant, identifiable e-mail?"

Here’s how you can make sure your email looks reputable…

  1. Don’t be stupid/spammy with your subject line and from-name. That’s the very first thing people see when they get your email. See our Tips on writing good email subject lines, and our Subject Line Comparison Study.
  2. Make sure your header graphic looks nice and reputable. A sloppy text-only company name in giant Comic Sans font looks unprofessional (even if you’re a comic book company). If you’re not a designer, hire a good one. This is why in MailChimp, our built-in HTML email template designer requires a logo graphic. Yes, we realized not everybody can create a nice header graphic. And those people shouldn’t send email, until they get one done properly (here’s a list of email marketing experts for hire).
  3. Make sure the email isn’t a big image-only campaign, and always provide a link to "view this email in a browser" (we do this automatically for MailChimp users). If your email was forwarded to an abuse desk admin, images might be broken in transit. If key pieces of content are conveyed with graphics, they might not see what your message was about. Here’s the nightmare that can result from that.
  4. Make sure there’s an unsubscribe link in your footer. Make sure that link isn’t deceptive or confusing (examples of confusing opt-out wording here and here). Don’t let the opt-out link be an image.
  5. Make sure your company’s address and contact info is in the footer. Don’t try to understand the spam laws to determine whether or not your contact info is truly required in your email. Just put the damn thing in there ("Why not? What have you got to hide?").
  6. Always include a good, descriptive Permission Reminder in your email campaigns. A Permission Reminder is a little blurb that describes how you got the recipient’s email address. You should be as descriptive as possible. A good example would be, "You received this email because you opted-in at our website, or you gave us your permission while making a purchase at our store." A bad example would include stuff like, "we don’t spam," or "this email complies with U.S. law…" or, "you expressed interest one day." The Permission reminder is usually in your footer, but it can be at the top of your email if you’re sending a re-introduction to an old list. At MailChimp, we do our own checks on customers and outbound emails. The Permission Reminder is one of the most important (out of about 26 different criteria) we scan. A sloppy or vague Permission Reminder means the sender doesn’t have permission, doesn’t care, or is rushing this campaign. Whatever the case, it usually means we have to click the "Suspend this account" and then talk to the sender.