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Little Things Add Up for Spam Filters

Ever wonder what triggers the spam filters? One of the most popular server-installed spam filters out there is called, "Spam Assassin" and last year, we posted a link to a long list of things that Spam Assassin scans for.

We thought we'd revisit some of the most common things that will get innocent email marketers accidentally filtered...

Spam filters like Spam Assassin "read" your email. Kind of like how search engines read the content of your websites. Spam Assassin looks for spammy "clues" in your email, and then assigns a "score" for each clue it finds. For example, if you say something like, "CLICK HERE NOW!!!!" you might get 2 spam points. If you make it a bright red "CLICK HERE NOW!!!!" you might get 2.3 points. Then, if you say something really stupid like, "MONEY BACK GUARANTEE! ACT NOW! GET RICH FAST!!!!" you might get 6 points for that. Once your "spaminess score" hits the threshold (which is set by the server admin), your email gets blocked. Some people set the threshold high, some low.

Good email marketers would never commit 95% of the things Spam Assassin looks for. We're talking about evil stuff, like forging email headers, faking links, etc. But there are a few things that seem to get accidentally included in lots of innocent email marketers' campaigns. Here are the ones we see the most...

  • The phrase, "click here" is getting really bad. It was causing
    problems before, but it seems to be causing more nowadays. Especially
    be careful of using "click here" in your unsubscribe link. Don't say, "Click here to unsubscribe." Switch it up with something more like, "You may unsubscribe from our list at any time" or simply,  "Unsubscribe from our list"
  • Using the word "test" in your subject line will often get you spam filtered. If you're sending tests for clients, make your subject line look as real as possible.
  • As I recently posted, using "lorem ipsum" dummy text a lot in your message body will get you spam filtered, too.
  • Dollar signs are a big no-no. We realize this one's really hard to avoid for a lot of businesses. So if you've got an email campaign with tons of dollar signs in it, make sure you've got other text in the email to "balance the equation." If you've got  a dollar sign in your email with a number that's in the millions, you're on thin ice. Be really careful not to do anything else risky, like using red fonts, too many exclamation points, etc.
  • Not enough text. If you only send an HTML email, you look like a spammer. Be sure to always include a plain-text version of your message (systems like MailChimp help you do this). Also, don't send an HTML email that's nothing but a bunch of graphics. The spam filters can't read them to determine their content---so what do you think they'll assume it is?
  • Don't go nuts with font formatting. You get spam-points for making fonts huge. Also for making them tiny. And for coloring them red, blue, or green. Or using non-web-safe fonts. This seems to be a problem mostly with marketers who are using Microsoft Word to design their HTML emails. Don't do that. Get a professional to develop a couple email templates for you.

Here's an Excel spreadsheet of that Spam Assassin criteria list. We sorted it by "score" so that you can see what kinds of stuff it thinks are really bad. We also highlighted certain things in orange, which we think are easy mistakes to make...

Download spam_assassin_excel.xls

Don't worry too much

Having one or two little dollar signs won't get you thrown into the junk folder outright. Don't fret if you break a rule or two. But if you also do other little things that look spammy---like using giant fonts, or coding sloppy HTML, or forgetting to include your plain-text message---all those little things add up.  Also, if you try too hard to avoid these rules, Spam Assassin seems to know, and think you're actually a spammer. It's like it can smell the fear on you. Just be yourself. Don't be a jerk. Don't spam. And just try to avoid the painfully obvious things that look spammy.

Finally, Spam Assassin posted their own tips for email marketers here.


January 31, 2006 in Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Background Images and CSS in HTML Email

This page has been moved to our new blog location:

We've noticed a few people having issues with background images in their HTML email designs, so we thought we'd post some quick tips here.

Lots of email applications (especially the browser-based ones, like Yahoo!Mail, Hotmail and Gmail) strip out your <HTML>, <HEAD> and <BODY> tags. It kinda makes sense, if you think about it. They're displaying your email inside their web page. They don't want your page settings (like background colors, files, CSS, etc) to interfere with their overall interface. So they strip it all out.

That means you'll kinda have to rig your HTML email to make certain things work...

Background Images and colors in HTML Email

If you want to set a background image or color in your HTML email, you can set it in your BODY tag, where it usually goes. That'll work ok for some desktop email applications, like Microsoft Outlook.

But to make it work across more email applications, you need to "rig" your code so that your entire email is set inside a big TABLE WRAP.  Just set a big table that's 100% wide, then specify your background color and image there. We recommend doing it the old-fashioned "bgcolor" or "background="" way. If you prefer doing it with CSS, be sure to read the "CSS" tips below. As with all images in HTML email, they need to be hosted on your server, and you need to point to them with absolute (not relative) paths.

Once you've created the big TABLE WRAP with your background color or image, place your actual newsletter code inside, and you're good to go.

If you're a very experienced web designer, this will no doubt make you feel dirty, and make you want to take a shower immediately afterwards. But HTML email isn't as reliable as web pages are (yet) and there are way too many email apps out there that display HTML differently. Until all the various email apps get a little more consistent, you're going to have to get used to "rigs" like this.

CSS in HTML Email

There are all sorts of "CSS tips and tricks for HTML email." But the main thing to remember is that the <HEAD> and <BODY> tags get stripped when HTML email is displayed in browser based applications. So that means you can't link to an external CSS file from the <HEAD> portion of your email. You'll need to use embedded or inline CSS in HTML email instead. And, if you take the embedded approach, be sure to place all your code BELOW the <BODY> tag. Place it just above your content. Feels dirty, I know. But it's the only way to get CSS to work (reliably) in email.

Periods = "Stop Email!"
If you start any line in your email with a "period," some email servers interpret that as "end of message" and they'll stop it right there. D'oh! So this affects how you need to code your CSS. When you embed your CSS, be careful with the little "dots" or "periods" that are used to define styles. If you start your line of CSS with ".header" for instance, that's exactly where some email servers will cut your message off. So in your CSS, add a space before every single line that starts with a period.

It's not just a CSS thing. It's any line that starts with a period (see our previous post). But the CSS portion of your email is more likely to have lines that start with periods, so it's good to mention it here.

Want some more tips on HTML email coding and design? Try our free PDF.

January 30, 2006 in Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Update on Whiplash The cowboy monkey

Great Googley Moogley! Just found out that Whiplash the Cowboy monkey (that adorable little Capuchin monkey that rides on Ben, the border collie) not only performs in rodeos, but is also a spokesmonkey for Taco Johns. Be sure to click the "Whiplash Runs!" graphic. The best scene is at the very end (in front of the sunset).

January 28, 2006 in Monkeys! | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

TiVo Newsletter's "Whitelist Me" Text

You know all that text you see at the top of HTML email newsletters these days? They usually ask people to "white list" the sender, or "add this email address to your contacts list." Here's one I spotted from TiVo that had some personality to it:


January 27, 2006 in Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

CareerBuilder's Monk-e-mail

ChimpblingGreat idea for a monkey-viral campaign: Our good friend Lance sent us a link to CareerBuilder's monk-e-mail page. It's the best thing ever created for the Internet. Ever.

You get to choose a chimp, dress him up, pick a voice, then make him say anything you want. Then, you can email it to your friends. See that picture to the right? That's MailChimp on a Friday night. Check out the bling, and the robocop glasses. That's what he buys with the money he makes sending HTML email (and he's proud of it). FemailChimps love that stuff. Click here, and he'll talk to you...

January 26, 2006 in Monkeys! | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack Launches

Just heard about, an online archive of email newsletters. Kind of like the WayBack Machine, but for email. You basically setup an IMAP email account, then drag copies of newsletters that you receive into that inbox. NewsletterArchive will publish copies of the email online.

January 24, 2006 in Emarketing, Business | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Email Subscriber Lists are Very Delicate Things.

Nick Usborne of Excess Voice runs a great newsletter for those in the copywriting business (and if you send email newsletters to your customers, congratulations: you're in the copywriting business). His latest article, "Email Subscriber Lists are Very Delicate Things, makes a really good point:

"It is understood by your readers that you will sometimes have something you would like to sell them. It’s OK. But you have to achieve a balance. You have to give more than you ask for. Your readers have to feel that they have come out on top in some way."

We've always said, "If you've got nothing to say, don't send it." Don't resolve to send monthly or weekly email newsletters unless you've got something truly useful to share with your list each and every time. That's one reason we believe so strongly in our pay-per-email pricing. It works great when you want to just send quarterly emails. Or if you want to skip a month, because you just don't have anything worth saying this month. Your list didn't subscribe to your newsletter just because they want to hear from you. They want to gain something from it. Before you hit send, ask yourself, "Are they gaining anything from this?"

January 24, 2006 in Emarketing, Business | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cool Email Campaign? Enter the Internet Advertising Competition

Got a really cool email campaign? You should enter the Internet Advertising Competition. They're taking submissions for (among other things):

  • Email message (ad delivered via email)
  • Email message campaign (ad delivered via email)
  • Online Newsletter campaign
  • Microsite/landing page *(web site used in advertising process)

Deadline is January 31st.

January 19, 2006 in Emarketing, Business | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Consumers Increasingly Hitting “This Is Spam” Button

Interesting article here from MultiChannel Merchant about how more and more people are clicking that "This is spam" button in their email applications, instead of clicking the "unsubscribe me" link (even with emails that they've actually opted in for). No big surprise, right? We've talked about this in the past, and suggested that people start placing their opt-out links at the top of the message (instead of buried at the bottom). People get waaaay too much email, so that "junk button" is extremely convenient. And raise your hand if you've memorized the keyboard shortcut for "mark this as junk" in your email program ("J" in Mozilla Thunderbird, and "Command-shift-J" in AppleMail).

January 19, 2006 in Emarketing, Business, Spam Topics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

HTML Email Tips for Web Designers

This page has been moved to our new Blog Location:

We get this a lot: "I'm not a complete noob. I can code web pages with a text editor, I'm darn good with CSS, I've got my own server, and I've even setup my own opt-in database. So how do I get started designing HTML email? Any tips for the more advanced user?"

If you're a web designer, and you know your stuff, we'll spare you all the WYSIWYGs and "Hello World" examples, and give you a quick, no-nonsense "Quick Start Guide" to HTML Email...

HTML Design and Coding Tips:

  • HTML Email should be sent in "multipart-alternative" format. That means the email is embedded with both the plain-text version, and the HTML version, of the message. When people can't (or won't) view HTML email, the plain-text version displays instead. That's the main reason to use a system like MailChimp, Constant Contact, GotMarketing, etc.
  • You can try to code your own script to send multipart-alternative email. Use Google to research how. Then, after you've pulled out all your hair, yelled at your mom, and kicked your dog out of frustration, use one of the tools we listed above. Because even if you figure out how to deliver in multipart, you still need open, click, and bounce handling scripts, plus an email server that sends authenticated messages.
  • Image files don't get sent along with HTML email as attachments. You host images on your server, then code the HTML in your email to point to them with absolute paths. In other words, you code something like this: <img src=""> instead of like this: <img src="../images/image.gif">
  • Design for the preview pane of email applications. That means you've got about 500, 600 pixels tops for your email designs. If you think recipients will actually double click an email to view your message in full screen "to appreciate all its glory," send us whatever you're smokin.
  • You know how with web pages, you can use CSS to position things, and "separate content from appearance" and all that? Yeah, that won't work in email applications. Think back to the old days of the browser wars. When Netscape and Microsoft were duking it out. There was no Flash plugin. It was only shockwave. Put away your DIVs and DHTML. Dust off those tables, shim.gifs, and font tags, because you're gonna need 'em. Fancy CSS (especially DIVs and positioning) won't work reliably.
  • When you code a web page, you test it in IE, Firefox, and Safari, right? And you kind of learned to "leave a little wiggle room" so that your designs work across all browsers. Well, when you code an HTML email, you have to test it in Lotus Notes, Outlook 2003, Outlook 2000, Outlook Express, Apple Mail, Apple Entourage, Eudora, Mozilla Thunderbird, AOL, Yahoo!Mail, Yahoo!Mail Beta, Google's Gmail, Hotmail, Earthlink, Comcast, etc (here's a bare-minimum checklist for ya). And yeah, they all display HTML email a little different. When we say, "Keep your HTML email simple," we really mean it. Update: If you'd like to test your email design and code in one easy click, check out our new Inbox Inspector tool.
  • You can use a little CSS, such as for basic fonts and colors. But use it sparingly, and design things to fail gracefully.
  • Use inline CSS, not linked files. Unlike images, linking to a server-hosted CSS file isn't that reliable.
  • When you embed your CSS, embed it below the BODY tag because browser-based email applications (like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!Mail, etc) strip out your HTML, HEAD, and BODY tags so they won't interfere with their own web page.
  • Don't ever let any lines in your email or HTML code begin with a period. Some email servers interpret lines that begin with periods as the, "end of message" command, so your email will get stripped anywhere below that line (example). So be extra careful in your embedded CSS. Add spaces before any lines of your CSS that start with a period.
  • JavaScript, ActiveX, Flash, and embedded movie files won't work. Don't shoot the messenger---we're just telling you the truth. The reason they won't work reliably is just about everybody has anti-virus applications that block that stuff from running.
  • Background colors. Remember how we said that most browser based email applications (like HotMail) strip out your BODY tag? That's why assigning background colors to your BODY won't always work. The most reliable way of giving a background color to your email is to wrap it all inside a big, 100% wide table, and give the table cell a bgcolor. We warned you, HTML email is "old school."
  • Don't forget your plain-text version. When web designers create HTML email, they often neglect the plain-text versions (they treat it like image ALT text, or META tags---always a pesky afterthought). But plain-text emails are very important. If you neglect them, some spam filters will even think you're a sloppy coder, and throw your mail into the junk folder.
  • Tips for plain-text emails? You get absolutely no formatting. This is super old school. Hard wrap them at about 60 or 70 characters. Use a plain-text editor (not Microsoft Word), and type a letter (I like the letter "W") across the top of the document about 60 times. That's your ruler. When you type your message and get to the end of the ruler, hit return (more tips). 

About Spam Filters

  • You need a good balance of "graphics vs. text." Otherwise, spam filters will get you. Don't send one ginourmous graphic. Balance it out with some copy, especially your company contact information and unsubscribe link. If you send one ginormous image as your HTML email, it can get you blacklisted.
  • Don't write like a spammer. Watch those exclamation points, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON'T YELL in your email (learn how spam filters think).
  • Don't get sloppy with your code, because spammers are sloppy with their code. Close those table cells and font tags.
  • Don't use spammy looking colors, like HUGE SALE! and CLICK NOW!.
  • Web designers will like this one: some spam filters will punish you for using FrontPage (or other WYSIWYG tools) to code your HTML email. So strip out any of that useless META stuff that those applications produce (more funny spam assassin criteria).
  • Sending test emails to your client? If it's a fairly large corporation, their IT group probably has a spam firewall in place, and your test campaigns might get blocked. You may have to ask their IT geeks (politely) to whitelist your email service provider. Many of them throttle emails from new/unknown sending servers if they receive more than 2 or 3 messages at once. 
  • When you code a web page, you probably use "lorem ipsum" dummy text, right? If you do that with email, some Bayesian spam filters might block you (example). Same thing happens when you just paste a bunch of placeholder text over and over in your email. Go grab real copy from somewhere instead. Avoid the word "test."

Every Email Campaign Should Have...

  • An instantly recognizable from-name and reply-to address. Use your company name, for instance. Then, don't change it, because recipients might have whitelisted you.
  • A good, descriptive subject line that's not spammy. You've got a split second to convince recipients that your message isn't junk.
  • A one-click unsubscribe link. Consider placing it at the top of your email, not the bottom.
  • Your "offline" contact information, including your physical mailing address, phone number, etc. It will help people remember who you are (subscribers forget you in 6 months) and they might trust your unsubscribe link more, instead of reporting your email as spam.

Other Useful Resources for You

January 18, 2006 in Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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