Are you in the Three Danger Zones of Spamminess? #LBB

Content Filters and Deliverability Traps for the Unwary

In this issue of List Building for Bloggers you will learn the content triggers that can lead to your mail being junked, even when you’re using a high-reputation mailing service like FeedBlitz, and what to do about it.

[This is the eleventh article in the List Building for Bloggers series “ Click here to read all the #LBB posts]

Blogs are Email Marketing Accidents Waiting to Happen

When you blog and send your words of wisdom out to your subscribers, you are not only a blogger but also a marketer. You may not like to think of yourself that way, but it’s basically true.

The thing is, of course, is that most bloggers are untrained as marketers. Specifically, we’re largely not trained as email marketers. We put up our subscription forms and hope for the best. Usually, that’s fine.

But sometimes that lack of expertise can hurt, because it can lead us to create content that ends up setting off content filters. It’s actually all too easy to do, in fact, because in social media we can easily add widgets and plugins that are designed for the web, but which can completely foul up your feed and eviscerate your mailings. Blogging and social media enable us to make the kind of “rookie” error that a professional, corporate email marketer would never let see the light of day.

There are also problems that can creep in because of design decisions that may render your email unreadable and therefore useless; although I’ve touched on these before I’ll go over this ground again in a little more detail.

Hold On – Isn’t Reputation King?

Ah yes, indeed it is (You have been paying attention! Thanks!). You’re not going to get your blog’s mailings anywhere without using an email provider like FeedBlitz with excellent sender reputation and low complaint rates. Having a good sender, especially one that’s on white lists and feedback loops (again, you-know-who), does a lot to eliminate the risk of content rules routing the email to junk.

A lot, but not necessarily everything. Basically, when your email is run through the inbound ISP’s content filters, a score of some sort is applied to it. Let’s say that having a high score is a bad thing, and the higher your score the more likely your email is going to be flagged as junk. Worse, if your subscriber uses a separate email app (e.g. Outlook, Thunderbird etc.) to read her email, that app knows absolutely nothing about sender reputation. Your email is downloaded to your email app, and the only tool it can basically apply to that inbound mail to stop spam is content filtering. So it refilters your messages again, but this time you don’t benefit from the trusted sender advantage.

How Content Filters Work

When your email arrives at the ISP from a sender with a great reputation, it benefits by having its score reduced somewhat from the get go. It might benefit a little; it might benefit a lot. Unsurprisingly, ISPs don’t share their rules, but open source projects like Spam Assassin work this way. Anyway, using a service like FeedBlitz enables you to start with a reduced baseline spamminess score before the content filters go to work. They raise your score and finally, based on that score, your email is sent to the inbox – or to The Other Place.

Usually, reputation trumps content (i.e. your baseline benefit of using a reputable sender massively outweighs content analysis) unless you are, in fact, writing something spammy.  Our experience is that, even for our frugal deal bloggers, who are always talking about free this, 20% off that and sample the other (generally spammy content phrases), their email usually gets straight to the inbox, no problem.

So why fret about content then? Well, some kinds of content will greatly raise your spamminess score. Another is that the ISP’s content filters aren’t the only ones your email has to pass before it gets to the inbox; you need your email to be able to get past the desktop software filters I mentioned above too. Since trusted sender doesn’t apply here, it’s possible to lose the battle for the inbox at this very last stage.

To avoid that you need to steer clear of the Three Danger Zones of Spamminess. Grab your online GPS and read on! We have a map…


Danger Zone 1: The Subject Line

The first thing to realize is that your subject line will be scanned by content filters as well as the body of the email itself. A truly spammy subject line will get your mail junked just as much as talking about dodgy pills or offshore banking accounts where you can net bajillions o’ bucks in the body of your email.

So as well as following the tips in an earlier LBB about keeping subject lines short, imperative and attention-grabbing, avoid these errors:

  • Especially don’t shout FREE, SAMPLE and % OFF.
  • Don’t over use exclamation points!!!!
  • Don’t over-use other symbols $$ #!% in your subject line either.
  • Phil, don’t personalize the subject line with the recipient’s name.

The last one may seem counter-intuitive; after all personalization typically increases open and response rates. But mail whose subject line starts with “Yourname, blah blah blah” is almost always spam and will be treated as such by the filters. By all means personalize the subject if you can, e.g. “We recommend this zoom lens for your Nikon D40 camera” if your recipient bought a D40 from your store recently. Just don’t use their name in the subject line.

Danger Zone 2: Accidentally Spammy Content

Here it gets more complicated. Not only are content filters (and I’m including your computer’s anti-virus software in this category) looking for keywords, they’re also looking to see whether your message might be malware (a virus). Sometimes the most innocent things can trigger alarms, leading to the junk folder or scary security alerts. (I’m not intending to cover all the ins and outs of content filters here – life’s too short! Just the pertinent parts a blogger can easily foul up on).

A quick technical detour is in order for a moment. The vast majority of email today is HTML email; mini web pages, in effect. HTML is made up of tags that produce your text, break it into paragraphs etc. All handled by your blog automatically and then converted to email by services like FeedBlitz.

But some tags have been abused by viruses and other villainy to the point that email apps won’t display them (see this knowledge base article on why video typically won’t work in email, for example, and how FeedBlitz saves the day for video posts). This especially applies to tags for JavaScript, forms and what are called IFrames.

The reason why you need to care about this is that the vast majority of blogging widgets use – guess what! JavaScript, forms and IFrames. If those widgets live on your blog’s sidebar and not in the post then you’re fine. But if you do have these tags in your post (or they’re added to the feed by a “helpful” plugin or widget on your blog) then they won’t work in your email and they probably won’t work for your RSS readers either. This is why blogs and bloggers are so much more likely to fall afoul of content rules than professional email marketers: it’s simply too easy to break them with all the cool toys social media let’s us add to our sites!

But script doesn’t work in email, so ad networks and other active content won’t work. A preponderance of script will damage your spamminess score badly. If you do insert a script-based object into your post (e.g. a survey), make sure that it has a noscript tag that will offer email and feed readers a useful alternative.  FeedBlitz will help here – it strips script from your content before it mails it out in an effort to increase deliverability and reduce risk for the reader.

IFrames can show up with some affiliate programs and other add ins. While they’ll probably pass muster with a content filter, your reader’s security software will probably be very unhappy seeing an iframe in your email if that iframe references a page that isn’t on your web site. Some Amazon affiliate links for specific books are iframes and can fall into this category, leading to scary, scary security alerts (almost always false alarms, but that’s life) when your email is scanned by the subscriber’s anti-virus app. Use images or static inline code instead; just say “no” to iframes in your posts.

Then there’s forms. Don’t put whole forms in your email. They’re unlikely to work in many email systems (but will probably display just fine, creating much subscriber frustration when they fail to work). If you want a subscriber to fill out a form, use the mail with a compelling call to action to drive them back to your site instead.

Remember: You’re fine if your gidgets, gadgets and doohickeys are in side bars etc. It’s when they get into the actual post content itself that you have to be careful.

Finally, there are bad neighborhoods. If you link to a bad neighborhood (or what the content filter thinks looks like it’s going to be a bad place to send a reader), your email is going to be junked. This did, in fact, happen to one of our clients; Yahoo was sending their email to junk consistently whereas none of our other clients was having the same problem. The issue boiled down to exactly one link in their email. Sent without the link, the email landed in the inbox perfectly, every time. With the link, away to junk it went, every time. There was nothing wrong with the link (or the site it linked to) per se; it just happened to push Yahoo’s content filter over the edge.

So sometimes you can simply be unlucky; it happens. But if you’re using an ESP their support function or professional services group may be able to help.

Danger Zone 3: Graphic Design SNAFUs

Speaking too Softly and Shouting Too Loudly

Content filters look to see if they think you’re trying to hide content from the user, because doing so is inherently suspect. So very small fonts, colors that are the same as – or very similar to – background colors are all flags on the play. Don’t do it.

Ditto for very, very large fonts and over use of bright, attention grabbing colors are also flags. Anything SCREAMING FOR ATTENTION is going to bump your spamminess score heavily in the wrong direction, so nix the 72 point bold red font with the yellow background, OK? Keep the graphic design tone in a normal voice and everything in plain sight and you’ll be fine.

Unfortunately, there are other ways graphic design can mess things up just by accidentally crippling readability, especially for older email clients and many webmail readers.

Dark Backgrounds

Some email apps won’t display backgrounds, especially if the background is an image and not a solid background color. Since you have a dark background and therefore light text on it, without a dark background your light text is now displayed on a white background. It’s illegible now! We recommend using a light background and dark fonts for your copy all the time; you can surround them with images and backgrounds that won’t affect readability if they’re not displayed, but will still look right when thy are.

Using Styles that Aren’t There

Styles and stylesheets, a.k.a. CSS, allow graphic designers great control over how web pages display online. In email, though, not every email app supports all the CSS your designer puts in. Worse, if your post uses styles that are only mentioned in the web site but not defined in the post itself, your feed and emails are not going to render the way you intended at all. This is why, for example, may WordPress blogs specify floating images online, but in feeds and emails they don’t wrap properly; the stylesheets aren’t there to tell the subscriber’s app how to display the image, so it uses the default. (That’s why FeedBlitz has a set of template tags to force images to wrap the way you want, even if they don’t start out that way.)

And that’s the best that can happen. If your post inadvertently uses a style that’s used by your subscriber’s webmail or feed reader, your post is going to use that style. Results: who the heck knows! Probably something that will make your subscriber very unhappy. Ask your graphic designer not to use obvious CSS class names  like “header”, “footer” or “style1”, “style2” etc. – they’re much more likely to conflict with a webmail reader’s CSS namespace if you do. Make class names more specific to your site and you’ll avoid this kind of naming collision.

Too Complex HTML and CSS

Finally, don’t use overly complex HTML and CSS positioning within the post to manage your content. Keep post HTML really, really simple. The more complex it is, the less likely it will be faithfully rendered on subscriber email apps. Gmail, for example, is simply awful IMHO at rendering anything beyond trivial HTML content even with styles.

KISS, though, and you’ll be fine!

The Good News on Graphic Design

Once you have a graphic design in place, test it. If problems occur, fix them before you go live with the design. When you have the design working and rendering acceptably across the board, the good news is that you’ll have avoided the majority of graphic design risks mentioned above, permanently.

Whitelists Solve (Almost) Everything

If you are white listed in your subscriber’s email systems (ISP and desktop app, if applicable) then you are going to pretty much avoid all of content filtering problems. Always ask to be whitelisted when your subscribers join your list or interact with a landing page.

Next Up

I’ve spent a lot of recent LBB posts on what you should not be doing with your blog’s email marketing. Next week, back to how to make it better, faster, with some tips on how to use multiple lists to attract and retain subscribers.

About List Building For Bloggers #LBB

Written by Phil Hollows, the FeedBlitz Founder and CEO, List Building for Bloggers (#LBB) is a series of posts to help you make the most of your blogging by harnessing the power and capabilities of email, the universal social network, with your bog and social media communications. No matter whether you’re a novice or a more advanced blogger, there will be something for you to learn, apply and benefit from in this series. Click here to read more about #LBB

P.S. If you think your friends or followers would find this series valuable, please retweet on Twitter or “Like” on Facebook using the buttons below. Don’t forget to use the #LBB hashtag when you do. Thank you! And if you have a comment, contribution or something else to say, please comment too. 🙂