Spam is the scourge of the Internet. From phishing messages to malicious attachments and links to viruses, spam affects billions of email users each year. Although spam messages are at a 12-year low, nearly half of email sent is spam.

If you're running an email marketing campaign, and your emails are mistakenly flagged as spam, you'll lose conversions as well as revenue.

This article will outline how a small business or email marketer can avoid the spam folder by following the CAN-SPAM law, using email best-practices, and testing regularly.

Follow the law

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 protects consumers from common spamming practices by fining violators up to $11,000 for each email address violated, along with criminal prosecution. It requires that emailers avoid using deceptive headers, subject lines, and reply-to addresses. It also requires that the sender provide a physical address in emails and include an unsubscribe link that's valid for at least 30 days.

If you're working with a reputable email service provider (ESP), following the major provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act is easy because your ESP will have checks in place to avoid violations. (For example, Mailchimp will not allow you to send any emails unless you have filled in a physical mailing address.)

Require double opt-in

The best way to stay out of the spam folder is to make sure you're sending mail to people who actually want it.

Some marketers live by the motto that any email address they have access to is fair game for their marketing emails. But doing that puts you at risk of being marked as spam when the person gets that first email.

Instead, add people to your list only if they are expecting emails from you. And to make sure that's the case, require double opt-in: After your subscribers sign up or are added, your ESP will send a confirmation email that asks the owner of the email address to click a link to confirm their subscription. Only after they have confirmed will they be added to your list and receive your emails.

Keep your lists fresh

Subscribers will also mark your emails as spam if they can't remember signing up for your messages.

Let's say you collected emails for your company newsletter at a conference event. When you got back, you added the emails to your marketing list. Your ESP sent a confirmation email and got a confirmation from the subscriber. At this point, those subscribers know who you are and why they are receiving these emails.

But if you don't send any emails for a few months, it's possible that subscribers may forget they ever signed up. So, the next time you send an email, they don't remember you and mark you as spam. So... send messages regularly. You don't need to overload your subscribers, but avoid long periods of no contact.

Don't use spammy copy

Your recipients can't read your emails if spam filters block the delivery of your messages. Filters work by examining your email content for signs of spam. They flag each instance, assigning points, the amount of which can vary depending on how the server weighs the specific spammy words or phrases it flags. Once the accumulated points reach the ESP's spam threshold, the email is automatically sent to the spam folder.

Filtering standards aren't published, because then spammers would know how to beat them. However, here are some common practices that can trigger filters:

  • Using all caps
  • Mentioning a lot of money
  • Promising a money-back guarantee
  • Using lots of exclamation points
  • Using the word "free" too many times
  • Using trigger words like "iPhone 6," "XXX," "money making," "earn big buck," or "$$$."

Keep testing

Keep in mind that spam filters adapt and evolve over time. When email users mark messages as spam, the email filters learn more about which emails recipients consider required reading and which they think are a nuisance. Accordingly, you need to perform regular testing of your email marketing campaigns to determine your deliverability rates.

Many ESPs have metrics built into their products. You can see the deliverability rates for each campaign. By analyzing those metrics based on the content of your campaigns, you can get an idea of whether you need to change your approach.

If you don't have that information available through your ESP, consider doing homemade tests. You'll need to create email addresses from various major providers—Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, etc.—and use various email clients to access them. Add those addresses to your email marketing list. When you send out your campaigns, log into each address to determine whether the message was delivered.

If you find that a campaign has not been delivered, check your content and practices for characteristics that may have triggered the spam filters. (If you find that after a few tries your messages still end up in the spam folder, you may have been blacklisted.)

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How to Sidestep the Spam Folder in Your Email Marketing

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image of Elizabeth Victor

Elizabeth Victor is brand adviser for Isentia, a media monitoring, analysis, and intelligence company.

Twitter: @evictorisentia