The Spam Guide: How to Avoid The Spam Folder


Andy Cabasso

December 15th

The Spam Guide: How to Avoid The Spam Folder antoz image

We’ve all been on the receiving end of spam. No one wants an inbox cluttered with irrelevant, misleading, or worse, fraudulent emails.

As a good marketer or salesperson, you certainly don’t want to be sending spam, either. But even if you’re sending legitimate content, your email could end up in someone’s spam folder if you’re not careful.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about spam to make sure your emails make their way to inboxes.

What is Spam Email?

Spam emails are unsolicited messages sent in bulk to an indiscriminate list of recipients.

In some cases they are explicitly fraudulent or scam emails, including phishing scams and viruses. In other cases, they may simply be marketing emails that are irrelevant to the recipient.

How Do Spam Filters Work?

spam guide shall you not pass

Spam filters attempt to identify and isolate incoming emails that are harmful or unwanted and catch them before they reach inboxes.

Ultimately, if you are sending legitimate marketing or cold outreach emails, spam filters are your friend! By filtering out the spam, they leave more real estate for your relevant, impactful email, giving you a better chance of catching your prospect’s attention.

By understanding what these filters are looking for, you can make sure to draft an email that won’t get caught.

How Exactly Should You Avoid the Spam Folder

There’s a lot of rules to maintain if you want to avoid going to the spam land. This guide walks you through everything you should know to run a successful campaign. The entire guide can be summed up in these simple steps below.

  1. Always Be Compliant With Email Laws
  2. Always Warm Up Your Email
  3. Always Choose Proper Email Service Provider
  4. Always Authenticate Email Records
  5. Always Maintain Good Sender Score
  6. Always Ask To Get Whitelisted
  7. Always Check Whether Your IP is Blacklisted or not
  8. Avoid Using Spam Trigger Words In Email Copy
  9. Avoid Unethical Subject Line Practices
  10. Avoid Purchasing Email Lists

Are Your Emails Legal?

Besides spam filters, there are legalities around sending emails that you similarly do not want to run afoul of. Different countries have different laws about to whom and how you can send marketing and cold sales emails.

Running afoul of them can not only get you in potential legal trouble, but it can get your emails flagged and make it more likely your emails end up in spam folders.

Abiding By the CAN-SPAM Act

If you’re based in or targeting people in the US, you need to be compliant with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. This law was designed to protect consumers from being besieged by spam.

It sets out clear guidelines for making sure emails are not deceptive, are easy to opt-out of, and are coming from an authentic business.

To make sure you’re in compliance, you must:

Include a physical address for your company. This can either be a business address, or, in the case of freelancers, a PO Box or virtual office address. Your email signature is a good place to put this!

Give recipients an easy way to opt-out. For marketing messages, make sure to include an unsubscribe link that is active for at least 30 days after sending. For cold outreach, since a link may not seem natural, you could simply include a line such as “If you do not want to receive further emails from me, please reply and let me know.”

Avoid deceptive language. Make sure it is clear who the email is coming from and what the purpose is.

Beyond the penalties for breaking this law (potential fines up to $43,792 per email address, according to the FTC), engaging in these spammy practices will impact your email deliverability and undermine trust with your prospects.

Other Email Laws You Should Know About

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an overarching regulation to consolidate data privacy laws across the EU’s member countries. It applies both to businesses based in the EU and those that are doing business in the EU.

While this regulation covers many areas related to personal data, when it comes to email marketing, it emphasizes affirmative opt-ins and easy opt-outs. If you are emailing someone in the EU, you must have a legitimate commercial purpose in trying to reach that person (no indiscriminate emailing)

gdpr email compliance

Canada Anti-Spam Law (CASL)

The Canada Anti-Spam Law (CASL) applies both to companies based in Canada as well as those sending emails to Canadian residents. This is an opt-in law, meaning that in addition to requirements such as including an unsubscribe link and your contact information, you can only email people who have provided either implicit or explicit consent.

Australia’s Spam Act 2003

According to Australia’s Spam Act 2003, senders of marketing messages in Australia must identify themselves, include contact information, and make it easy to unsubscribe. Senders must also receive either implicit or explicit permission to send emails.

Don’t Start With A Brand New Email Address – Warm Up Your Email

Spam filters consider many factors when determining whether or not an email is spam, and the sender’s domain reputation is one of them.

warm up you domain before sending cold emails

If you have a brand new domain that has not been used to send emails, it can get flagged as suspicious by mail servers, and your emails may end up in spam folders. So, to counteract this, we can “warm up” your email addresses.

If your domain isn’t warmed up, you run the risk of being tagged as a spammer and burning your domain. That means that your domain becomes essentially useless for email outreach.

Spam filters will examine a domain’s reputation, including how long it has existed and how it has been used in the past. A new domain will be marked as suspicious.

If you are working with a relatively unused or new domain, you should “warm up” the domain by gradually sending emails that show you are a real person. While you can do this manually, there are also services and apps that can warm up domains for you (e.g. built into Postaga).

Selecting An Authentic Email Service Provider

You will also want to make sure that you are sending emails through an authentic, reputable email service provider.

What to Look for in an Email Provider?

When choosing an email provider, make sure to check what the email sending limit is, so that you do not exceed it. If you exceed the daily sending limit, it can get your email account banned by your provider, result in bounced emails, and lead to deliverability issues, with your emails going to spam rather than the main inbox.

Avoid Spammy Words

When creating effective email campaigns, drafting quality content is the first step.

There are certain words that tend to trigger a spam filter, so be careful about using them in your emails. These are generally words that promise the recipient a special deal or opportunity. Hubspot has a list of 394 spam trigger words for reference.

Here are a few examples of words to be cautious of:

– free

– buy

– deal

– discount

– opportunity

– offer

Of course, these terms may appear in legitimate emails, but using too many can make your message look suspicious. Limit the use of these words and focus on creating high quality, relevant content.

Keep A Clean Subject Line

Your email subject line is key when drafting any commercial email.

Of course, we all want a subject line that will grab our readers’ attention and get them to open the email. However, resorting to deceptive practices in order to catch someone’s eye is not a good idea if you want to avoid the junk folder.

Beyond that, if someone feels tricked into opening your email, you may get that email open, but they may mark your email as spam, affecting your overall email sending reputation.

Here are a few good rules to follow:

– Don’t start with “Re:” or “Fwd:” in order to make it seem like you’re continuing a previous thread

– Don’t use ALL CAPS, or AlTeRnAtInG CaPs either

– Don’t format the subject line in bold

– Don’t use symbols ($$$/%/#) or emojis

– Don’t insert random characters into spammy words to try to “trick” spam filters (eg. p.r0mo!)

Let’s take a look at a recent screenshot of my Gmail spam folder. Can you identify some of the red flags that may have gotten these emails caught in spam?

keep a clean subject line

In fact, one of these was a legitimate email that I had signed up for, but their promise of a “special offer” seems to have doomed them to spam purgatory.

Add an Unsubscribe Option

Going back to the requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act, remember to give your recipients a means of opting out of your emails.

When recipients unsubscribe or opt-out, it actually fine-tunes your outreach list, ensuring that your messages are going to a more engaged group.

An unsubscribe link is the easiest solution for marketing emails.

email law meme

In the case of cold emails, since an unsubscribe link would seem unnatural, you should include a line giving your prospect the option to stop receiving emails from you.

Keep Consistency

For marketing emails, maintain a consistent flow in order to keep in touch with your subscribers. Send emails on a regular basis in order to continue building your customer relationship, and at consistent times, so customers know when to expect to hear from you.

Subscribers who may have just come into contact with your brand can learn more about it and what you offer through each new communication.

On the other hand, if you do not email regularly, your recipients could forget they have a relationship with you and mark your email as spam.

Provide Unique Value

Whether you are sending out marketing emails or cold outreach emails, it is important that your message provides a unique value to your recipients.

Recipients are likely to mark emails as spam if the content is bad or irrelevant, even if you’ve followed all other best practices.

Consider these questions when crafting your message:

  • Does your email clearly and concisely explain what your product or service will do for the recipient?
  • Can you offer something that will benefit them?
  • Does your email convey how you are different from your competitors?

Avoid Attachments

Attachments can get your emails flagged.

Adding too many attachments is another way to wind up in the spam folder. Keep your email as light as possible (ideally 30kb or less) and avoid suspicious file formats like .dat and .exe that are commonly used by scammers.

Let Them Know Where You’re From

As mentioned above in our section on legal issues in emailing, having an address is required for marketing and cold emails.

Remember to include a physical mailing address in order to comply with regulations and establish trust that you are a real brand.

Ensuring You Have a Good Sender Score

What is An Email Sender Score?

Your email sender score is a score from 0 – 100 that reflects your reputation as an email sender. It is a major factor that many email networks or ISPs will consider when determining if your email should be marked as spam.

How Do You Check Your Sender Score?

You can check your sender score for free by simply going to Senderscore.org and inputting your IP address and contact information. You’ll receive a report with your overall score, as well as a breakdown of the reputation measures that contributed to it.

How is the Sender Score Measured?

Your score is based on a number of considerations, including spam complaints that have been made, volume of email sent, external reputation (appearance on blacklists or whitelists), how often messages are rejected, and more. Scores are calculated based on a 30 day average, and are based on comparing your IP address to other IP addresses.

How Can I Fix My Sender Score?

The good news, if you have a low sender score, is that your this score is not static. It can change based on your behavior. You can improve your score by following the recommendations in this article for best practices.

How Do I Know if My Sender Score is Good or Bad?

Anything below 70 is a big red flag, and you have a lot of work to do to rehabilitate your sender reputation. Unfortunately, it could take months to fix a bad reputation score. Between 70-80 could use improvement, and above 80 is a good score.

What Exactly is a Spam Trap?

Spam traps are defunct email addresses used by anti-spam organizations in order to catch spammers.

They could be invalid addresses hidden in email lists to identify people engaging in bad practices like list purchasing, or they could simply be emails that were once legitimate but have now been abandoned.

Do Spam Traps Actually Work?

Spam traps can get your email flagged as spam, or even have your domain or IP address blacklisted. They do work to catch spammers, but they could also ensnare a sender with good intentions who engaged in bad practices.

How Do Spam Traps Work?

There are two types of spam traps – pristine and recycled.

Pristine spam traps are created by ISPs or anti-spam organizations and are either embedded in websites or hidden in purchased email lists.

Recycled spam traps are email addresses that are no longer active and have been repurposed to trap spam.

How to Avoid Spam Traps?

First and foremost, avoid purchased lists, where pristine spam traps often live. Focus on building your own list.

To avoid recycled spam traps, make sure to update your contact list and remove emails addresses that don’t engage. You should also consider including a double opt-in for subscribers (have them verify their email address after typing it in), to avoid collecting addresses with typos.

What happens if I Hit a Spam Trap?

Getting caught in a pristine spam trap will damage your sender reputation more severely than a recycled spam tram. It is a clear indication that you engaged in bad practices, and it might land you on a blacklist.

Recycled spam traps are less harmful, and could be the result of not updating your lists frequently enough. However, they can also damage your reputation over time, and lower your sender score.

How to Recover After Being Caught by a Spam Trap?

Start by cleaning up your lists and removing any email addresses that have not engaged in 6 months. To identify the spam trap, you can try segmenting lists to narrow down the email addresses and locate the trap.

How to Check If Your Domain And IP is Blacklisted

Email providers and other third-party services maintain blacklists (also known as blocklists) of suspected spammers based on things like getting caught in spam traps and complaints from email recipients.

So, how do you know if your domain and/or IP is blacklisted? You might suspect it to be the case if you find your emails are suddenly not going through, but how can you know for sure?

There are several services out there to check whether or not you appear on any blacklists, including MxToolbox and Multirbl.Valli. Each site may not have access to every blacklist, so it’s a good idea to check more than one.

Another site to check is Cisco’s Talos Intelligence, which can check your domain or IP’s reputation and let you know if you appear on their blacklist.

What To Do When Your Email Is Blacklisted?

The first thing you should do when you find out that your IP address or domain has been blacklisted is to refrain from using it until you can resolve the issue.

Then, try to identify why you got blacklisted. If you think it could be a spam trap, go through the steps listed above to locate and remove the spam trap from your list of email addresses.

Finally, you’ll want to determine which blacklist you landed on and attempt to get delisted if possible.

How to Recover Your IP From a Blacklist?

There are many blacklists out there, with different protocols.

If you have been blocked by a particular ISP or ESP, you can typically submit a request to be removed from their blacklist, either through a webform or by email.

For example, in the case of Gmail, you can go to this page to submit your request: https://support.google.com/mail/contact/bulk_send_new

recover ip from a blacklist

Another major service to be aware of is Spamhaus, which maintains public blacklists. Many providers look at Spamhaus’s lists when evaluating whether to mark something as spam.

You can check if a domain or IP is on any of their blacklists by going to: https://check.spamhaus.org/

postaga spamhaus no spam

Get Certified by a Third Party

Another way to improve deliverability is by getting certified by a third party.

Companies like Return Path offer certification for senders following best practices, which essentially puts you on a big whitelist. Many major email service providers check these commercial whitelists to see who has been verified as a trusted sender.

To get certified by Return Path, you will need to reach out to them and determine if you meet their eligibility requirements.

Don’t Forget To Get Whitelisted

As opposed to a commercial whitelist like Return Path’s, personal whitelisting relies on subscribers taking the initiative to mark you as a trusted sender, so that emails from you will not go to the spam folder.

When doing email marketing, you can include a line asking subscribers to whitelist your email.

Email clients have different ways of marking an email as trusted. Often it is as simple as adding the sender to your contact list. In Gmail, which segregates emails by tabs, you’ll want recipients to receive your messages in their Primary tab.

CampaignMonitor has a handy guide for how to whitelist in various email clients.

Never Purchase Prospect Lists

As we’ve touched on already, purchased prospect lists may seem like an easy way to gain new subscribers, but they are not a good idea. They can be filled with defunct email addresses and even spam traps, automatically triggering spam filters.

Take the time to gather live data and verify it all. Make sure to update your lists periodically to make sure your lists contain valid emails of people who engage.

Email Marketing Software Vs. Cold Email Outreach Software

If you are sending marketing emails to people who have opted in to your messaging, you should use an email marketing service like Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign, Intercom, or Hubspot. These platforms have been built specifically for sending marketing emails to your lists of opted-in subscribers. These platforms allow you to send email blasts to all of your recipients at once.

email marketing vs cold email bugs NO meme

On the other hand, if you are sending cold emails (emails to people who do not know you and you do not have a relationship with), you will need something different. In particular, you will need a platform that can ensure your cold emails make it to the inbox and avoid spam folders. Since most spam emails come from cold emails from people you have never heard from before, email servers are especially on their guard about letting unknown senders reach people’s inboxes. Cold email outreach platforms like Postaga are built specifically for this kind of emailing.

It’s important here to note that you should not try to use an email marketing platform like Mailchimp or Hubspot for cold emails. First – it violates their terms of service and if you get caught you will be banned by them. But, second, these platforms send out mass emails in email blasts, which tend to look unnatural to email servers (since it does not look like a human just sending another human an email, but rather, someone using software to send mass emails). And, that can make it likely you end up in spam folders.

Say No To Email Blasting For Cold Emailing

For outreach emails and cold emails, email blasting is another practice that is likely to send your emails to the spam folder, damaging your email reputation.

Email blasting is when you send out a single email to a large group of recipients simultaneously, without personalization or segmentation of lists.

While it may seem efficient to reach as many people as possible at once, ultimately, it does more harm than good.

Rather, you should tailor personalized emails to smaller, targeted groups who are more likely to engage with your content. Consider segmenting your lists based on factors such as the recipients’ age, geographic location, or past engagement.

Get Some Credibility: Set Email Authentication Records

If you feel like you’ve been following all the best practices and your emails are still not reaching your intended recipients, there may be a less obvious cause – problems with your email authentication records.

There are three standards in place for evaluating if an email is actually coming from where it claims to be and determining what to do with it. Each of these are published in your site’s DNS (Domain Name System) record.

SPF – Sender Policy Framework

An SPF (Sender Policy Framework) record for a domain lists all of the IP addresses that are allowed to send emails from that domain.

A mailbox provider will check the SPF record of the domain listed in the “From” address of incoming messages to ensure that the email is coming from an authorized IP address. This is an important measure to make sure that the “From” address is not being spoofed by a scammer.

If you’re not sure if you have your SPF record set up for your domain, you should check with your DNS management team. Not only could this result in your emails being rejected or marked as spam, but it leaves the door open for scammers to spoof your domain and pretend to be you.

DKIM – DomainKeys Identified Mail

In addition to checking the SPF record, Mailbox Providers will check the DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) key. This is another method of validating a domain’s identity, which essentially adds a digital signature to your message.

You can implement DKIM authentication by adding a DKIM key to your site’s DNS records.

DMARC – Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance

DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance) allows a domain owner to determine how a Mailbox Provider should handle messages that have either an invalid SPF record or are lacking a DKIM key.

Again, you will need to access your domain’s DNS records to set up DMARC policies.

Always Keep an Eye On Deliverability

Keep an eye on these deliverability metrics to determine the effectiveness of your outreach campaign.

Bounce rate: The percentage of email addresses on your list that did not receive the email. If this percentage is high, you need to clean up your list and remove defunct addresses.

Unsubscribe rate: The percentage of recipients who requested to unsubscribe from your email. When uninterested parties unsubscribe, it actually makes your list healthier.

Open rate: The percentage of recipients who opened your email.

Read rate: The percentage of recipients who kept your email open for 8 or more seconds.

Click-through rate: The percentage of recipients who clicked on a link in your email.

Share/forward rate: The percentage of recipients who forwarded your email or shared it on social media.

How to Keep Your Deliverability Score High?

Most email service providers will provide you with deliverability metrics like the ones listed above so that you can understand the impact of your email campaigns.

If your emails have a high bounce rate or unsubscribe rate, it’s time to fine tune your outreach lists.

High bounce rates are a red flag for spam filters. If you are sending emails to people you don’t know, it’s important that your emails aren’t bouncing (e.g. being undelivered because it’s a non-working email address). Too many bounces suggests you are spamming indiscriminately, and you will end up in spam folders.

If you have an email list, you can run it through an email validator system, or use an outreach tool that has email validation built-in (like Postaga), which can identify and remove invalid or defunct email addresses.

If your open rate, read rate, click-through rate, and/or share/forward rate are low, take a look at your content. Make sure that your emails avoid spammy words or tactics, and that they are personalized as much as possible for your prospects.

Test Before You Launch

When you’re ready to start your campaign, it’s a good idea to run a test campaign first. Send the email to your own email addresses across multiple email clients in order to check that formatting is consistent and the email is viewer-friendly.

Check to make sure you have complied with regulations like including a mailing address and an unsubscribe link, and remove words that might trigger spam filters. If everything looks good, you’re ready to send!

FAQs

1. Why Do Emails Land in the Spam Folder?

There are many different reasons why emails land in the spam folder. It could be a problem with your email list, your content, your domain, the amount of emails you are sending, your bounce rate, your email authentication, or a combination of factors.

2. How Can I Avoid The Spam Folder?

Make sure your lists are healthy, your content is relevant and avoids spammy words, your domain is warmed up, and your email authentication records are set up.

3. How Can Spammy Words Affect My Email?

Using too many words that promise a special deal or opportunity can flag your email as spam, potentially putting you on blacklists.

4. How to Check if I am a Blacklisted Sender?

You can check whether you’re backlisted or not by tools like MxToolbox and Multirbl.Valli. Enter your IP address or domain name in the toolbox, and they will search through dozens of blacklists and show if you are listed on any of them

5. What Does it Mean to Warm up a Domain?

Brand new domains look suspicious to spam filters, especially when you are sending cold outreach emails. To build your domain’s reputation, you need to start by manually sending emails to known recipients over the course of a few months.

6. How Can I Avoid Spam Traps?

The most important things to do to avoid spam traps are refrain from buying prospect lists and keep your current lists up to date by removing emails that are no longer active or engaged.

7. How Do I Get Whitelisted?

There are two ways of getting whitelisted – by applying to be on a commercial whitelist, like Return Path’s, or by asking your email recipients to whitelist you by adding your email address to their contacts

8. What Email Service Provider Should I Use to Improve Deliverability?

Choose an authentic, established email service provider, warm up your domain, and make sure to keep your emails within the sending limit.

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