How do I market my company and its services using e-mail without that e-mail being considered — and treated as — spam?

There’s a two-part answer to this question. First, you must avoid being perceived as spam by the live body you want to reach with your e-mail. Second, your e-mail must not be flagged as spam by the technology that’s set up between you and that intended recipient.

The chances of somebody reading your e-mail will depend on the relevance of the content. Make it absolutely clear that what you’re offering is something they wish to receive. The perception must be that there is a legitimate benefit, either informational or transactional.

If you’re e-mailing to your own house lists, wonderful. You probably already have all the marketing intelligence you need to ensure that your e-mail is getting through. Make sure you keep providing prospects and customers with the type of content or information that attracted them to you in the first place. Your low unsubscribe rates and ongoing two-way dialogue with this group will be your best indicators of success. Ongoing analyses of which articles and content are producing the most interest and clickthroughs will help you further refine the best mix of content.

If you’re mailing to rented lists, the same rules apply, although you likely won’t have as many insights into the psychographic composition or specific wants of that list.

Your subject lines should always make it obvious that there is relevant content inside. There are also legal reasons you can’t use deception to entice a reader in, including CAN-SPAM legislation. But relationship-building and maintenance of prospects is far more important to the continued success of your program.

Your subject line should also spur the reader to open the e-mail with a compelling story accurately communicating what’s inside. Your “from” line should also be from a trusted, recognized source. Known senders get consistently higher open rates when matched against unknown senders.

Spam filters

The second part of the equation — the technology that’s intended to keep your e-mail out — is a much more complicated issue. We’re talking about spam filters.

There’s a mistaken impression that if you do “this, this and that,” your e-mail will bypass spam filters. This is absolutely NOT the case. Why? Because those filters appear in a number of places, and are under the control of a multitude of IT guys whose job it is to keep “unwanted” e-mail out. What they consider to be “unwanted” varies widely.

You must first get past the Internet service providers themselves. These are your pipelines to the Internet, and commonly include the likes of Rogers, Cogeco, AOL, Sympatico, Comcast and Road Runner. The next level is the set of individual corporations that control the flow of e-mail to their employees. Finally, end users often also have a level of control over what is allowed to make it into their inboxes.

I’ve seen scores of e-mail messages that are deemed perfectly acceptable to many ISPs yet are deemed sinister, and are therefore blocked, by IT guys who think they’re doing their company a favour by keeping it out. Unfortunately, this often includes opt-in e-mail that is genuinely requested by the recipient.

Individual company IT folks often employ spam filters, which do an automated job of determining what’s acceptable and what’s not. But a spam filter is no more accurate than the IT person behind it.

What types of things can get you slammed as potentially being spam? The content is an obvious one. Certain words can trigger an alarm, such as potential pornographic material or get-rich-quick schemes. The problem is that the filters are not smart enough to distinguish between a sinister e-mail and a genuine plea from a health-issue related fundraising appeal or genuine business advice.

As well, traditional winning phrases and offers that work like gangbusters in offline media might be enough to get you blocked online, like the simple use of the word “free” in a subject line.

Beyond content, the technical construction of the e-mail can easily get it blocked. Many of the tracking abilities we’ve programmed into our e-mail for analytical and content improvement purposes have sadly also been adopted by the bad guys for more devious purposes. So many corporations don’t — and often can’t — distinguish between the good code and the bad code. So they block it all out.

Tips to ensure your email gets through

Ask your customers to put your e-mail sender address on their internal “safe list.” This will give you an additional chance of making it past the filters. Sometimes those filters will still keep you out, even if your e-mail address is considered safe. In cases like this, plain text is often safest. It’s certainly not as pretty and it doesn’t make as big an impact as your HTML e-mail, but if you’re having problems getting through, plain e-mail is better than no e-mail at all.

Talk with your own IT folks. See what spam filters they’re using for your internal protection. Then run a test of your own e-mail through those filters before actually deploying them to your customers and prospects. Did it make it through? Or does it get snagged and generate a rash of suspect attributes? If so, ask your IT person to walk you through what that spam report is telling you, and this will help you refine the e-mail to make it more acceptable to some filters.

Remember: keep the e-mail simple in its technical construction. Also keep the content relevant to the recipient. You must make it past both the human gatekeepers as well as those technology filters.

Daniel G. Wiest is president of Wiest & Associates Inc. – The Customer Acquisition and Retention Company®, which offers a free quarterly newsletter on direct marketing and online developments.


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