Why Are My Firm’s Marketing Emails Being Flagged as Spam?

6 min read
September 09, 2019

In every inbox sits a lonely forsaken folder filled with unwanted communications, phishing attempts, and the occasional incorrectly flagged emails that don’t actually belong there. It’s called a spam folder, and most people only open it in search of an email that may have been accidentally sent to this wasteland.

Not to be an alarmist, but you really, really don’t want your firm’s marketing emails landing in the spam folder. But when only 79% of emails sent by genuine email marketers actually reach subscribers’ inboxes, staying out of your prospects’ and clients’ spam folders may be more challenging than you think.

Although the existence of the spam folder is common knowledge, not many people understand the inner workings of spam filters or how to prevent their marketing emails from landing in that folder.

Today, we’re diving into the deep, dark underbelly of email marketing…spam.

What is Spam Email?

The Oxford dictionary defines spam email as “irrelevant or unsolicited messages sent over the Internet, typically to a large number of users, for the purposes of advertising, phishing, spreading malware, etc.”

Although spam email accounted for 56% of global email traffic in March 2019, this kind of email activity is declining. This is in part due to a crackdown on spam email with federal regulations, including the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

The CAN-SPAM Act made it crucial for marketing emails to avoid being labeled as spam; with fines upwards of $16,000, it effectively encourages compliance.

Here are some of the biggest requirements that came out of the CAN-SPAM Act:

  • The #1 rule of email marketing is to only contact email addresses that you have permission to contact.
  • The subject line must not be deceptive or misleading about the contents of the email.
  • An opt-out menu must be offered with clear instructions on how the recipient can opt-out of receiving communications from the sender.

Learn more about the CAN-SPAM Act and ensure your firm’s marketing emails are compliant. 

If the average office worker receives 121 emails daily, how can anti-spam regulations actually be enforced? Let me introduce you to spam traps. Spam traps are email addresses set up by Internet Search Providers (ISPs) designed to catch spammers. Think of spam traps as the equivalent to an undercover sting in the law enforcement world.

So, what happens if you accidentally send an email to a spam trap email address? Well, my friend, it’s not good. You will be immediately flagged as a spammer, your IP address will be blocked, your deliverability rates will decrease (a lot), and your good sender reputation will go down the drain.

What the Heck is a Good Sender Reputation?

Unlike your high school reputation, having a good sender reputation or a good sender score actually matters. This isn’t a random number that indicates if your marketing emails are good or bad. Your score means the difference between your emails landing in a subscriber's primary inbox or their spam folder. Your score is checked by mail servers. When a marketing email is attempting to be delivered to the inbox, the mail servers determine where to place your email.

Did your email end up in a spam folder? According to Return Path, 83% of the time your email goes to spam, the cause is a low sender reputation. Return Path offers Sender Score, a free service that uses an algorithm to rate the reputation of every outgoing mail server IP address on a scale from 0-100.

Return Path tracks how frequently people unsubscribe or report spam from email senders and assigns you a score accordingly. Your Sender Score fluctuates as your email habits and engagement with your emails change, but it’s an uphill battle back to the top so you want to stay on top of the number. Learn more about Sender Score, how to interpret your score, and what to do if you have a low number.

Even if your marketing emails are compliant with the CAN-SPAM Act and you have a good Sender Score, your emails can still end up in the spam folder. Spam filters are set to identify anything amiss in the email (body, subject line, or the sender’s address) and trigger the email to land in the spam folder instead of the primary inbox. Most often, spam filters are triggered by words and phrases within the subject line or the message body.

Here’s a look at some of the most common spam trigger words and phrases. Avoid these to increase your chances of staying out of the spam folder:

  • Act Now
  • Don’t delay/hesitate
  • $$$
  • Cheap
  • Collect
  • Offer
  • Take action
  • Urgent
  • While Supplies Last
  • Beneficiary
  • Income
  • Hidden Assets 

I also recommend looking at this HubSpot article, The Ultimate List of Email SPAM Trigger Words, for an even more detailed and complete list of spam trigger words. The article categorizes spam words and includes three financial categories: general, personal, and business.

While we’re talking about subject lines, words aren’t all that can trigger spam filters. The way you write your subject line matters just as much as your word choice. For example, do not include RE: in a subject line if it’s not a reply to another email. Other subject line formatting tips include:

  • Don’t use all caps
  • Use more than one word
  • Avoid exclamation points 

When it comes to the content within the email, follow these rules to keep you out of the dreaded spam folder:

  • Avoid Video/Flash/Javascript (it’s okay to link a still photo of a video to an online source of the video).
  • Don’t embed forms in emails.
  • Pay attention to the number of links you’re using and avoid an excessive amount.
  • DO NOT buy or rent contact lists. Instead, use organically sourced lists where each contact has voluntarily subscribed to receive emails from you.
  • Don’t use too many images. Your image to text ratio should favor text.
  • Ask your subscribers for a couple of favors, including having them whitelist your emails, or for Gmail users, ask them to “drag” emails from other tabs to the primary inbox. Gmail pays attention to this behavior and will know your emails are preferred by the recipient and will send them to the primary inbox. 

Now comes the tricky part. Your emails are landing in the primary inbox (yay!), but the recipient is marking them as spam (not good).

Why would someone mark the emails you worked so hard on as spam? There are a few reasons this could be happening. 

Are the messages you send out enjoyable and valuable? The more people find value in your messages, the less likely they are to mark your email as spam. Before you send an email, ask yourself, what value does this message provide? If there’s little value, pull back on sending it. Learn more about how to write an email people will actually read.

Are you taking advantage of all the ways you can personalize an email? One of the most important ways to personalize an email is with the sender's name. Sending your emails from “Tom Jones at Jones Financial Services Support” is likely to have a better response rate than sending your email from “Support.” The recipient will recognize your name and firm name and know your email is safe to open. Depending on your marketing email platform, you can also personalize the greeting, specific messaging, salutation, and other elements within your emails.

Are you overeager in your follow-ups? You might be excited to lead a prospect through your marketing funnel but sending too many emails too quickly can easily turn a person off your emails. No one likes to be pestered, so play it cool when it comes to communicating with potential leads too quickly.

Is your subject line misleading? I discussed the importance of subject lines above as a reason why spam filters might be flagging emails, but clickbait subject lines are a surefire way to annoy someone enough to mark your email as spam. Don’t lose your recipients' trust with a deceptive subject line.

How Do You Know Your Email Isn't Destined for Spam Before You Send It?

Luckily, there are a few free online services that allow you to test your email before you unleash its glory.

  • Mail-Tester creates a new test email address every time you visit the site. Grab the email address, send your email to it, then go back to the site and check your score. Mail-Tester checks for broken links, any blacklisting reports, whether your message is well-formatted, if it has too many images, and many other things to improve your email.
  • Postmark allows you to paste your email into their checker and instantly receive your SpamAssassin

Email marketing best practices are always changing, which means the “rules” to keep your emails free from being labeled as spam are also dynamic. I encourage you to stay up to date on anti-spam regulationsand frequently research ways to keep your emails out of the spam folder and in front of your audience. 

Happy emailing!

Whitney Mitchell

About the Author

As XYPN’s Email Marketing Specialist, Whitney Mitchell is responsible for communicating some of XYPN's most important messages. With a background in member organizations, she has developed a passion for using key metrics to communicate the right message to the right audience at the right time. No click bait here! Whitney knows it takes more than a compelling subject line to engage the XYPN audience and always strives to deliver valuable content directly to people's inboxes.

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