Does Your E-mail Pass the Mind Filter?

A new Lyris deliverability report shows content isn’t a major reason ISP spam filters deliver your messages to your recipients’ junk folders or block them outright. However, it could be why recipients delete opened messages or mark them as spam.

You think the filters at Hotmail (now Windows Live Hotmail), AOL, or Yahoo are tough? They’re child’s play compared to the toughest filter of all: your recipient’s mind.

At least Hotmail-type filters are consistent, with parameters and factors that apply to all e-mail that seeks to come through.

The mind filter is far more subjective and can accept or reject your e-mail using factors that vary with the way you format your subject and sender lines, the way your format looks in the e-mail client, the load of unread messages in the inbox, and any other factor that has nothing to do with your actual message.

Look at the way you go through your own inbox. Who can say he’s never accidentally deleted or reported as spam a legitimate e-mail message? I just found out one e-mail message I’d been blocking as spam was a newsletter (a marketing one!) that I’d opted in at its Web site to receive (more on that below).

Failing the mind filter often leads to excessive spam complaints. This hurts your reputation as a sender and your delivery. You can reduce your failure rate with this most capricious of filters if you recognize problems in three areas: the sender line, the subject line, and the preview pane.

First: Recognizable Sender Line

About those e-mail messages I mistakenly blocked as spam: I opted in to receive this marketing newsletter at its Web site. At first, the newsletters arrived with the publisher name featured in the sender line. Recently, the sender line was changed to show an individual with an unfamiliar name first, followed by the publisher name.

Because my Outlook truncates the sender line, I saw only the individual’s name. I didn’t recognize it and I didn’t see the more familiar publisher name, so I reported it as spam. My Outlook spam filter began blocking it.

Our research into consumer attitudes and behavior toward e-mail messages makes one thing clear: the sender line can make or break you in the inbox. Readers look for familiar identities; if they don’t recognize you, they’ll delete and possibly report your messages as spam.

Always format your sender line to show the most recognizable name, usually your brand or company name, not the person who hits “send.”

Some older versions of mass-consumer e-mail clients, like AOL, might still ferret out and display the sending individual’s e-mail address. In this case, make sure your company or brand name is part of the address, such as

Next: A Clear, Concise Subject Line

The most important thing you can do with the subject line to get it past the mind filter is to brand it, in case the mind filter doesn’t recognize the sender.

You might be laboring to create an attention-grabbing subject line but what’s more important is providing a subject line recipients will recognize in case the sender line doesn’t do its job. This doesn’t mean using a bland subject line that never varies from one mailing to the next, though. Just make sure you brand the subject line with your company, newsletter name, or product brand, whichever is more relevant to your readers.

Also, consider context. What else is in the reader’s inbox? Do your subject lines stand out? Do they look like your competitors or, worse, the spammers who operate in your market niche?

In a previous column, I outlined what happened to a reputable client that ran into delivery challenges because its subject lines looked too much like spam. Without a familiar name in the sender line, a less-than-optimal subject line could sink you.

Also, track what your competition is doing. As a marketer, you should be subscribed to every competing e-mail newsletter or sales flyer you can find. If the load is getting to be too much, you can track mailings through Chad White’s RetailEmail blog, which reports on and analyzes trends in retail e-mail using subject lines. Even if you aren’t a retailer, you can see what else your messages are competing with in your recipients’ inboxes.

Finally: Presence in the Preview Pane

Most major e-mail clients allow users to preview e-mail content in a small pane without having to open the message. Preview panes usually strip out or block images unless the recipient changes a setting to show them, so you can’t rely on them to make your message instantly recognizable.

This is where all three elements — sender line, subject line, and preview pane — have to work together.

You have about two seconds and maybe 4 square inches of message-body real estate to convey your identity or brand and to describe clearly what the message contains. If you fail this test, the reader may delete your message without opening it or may report it as spam.

Wrap Up: Always Consider the Human Element

With what we have learned about spam filters and how to avoid tripping them, it’s possible to create an e-mail message that’s technically perfect and gets waved through an ISP’s filter network yet fails the recipient’s mind filter. Always review your messages to make sure they’re immediately recognizable, using the sender line, the subject line, and the inbox appearance before you hit “send.”

And until next time, keep on deliverin’!

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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