Don’t Party With Spammers This Holiday Season!

This holiday season, your subject lines must do more than stand out in the inbox, telling recipients instantly who you are, what you’re selling, and why they should open it right away. Now that the commercial deluge has begun to flow, you must work harder than ever to make sure the messages don’t look like spam or malicious e-mail.

Think of it this way: Your recipient’s inbox is the hottest party in town. You have a legitimate invitation to be there, and the spammers figure they can crash the party by looking like you. Make sure your hosts recognize you so you don’t get stuck on the wrong side of the door with the undesirables.

I’m not talking about classic spam hawking fake jewelry, wonder drugs, ink cartridges, cheap software, or the next hot hedge fund, either.

Spammers and their malicious counterparts, who want to infect your computer or steal your identity, work just as hard as you, and probably harder, to write action-inviting subject lines.

Many use clever social engineering to get e-mail readers to open and click by taking advantage of major holidays, newsworthy events, or common opening lines a friend, relative, or coworker would send. This time of year, of course, anything relating to Christmas, Hanukkah, the New Year, holidays, parties, and the like is fair game.

Who, after all, is going to open a message that says, “This messages wants to steal your identity or infect your computer with a destructive virus. Please open!”

So, do any of these apparently innocuous these subject lines sound familiar?

  • “You Have Received an Xmas Card from a Friend”

  • “A Message from Santa”
  • “Thanksgiving Day Deals”

All of those showed up in my bulk folder last year. They’re fairly obvious to someone who works daily in e-mail message construction but perhaps not to the average e-mail reader. This year, the big winner so far is a subject line that says, “One Day Only!!” and a sender line, “Holiday Deals and Steals.” I’ve seen that in both my regular inbox and my spam folder, and therein lies the problem.

Most spam lands in recipients’ bulk folders, but some will make its way into their inboxes, where it will bump up against legitimate messages. One bogus e-mail I found on November 4 was marked “NOTICE FROM TOYOTA.” I marked it as spam immediately because I don’t own a Toyota and have never given my e-mail address to a Toyota promotion. However, millions of other e-mail recipients do own Toyotas, and the semi-official, even ominous, tenor of that subject line surely was enough to get many to open it. The message itself contained an offer purporting to give away Land Cruisers, and I’m sure a few were taken in by it.

Your problem, though, is you have a legitimate reason to use holiday themes in your e-mail messages. The challenge is walking the fine line between writing clever holiday-themed subject lines and not looking like a spammer or malicious e-mailer while you’re doing it.

The answer is to monitor spam outbreaks to avoid using clever holiday-themed subject lines that can make your message look like spam. Yes, it’s one more chore to make your workday longer, but you must know what you’re up against to avoid getting lumped in with the party-crashers on the wrong side of the door.

Try the following:

  • Monitor your spam folders. That’s your front-row seat to watch the spammer party-crashers as they jostle for an entry to the inbox. Watch both your work and personal e-mail folders, and enlist others in the watch. If you detect a theme that looks similar to the brilliant subject line your boss or client just OK’ed for the next campaign, swallow your pride and rewrite it.

  • Check the Internet news portals. Look out for information on new virus attacks. Yahoo News’s technology section often has timely alerts that include not only the virus-related information but often also the actual subject lines.
  • Review expert blogs. Monitor reports about the latest spam, phishing, and virus e-mail. There are two I frequent the most. The Internet Patrol is by noted spam-watcher Anne P. Mitchell. This is where I first heard about the Toyota spam scam; shortly after reading about it on her blog, I received my very own copy. Security software provider McAfee posts new virus outbreaks on its daily blog.

Of course, don’t abandon all efforts to use the holidays in your e-mail campaigns or even to send greetings thanking loyal subscribers and customers.

But before you send that clever holiday-themed wish, just make sure it doesn’t look like a spam-related subject line you might have already received.

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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