How Spammy Subject Lines Hurt Delivery

Take a look at the following list of subject lines I pulled from my inbox and junk folder in the last month:

  • Windows Vista Business ready to download
  • Get Windows Vista Today!
  • Upgrade to Windows Vista
  • Office Pro, Vista, Acrobat 8 Pro onIy 79$ at Rick’s supersoft
  • Photoshop, Windows, Office
  • RE: Microsoft Software

Can you tell which came from a legitimate software marketer and which were on spam e-mail messages? If you can’t tell which is which, how do you expect e-mail recipients to know? And if they can’t, they’ll treat you the as a spammer. They’ll delete the message without opening it, report you as a spammer to their ISPs, or opt out of your e-mail program.

Whichever action they take, it will lead to delivery problems. All take time to resolve.

Don’t think all the goodwill you’ve built with your subscribers will protect you, either. I know, because one of our clients just faced every e-mail marketer’s nightmare: getting mistaken as a spammer and dealing with the fallout.

This warning applies to anyone active in e-mail marketing, but it’s an especially thorny problem if you work in the areas hardest hit by spammers, including technology, healthcare, financial services, and luxury retail goods. (How many high-quality Rolex watch replicas have you bought lately?)

The subject line is the first line of defense against mistaken identity. That means you must work harder than ever and get even more creative to outwit spammers. Not only must subject lines be eye-catching, informative, and brief, they must also assure recipients they come from a trusted source.

To solve this problem, you must pay more attention to the world around you. Spammers try to capitalize on key events many people are interested in, including holidays, product launches, news events, and national disasters, to lure recipients into opening their e-mail.

February’s Windows Vista launch was a prime example. If you paid attention to your e-mail inboxes and junk folders, you saw a blizzard of subject lines promoting Vista. One of my company’s clients became an unfortunate victim of this hyper-promotion when it tried to capitalize on the launch by promoting Vista in its regular opt-in e-mail newsletter.

What happened next could make e-mail marketers wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat: our client experienced abnormally high spam complaints, which in turn caused blocking by several major ISPs because it exceeded the complaint threshold. This eventually resulted in a higher bounce rate.

Note this didn’t happen due to false-positive content filtering. It happened because recipients didn’t easily recognize the difference between the legitimate newsletter and the spam flooding their inboxes.

Not only did this affect our client’s previously excellent reputation as a sender, it also cost good subscribers who reported it as spam. The client had to remove complaints from the mailing list to comply with ISP feedback loops. Our client also saw a noticeably lower open rate, likely because recipients deleted the message without opening it.

The result? A good sender with an opt-in list paid a high price because recipients couldn’t tell the difference between its message and actual spam.

Act Now to Avoid Falling Into the Same Trap

  • Watch for alerts and reports from anti-spam and anti-virus companies reporting spam and virus outbreaks keyed to specific events. These reports often list spam messages by subject line, so note the keywords and keyword phrases you find. Take extra care if your marketing program revolves around key community events, such as product launches or alerts. If you think you’ll be able to make some money from such an event, so does a spammer. He’ll probably be working harder than you are to do it.
  • Patrol your inboxes and junk folders to see what spammers are using for subject lines and message content, then steer clear of these in your own copy. If it’s a particular hot-button word, use it only in message content, not in the subject line.
  • Make sure your company, product, or newsletter name shows up clearly in the subject line as a further guarantee to recipients that the e-mail is from a trusted source, not from a spammer.

You’ll probably have to work hard to avoid the same territory spammers and phishers have already overharvested, but it’s work you must do to avoid getting trapped in the spam spider web.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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