Mailing by the Rules

The increasing popularity of direct email marketing combined with the escalation of the war against unsolicited commercial email, or spam, presents greater challenges to legitimate opt-in emailers. Meeting these challenges requires vigilance and responsiveness in areas such as privacy policies, online community activism, advances in anti-spam technology, and Internet etiquette.

Spam Is in the Eye of the Recipient

To navigate among these new challenges, you must first recognize that your status as a legitimate opt-in emailer is under constant surveillance. Violate this consumer trust, and you could find your site’s Internet addresses in anti-spam software or automated spam-blocking databases causing ISPs to block your email from ever reaching your intended audience.

This may sound simple, but spam filtering applies to more than just the most egregious spammers. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Disney are currently profiled as borderline spammers in the latest release of Spam Bouncer’s filters for not following their own privacy policies and doing little to correct this. And once you’re on a blacklist, there’s no guarantee that some mail administrator at an ISP will update their spam filters should you work to get your name unlisted.

Thus whether you perceive yourself as a spammer or not is irrelevant. The safe passage of your email depends on what others think of you and your mailings, making it a public relations issue.

Legitimate opt-in email marketers should also be aware of, and work with, anti-spam online communities and services like MAPS and the RBL. Both camps suffer at the hands of illegitimate spammers and should thus cooperate and communicate on acceptable policies and procedures such as best practices for opt-in emailers and the latest techniques used to block spam.

Collateral Damage in the War Against Spam

Because there are no spam-filtering standards (and even if there were, spammers would leverage this knowledge to devise ways around them), the administrators of some legitimate, opt-in mailing lists estimate that as many as one in every 20 messages is bounced or deleted by over-aggressive spam filters. There are a number of signatures that spammers leave in their emails that spam filters zero in on. Some of the common techniques you can use to avoid being mistaken as a spammer include the following:

  • Use a real “From:” address in your mail headers.

    Spammers typically use bogus email addresses, free email accounts, or avoid sending this field entirely.

  • Use a legitimate address in the “To:” field.

    Spammers often place bogus information in this field or leave it out. But whatever you do, respect your subscribers’ privacy and do not send out your subscriber list to everyone by itemizing the email addresses of your recipients in this field! However, some mailing list software packages allow you to personalize the “To:” field of each email, which is the ideal solution.

  • Make sure your messages include other key mail headers, such as “Date:” and “Message-ID:”.

    Spammers often leave these fields out, but then so do some legitimate email clients. Some spam filters recognize this and tag incoming messages without these fields as possible spam.

  • Avoid using bulk email software commonly used by spammers.

    Many software packages send distinguishing mail headers or text strings that are readily detected by spam filters. Some of the more common bulk mailers to avoid include Dynamic Mail Pro, Email Platinum, eMerge, Extractor Pro, MailKing, and one of our personal favorite names: Sir Mail-A-Lot.

  • Spread mailings out over time and servers when possible.

    Many ISPs will reject incoming mail when it comes in heavy volumes from a single source.

  • Make sure you send your emails from a machine outside your firewall.

    Since most spammers don’t leave a valid “return address,” many servers that receive email will validate the IP address of the sender. If you send your email from a machine behind a firewall, chances are that it can’t be reached on the public Internet.

  • Monitor for, and actively follow up on, bounced emails and unsubscribe requests.

    Work closely with the administrators at the major ISPs to ensure that legitimate email isn’t being bounced. Also ensure that your mailing list is regularly pruned of mis-typed, canceled, or undeliverable email addresses and unsubscribe requests so that these administrators recognize you as responsible.

Socially Responsible Email

Given the importance of public relations for running a successful, and unfettered, mailing list, here are several other “good online neighbor” practices for running a mailing list:

  • Always confirm and verify subscription requests before commencing with mailings.

    Internet users often inadvertently, or with mischievous intent, subscribe someone else’s email address to a list. Confirming subscriptions helps prevent mistakes or abuse.

  • Make it easy to unsubscribe.

    Two years ago, it was bad enough that Microsoft placed Greg on an unsolicited mailing list. Adding insult to injury, Microsoft required him to register on their web site with key demographic and personal information for the luxury of being removed.

  • Take measures to prevent unauthorized mailings.

    Some mailing lists can be configured insecurely, allowing outsiders to broadcast to the subscriber base through use of an email alias.

  • Always disclose how you intend to use subscriber email addresses.

    If you intend to ever rent, sell, or trade your subscriber addresses to third parties, subscribers should be informed upfront.

For further information, MAPS publishes a code of ethics and responsibility for mailing list administrators called Basic Mailing List Management Principles for Preventing Abuse.

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And if the anti-spam communities and software don’t keep you honest, government regulation will. Colorado is currently considering a bill that would require spammers to tag their email as spam or face consumer lawsuits for up to $10 per email message in damages. California consumer groups are proposing a similar measure for the November 2000 ballot. And this month the House Commerce Committee is expected to ready national legislation allowing ISPs to declare their sites as “spam-free zones” enabling ISPs to sue spammers for $50 per message in damages up to $25,000.

As more sophisticated anti-spam technologies catch on, there’s bound to be a continual escalation in measures and counter-measures. If email marketing plays a role in your business plan, it pays to know the rules social, legal, and technical lest your marketing campaigns wind up in an email black hole.

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