Why Content Is Still an Issue

Conventional wisdom says that a good sender reputation beats content as the best way to boost your deliverability. It also holds that the “report spam” button found in so many e-mail clients is the chief reputation-tarnisher.

While these ideas are true, content does still matter. What’s different now: the “report spam” button also influences content filters.

So when your subscriber clicks the “report spam” button, not only does it launch a spam complaint that counts against your reputation, it also tells content filters what to do with your email message.

Where Reputation and Content Collide

Here’s how it works, using Cloudmark and Comcast as an example. Cloudmark is a content filter that individual users install as a plug-in into their e-mail clients. ISPs can also use it along with their other filtering techniques. Comcast is an ISP that works with Cloudmark this way.

When a Cloudmark user or Comcast customer marks a message as spam, that information goes back to Cloudmark’s software, which scans the e-mail looking for “fingerprints,” or common spam indicators.

As with the spam-complaint button, one report by itself generally won’t doom your messages to permanent blocking. However, the individual’s report gets aggregated with all other Cloudmark users. If enough of them mark your message as spam and the software finds enough common fingerprints, the content filter will adjust its rules.

The result? Very soon your messages no longer get delivered because of both content and reputation.

That’s why the real content problem doesn’t boil down to whether you use “free” in all capitals and 18-point bold red typeface and what a content filter thinks about it.

The problem with tactics like this is what your readers decide that looks like and how they react.

Users Wary of Being Scammed

Add to this situation several eye-popping findings in Habeas’ second annual consumer e-mail survey:

  • 69 percent of respondents worry about being victimized by e-mail fraud scams, up from 62 percent in 2007.
  • 35 percent said they don’t know what to look for when trying to sift through e-mail messages that are potentially dangerous. This means 65 percent feel they know what to look for.
  • About 25 percent lose “some degree of faith” in a company that can’t deliver e-mail reliably.

This means that if your message makes it through to your subscribers, they might still decide that it looks like spam, even if the content filters didn’t catch any major spam signatures the first time or when you tested the copy yourself before sending.

When enough people make the same decision, the content filters update, and pretty soon your messages no longer reach your audience.

What Content Filters Search For

These are some of the most common spam signatures that can trigger a block or filter:

  • Font size smaller than 8 points or larger than 14 points
  • Repetitive use of keywords (one little “free” won’t hurt you, 10 will)
  • Misspelled words
  • Invisible font colors, such as white on white
  • Keywords in all capital letters (“FREE!,” for example, but the filters also catch coupon codes that are usually in all caps and can accidentally generate misspelled words)
  • Light gray or red fonts
  • Non-ASCII (nonstandard) characters
  • URLs that match signs of phishing
  • JavaScript
  • Attachments
  • Forms
  • Embedded images

Pass the Mind Filter and the Content Filter

Even though a content filter might not punish your message as possible spam, the reader’s “mind filter” might. That in turn will affect how content filters treat your messages in the future.

So it remains important to get on top of your content and understand what triggers a spam report, even if you e-mail only to a permission-based mailing list. Use this short list to help reduce the chances that your next message will be marked as spam:

  • Leave no doubts in the inbox. This is your first make-or-break checkpoint. It drives the spam-or-legit decision and sets your reader’s expectations for what she will find in the message. You have two chances:
    • Brand the sender, or “from,” line to make it clear who is sending the e-mail. Never use a person’s name if it’s not part of the brand or company name.
    • Use a clear subject that accurately sums up the subject line. No vague promises or hints about the content here.
  • Spam-check copy before sending. True, I did just say that content filters don’t always catch what a mind filter would interpret as spam. However, many of them are based on what others have reported as spam, so the probability is high that a prelaunch check will highlight items that need to be corrected.
  • Use a deliverability-monitoring service. Your e-mail service provider (ESP) might already have one of these as a contract or add-on service, or you can investigate the best-known third-party services: EmailAdvisor, Return Path, and Pivotal Veracity. They also scan content before sending and can predict how ISPs will treat your e-mail: whether it will land in the inbox or the junk folder, or get blocked.
  • Design for the preview pane and blocked images. If your readers see just blank space or a bunch of red Xs where pictures should go, they’ll more likely suspect it and mark it as spam.
  • Respect frequency and content preferences. A strong inbox presence and utter lack of spam signatures won’t help you if you mail-bomb your list with irrelevant messages. Remember: people click the “report spam” button deliberately if they feel you’re abusing the privilege.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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