Why Your E-mail Still Lands In the Junk Folder

No, I’m not urging you to go over to the Dark Side. But one reason spammers get messages into the inbox while yours languish in the junk folder is because they’re truly dedicated to the task of getting through ISP filters. Meanwhile, you’re probably still using the same old tactics over and over.

Spammers constantly tweak message templates, experiment with new tactics, and track their IP addresses to uncover and evade ISP blocks. In response, ISPs also update their filter criteria and definitions, and monitor blacklists in order to identify and trap more spam.

Consequently, a benign e-mail message element that would have passed through the filters one day may be identified as a spam signature the next. Or, the number of spam complaints hitting the ISP’s threshold triggers a block. Inbox deliverability has become a constantly moving target in the tug of war between spammers and ISPs.

Marketers, on the other hand, seek the one magic trick that will solve all their deliverability problems forever. Where’s the ultimate Top Five checklist of strategies to stay out of the bulk/junk/spam folder? Trouble is, that checklist keeps changing as spammers shift to new tactics and ISPs update their filters in response.

Yes, you can employ specific strategies to improve your shot at the inbox. I’ll share those in a bit. However, each requires you to constantly monitor and update. You can’t just fix a broken program, then forget about it.

Why Marketers Get Blocked

Here’s how many good e-mail marketers go wrong: they start out by slapping together some creative, which more often than not includes some outmoded device long associated with spam, such as JavaScript or single large images with no text version.

They send it out and get OK results the first time. So they keep doing the same thing, over and over and over. Nobody’s paying any attention to the diagnostics like message-bounce logs or blacklists, or to delivery metrics. It’s also a pretty safe bet that they aren’t monitoring spam complaints on ISP feedback loops.

One day, a fresh-faced newcomer notices the e-mail program isn’t producing the way it should. So he runs a delivery report and freaks out when he sees the company’s e-mail is getting blocked by every major ISP. Is it too late to work out the kinks and move the program back to profitability? Not without some effort.

Monitor, Test, Adjust. Repeat

“Put your e-mail marketing on autopilot!” That’s how e-mail software sellers used to market list-management and marketing software. Truth is, there’s no autopilot in e-mail marketing.

Nor is there a bulletproof list of tactics that will get you into the inbox each and every time. These three long-term strategies will help improve your chances, but each requires constant vigilance.

1. Monitoring

Your e-mail list software should provide multiple delivery and status reports. But they don’t do any good if you don’t study them. Ask for them from your IT department or e-mail service provider if you don’t currently have direct access.

This is a basic set. Your ESP might have more. Check them daily, even if you don’t e-mail your lists that often:

  • Message bounce logs and delivery status reports
  • Blacklists DNS Stuff is a free clearinghouse resource that lets you type in your IP address to see if any participating blacklists have it listed. Most bulk e-mailers are on one list or another; don’t fret if you turn up on one or two, unless it’s a major one such as Spamhaus.
  • ISP feedback loops Major e-mail providers such as AOL and MSN/Hotmail will send you spam complaints for you to deal with.

2. End-to-end testing

Developing a bad e-mail reputation by ignoring spam complaints or violating ISP procedures is your fastest trip to a blacklist, but spammy content and broken or dodgy HTML code will still trip you up. Test your entire e-mail program, from opt-in/out-out to message content and design through delivery to highlight problems.

3. Adjust content, design, and coding

This is a continuous process. As soon as you fix one problem, an ISP may change its filter protocol and flag another element in your message as spam, based on what real spammers are doing. As soon as you notice one factor of your program isn’t working or is getting you into trouble, change it immediately. Consider your message creative an eternal work in progress. Tweak as you go along.

4. Repeat By this point, you should have found and corrected any major problems in your e-mail program. It’s no time to turn on autopilot. Continue to monitor, test and adjust to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

This is something you can do on your own if money’s tight just by tracking the data your own delivery reports provide, getting on ISP whitelists and feedback loops, and testing your messages in different e-mail clients. If you use an ESP, it may offer these services either as part of your package or as an add-on.

A growing number of companies now specialize in e-mail delivery and optimization. They can scrutinize your entire e-mail program and call out weaknesses ahead of delivery, analyze developments during and after delivery, and recommend improvements. The best-known include these companies or programs:

And as always, keep on deliverin’.

Meet Stefan at ClickZ Specifics E-Mail Marketing, October 24-25 in New York City.

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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