SpamAssassin Rules and what they Mean for your Emails

For the past several years I have been following SpamAssassin’s rule set and I am always amazed by how many seemingly innocuous things (e.g. “Dear x”) can make perfectly harmless emails come under suspicion.

The vast majority of issues come from poorly coded/authenticated emails. This can either be the fault of the email’s designer (in the case of poor HTML) or the the platform (infrastructural issue). Some common HTML issues include:

  1. Too much code (in terms of your code to text ratio)
  2. Too little text (in terms of your text to image ratio) — you get penalized for being succint if you also use images
  3. Poorly written code (title set to “untitled”; unclosed tags, etc.) — apparently spammers cannot code well
  4. Larger or smaller than ordinary fonts — stick to something similar to 10-12pt
  5. “Shouting” — too many words in all caps; excessive use of red or blue font
  6. Hiding the unsubscribe text by making the font the same color as the background — a shady practice that would only result in spam complaints anyway



Here are a few highlights that I often see being violated that you would never think about from a SPAM perspective. It is interesting that what is often thought of as a best practice (explaining how/why someone was subscribed  and how he or she could unsubscribe) must be worded carefully to avoid a penalty: 

  1. Email contains ‘Dear (something)’ — so much for being friendly
  2. Claims you can be removed from the list 
  3. Talks about how to be removed from mailings
  4. Removal phrase right before a link

It is humorous though quite sad that email has been somewhat ruined because of all of the bad apples who take advantage of unsuspecting inboxes. Twitter, unfortunately is likely to follow if unchecked.

See the full list of Spam Assassin Rules

Measuring email marketing deliverability

Email marketing vendors often boast that their infrastructure and ISP relations teams lead to high deliverability. While it is true that any ESP is likely to significantly beat a company’s in-house solution, it becomes more difficult when trying to compare one ESP’s deliverability to another.


When you are evaluating email vendors, I highly recommend starting by subscribing to their respective newsletters via multiple email addresses (Gmail, Yahoo!, corporate account, etc.). Then tote whether or not the messages are delivered to your inbox in major email clients. This would seem to be an obvious test but many buyers simply rely on reputation rather than experimentation when making a decision.

Measuring the Sender Score of the Vendors

Return Path, who operates the largest email accreditation service, Sender Score Certified, rates IP addresses by giving them sender scores. The score is made up of several different factors such as SPAM complaints, sending volume, amount of mail sent to unknown addresses. and the IP’s DNS settings. Anything lower than 70 should be avoided. Ideally you want to see something that is 80 or higher.

To find the IP address of the mail server for an email you receive, you will need to see the message’s original headers.

In Gmail for example, click on the downward arrow on the top right of an email. Then select “Show Original” to see the message’s headers. You can then see the IP address of the sender and check it here. You will be surprised by how many low scores you will find. You can do this in a similar manner with Yahoo! Mail and other major email clients.

Checking Email Authentication

The header also gives you other useful information such as whether or not the emails pass various types of authentication. ISPs and corporate filters use some or all of the four major authentication frameworks to help classify email. Most email clients will allow you to check your incoming emails to see if they are authenticated. Gmail for example will tell you whether or not the email passes SPF and DKIM authentication. Simply do a find for “DKIM” when viewing the header. The more levels of authentication your ESP uses, the better the deliverability is likely to be.

There is of course a lot more than deliverability that goes into an email service provider evaluation (feature set, ease of use, services component, etc.) but this should at least give buyers an objective to way measure one of the more esoteric aspects of email marketing.

Email Subscribers Aren’t Educated on Managing Emails

Chad White at Email Insider reports on a panel from this past week’s Email Insider Summit in which mothers and college students were grilled on their email habits. Though it was geared toward B2C emails, the results are likely the same for many busy B2B users who are flooded with emails from a white paper or newsletter they requested years ago.

Feedback showed that people have trouble deciding when to delete, unsubscribe or mark an email as spam. It was also expressed that readers make little distinction between unsolicited emails and emails they signed up for, treating them all the same once they grew tired of the content. 

Earlier this year, the Email Experience Council decided to launch a Consumer Education Roundtable with the goal of creating a consumer website that would educate email users on how to get the most out of their email experience. This site will help consumers take back control of their inbox and teach them the appropriate way to manage to email communications, aiming to solve some of the concerns expressed at the summit. 

Get the Most of Your Email Images With Alt Tags

Jim Hitch of Emma email marketing has recently posted a series on making the most of your alt tags. This five part series addresses the issues faced with images not always loading in emails and how to set yourself up for the best possible results using alternative text (alt tag). Best practices are to set an alt tag for all of your images but Jim exposes various ways to continue to set yourself apart even when images don’t always load. Following examines the highlights from each installment of his series. In addition, see Jim’s full posts for additional insight and great visual examples that he has encountered regarding these items.

Five Great Ways to Use the Alt Tag:

  • Part 1 - Set an alt tag for all of your images within an email.When sending out HTML emails, it is always recommended to have an established backup plan in place. Since about half of the email programs out there don’t display images by default, the fallback is to rely on the alt tag that displays the alternate text that shows when the images don’t load.
  • Part 2 - Brand your message. Beyond the classics of the subject line and the from name and address, identify yourself by placing the brand name in the valuable top-left spot. This continues to communicates who you are and connects with the recipient, even without the help of images or your logo. When your logo does not display, have your text mimic the styling of your brand’s image. If you have special emphasis based upon capitalization or all caps, continue to stay branded even in your alt tag.
  • Part 3 - Add your offer in the alt tag. If you are providing a special offer in our email, ensure that is located withing the alternative text. Even if the images load, the recipient will be able to identify the offer and be more inclined to accept the call to action. In addition, if you can make your alternative text offer a hyperlink to another page with the offer this will continue to increase your chances of conversion.
  • Part 4 - Reinforce the emails theme by changing the color scheme. The common blue atl tag doesn’t have to interrupt the brand experience you’ve worked so hard to create. In fact, with some HTML knowledge, your backup plan can actually reinforce it. Mimic the feel of the image that is to be displayed in its place. If the image has text, mimic the font size, style and color to continue with the developed theme.
  • Part 5 - Ask your readers to load the images. Through your alt tag you can help increase your images loading by requesting the recipient to enable images to view pictures. Jim notes that he realized that sometimes the images aren’t just part of the message, they are the message.

Take your future emails to the next level by enhancing your images with alt tags.

Tips on Timing Your Lead Nurturing

Brian Carroll posted some tips on lead nurturing from MarketingSherpa’s B-to-B Lead Generation Handbook, providing some great guidelines on how to stategically map out nurturing communications.

Nurturing can often be automated using triggered emails or drip marketing programs and is meant to keep in touch with quality leads that are not yet sales-ready. The email program can also be used to supplement any follow-up calls by sales reps will perform.

Let’s take a look at the 5 Nurture Campaign Time Factors from Marketing Sherpa’s Handbook:

  • Immediate welcomes  - Welcoming someone to your list creates good will and also gives you an opportunity to reiterate the benefits of your email marketing program.
  • Lead Qualification Telemarketing - As soon as possible use telemarketing  to qualify each lead. In some cases you may also montior online activity and profile information to determine lead quality.
  • Interest-level Timing - Using cues from a prospects online activity or responses via phone, start to determine what stage they may be at in the buying cycle and respond appropriately. Marketing automation allows you to use lead scoring to gauge online interaction and market more agressively to highly active prospects.
  • Industry Timing - It’s a given that you may need to adjust your campaign timing to reflect your industry’s annual rhythms.
  • Job Function Timing - Data shows that a decision maker is heavily involved at the very start and the very end of the process, but leaves the middle of the process up to the influencers. For your niche, you’ll need to investigate who gets involved at which point in the process so that you can segment your messaging.

Is a dedicated IP address right for me?

A dedicated IP address is not the ideal solution for everyone. There’s agreat article on that discusses the pros and cons so you can decide whether a dedicated or shared IP is right for your company.’s overall recommendation is that marketers that frequently send large numbers of email blasts would benefit from a dedicated IP address, while those that send only occasional or monthly emails would probably not want a dedicated IP address. Below are some of the highlights from the article:


  • Reputation – Sharing your IP address means you’re also sharing your reputation. Having your own dedicated IP address puts you in charge of your reputation and deliverability.
  • Accreditation and Whitelisting – Some whitelisting programs require you to have a dedicated IP address. Being accredited can help improve deliverability.
  • Monitoring – Being in charge of your own IP address allows you to monitor and take action immediately on any issues that arise.


  • Volume Spikes – Spikes in volume can negatively affect your reputation and need to be watched and managed carefully. Since your IP address is dedicated to you, you wouldn’t have your ESP balancing out the spikes with other clients’ mailings, so this would be your responsibility to manage.
  • Volume History - Reputation is also tied into volume history. Since you’re starting fresh with a new IP address, you would not have any history. Some ISPs are throttling IP addresses with no volume history to stricter reputation standards, so your reputation would need to be built slowly over time.
  • Deliverability – Having your own dedicated IP address doesn’t automatically mean your deliverability will be better. To improve deliverability, you also need to become accredited with whitelisting companies.
  • Monitoring – Monitoring and taking action on issues that arise requires both time/effort and money.
  • Cost – Most ESPs charge extra for this service (as a separate line item cost or added to monthly fees). Additional costs can be accrued from whitelisting and monitoring (direct costs to your ESP or costs incurred from taking the time and effort to monitor yourself).

Creating HTML Emails Everyone Can Love

One of the constant challenges for marketers is creating HTML emails that work with everyone’s inbox. There are some commonly known tips and tricks for creating effective emails, but there is no hard-and-fast rule book. Today MarketingProfs posted an article reviewing common issues marketers face in building their emails. Many of these items are ones I’ve discussed before in this blog. Here are some that I found most valuable:

  • Around 600 pixels wide is about right for emails
  • Don’t use external CSS for formating. Some programs, including Microsoft Outlook 2007, don’t support CSS.
  • Avoid flash.
  • Test in multiple email clients, if possible. Don’t forget to test on mobile devices as well.
  • Be aware that not everyone loads HTML. Use alt tags for those who may view text only emails or are using a mobile device.
  • Use fully qualified links. Remember that using something like <img src=”images/headline.gif”> may look fine on your internal servers, but it won’t render externally.

One of the best ways to spot-check your templates is to send the email to a small test list of colleagues or trusted partners. As with proofreading a paper, this will ensure that you don’t miss anything. It’s easy to brush over details if you’ve been staring at the same email for too long. It also allows you to gather feedback and see your email from a different perspective, making sure you don’t get tunnel vision.

Examining Modern Relationship Building

This week Brian Carroll posted four unique perspectives on today’s communication styles. In a world of digital communication, the rules of relationship building have changed. Many of us have clients for years and never meet them face-to-face.

Carroll poses the question: “To what extent can emails be used in place of phone calls and face-to-face meetings when maintaining and developing relationships with clients and other important network contacts?”

He then invites four bloggers, including himself, to give their perspective on the issue.

Though modern technology gives marketers the opportunity to do very specific targeting and provide personalization, nothing takes the place of building good, old-fashioned relationships. Carroll stresses that today’s buyers are saavy - and in some cases, are marketers themselves! They are very sensitive to being pitched by a fast-talking sales rep. Therefore, it’s wise to start building those relationships with key targets even before they are sales-ready. This ensures that they will trust you when the time is right.

As Carroll points out, one way to do this is through a lead nurturing program. Positioning yourself as an industry expert and providing truly valuable information to your target audience will secure a place for your company in their conciousness and prove you know your industry. Staying top-of-mind means you’ll be first on the list when it’s time to buy.


The Trouble with Buying an Email List

I have talked often about the fine line between permission based marketing and spam. Another component of this is how you build your lists.

Many marketers see purchasing a list of names as a quick way to start out an email marketing program. One of my favorite articles from Email Marketing Reports explains why, as with most “get rich quick” schemes, this is a poor substitute for growing a list organically.

Buying v. Renting
Buying a list is different than renting a list. Renting a list is a common and widely accepted practice by email marketers. Renting a list means paying a fee to sponsor an email blast to a list of subscribers, for example, participating in a White Paper of the Day mailing. When you rent a list, you never have physical possession of the list. When you purchase a list, you are receiving a copy of the list with the assumption that you are free to use the list as often as you like.

Why Not Buy?  
It is considered a best practice to clearly inform people of what they are signing up for when they are put on a list. If you are buying a list, the people on that list have no reason to expect a message from you, and certainly haven’t given you permission to send it. These are not prospects who are interested in building relationships with you and your brand. It is likely that you will experience extremely high opt out rates with purchased lists, and in many cases recipients may even flag your message as spam.

Brownlow’s Email Marketing Reports article also points out that marketers work hard to build and nurture their lists. They want to ensure that the prospects on their list remain happy with the email program they provide and are not bombarded with spam. Therefore, as Brownlow states simply:

“Clearly, no self-respecting list owner is ever going to sell copies of their address list. Not if they want to preserve its value.”

Better safe than sorry. Start by building lists through trade shows, sponsored blasts, registration on your website or other legitimate means. You will wind up with a more valuable set of prospects and prevent problems like blacklisting, which will inevitably cause more stress in the long run.


Avoiding the Spam Folder

One of the most frequent questions I get from clients is in regards to deliverability. Spammers out there have made it tough for legitimate email marketers to send messages without having to worry about triggering spam filters or ending up in someone’s junk folder.

Here are some quick things to watch out for that Stefan Pollard suggests are the hallmarks of classic spam:

  • Vague or aggressive subject lines
  • E-mail address or stranger’s name in the sender line instead of a company or brand name
  • Aggressive language in body copy, along with overuse of exclamation points and misspellings
  • High ratio of images to text, especially one large image
  • Oversized, boldfaced red type
  • Too-frequent messages, often with unwanted or irrelevant content
  • Newsletters that look more like solo offers than reliable information sources

Though the above are all warning signs, preventing looking like spam really boils down to the application of common sense. Try to read your email messages with the perspective of the recipient. Or instate a test-run, and send other company members your email, asking for feedback on whether they got spam vibes from the message.