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Avoid the Spam Filter

Russell Shaw
Avoid the Spam Filter Russell Shaw
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These days, spam filters on personal computers and corporate networks are absolutely necessary. This software is designed to snare presumably unwanted incoming messages based on a variety of characteristics, including the sender's email address, words in the message subject line or even in the body of the message.


Most of the time, spam filters work. Of the 909 million inbound emails scanned by MessageLabs' Anti-Spam service in May, 691.5 million were intercepted as spam. That's a global spam ratio of one in every 1.3 emails.


Yet, spam filters are not perfect. Sometimes, they snare perfectly legitimate messages, such as a "cold call' email a sales executive might send to a potential client, or even a message from a potential customer to a corporation's vice president of purchasing.


"The problem [of spam filters catching legitimate email] is getting worse, because companies are angry with the amount of email that is being sent to them," says Adam Sarner, customer relationship management analyst with Gartner, Inc., Stamford, Ct. "As a result, enterprises tend to block [messages] first and ask questions later. Spam is that bad that businesses and consumers are much more willing than they used to, to pass up a [legitimate] email or two rather than letting it all through."


Sarner likens spam filters turned to maximum protection mode to a car alarm turned too high -- and set to go off even when an innocent pedestrian walks in the general vicinity of the vehicle.







Spam Filters: A Look Under the Hood


No two spam filters work exactly the same, and most of these utilities offer the user considerable flexibility in the types of messages they allow or stop. Still, there are some red flags.


Most spam filter companies closely guard this information. After all, if the "bad guys" got ahold of it, the secret would be out, and effectiveness would be lost. Still, so that your next business email does not get unfairly marked with the sign of the spam devil, it would be useful to look under the hood and see exactly what raises the hackles of one of the better-known spam utilities out there.


SpamAssassin has posted a list of verboten email subject lines, suspect practices and related taboos. Here are 25 of the spam sins this tool looks out for:



  1. Body of message incorporates a tracking ID number
  2. Body of message contains a large block of hexadecimal code
  3. Body of message contains one or more lines of "YELLING" (i.e., all-caps)
  4. Message includes Microsoft executable program
  5. Message body has at least 70 percent blank lines
  6. Message header indicates message was sent directly from dynamic IP address
  7. Message From field appears to not contain a real name
  8. Message From field ends in numbers
  9. Message header contains numbers mixed in with letters
  10. Message subject includes the term "offer"
  11. Message to: field contains spaces
  12. Message Reply to field is empty
  13. Subject has exclamation mark and question mark
  14. Subject is ALL-CAPS
  15. Message subject starts with an advertising tag
  16. Message From: field contains the term "friend"
  17. Subject contains "As Seen"
  18. Subject starts with dollar amount
  19. Subject contains "Double Your"
  20. Subject contains "For Only"
  21. Subject contains "FREE"
  22. Subject contains "Free Instant"
  23. Message contains excessive images without much text
  24. Message body contains the term "nobody's perfect"
  25. Message body claims not to be spam

If you are sending out messages with any of these shortcomings, no wonder your potential clients and customers keep telling you, "I just found your message in my spam filter!"

When a spam filter working within an email program sees a suspicious incoming message, the filter will either delete the message entirely, or place it in a special spam folder the recipient is free to browse if and when he is so inclined.


The occurrences of legitimate email being grabbed by spam filters is so acute, the phenomenon has a name: false positives. In a common false positive scenario, a legitimate business email could wind up in a user's voluminous spam file, 65th in a list of 217 solicitations for everything from bargain real estate to body enhancement potions.


And, if your perfectly sincere message is surrounded by such unseemly entreaties, it will probably never get read.


"False positives are definitely a problem," says John Levine, author of "Fighting Spam For Dummies." He's also a spam expert who has testified in front of U.S. Senate and Federal Trade Commission committees studying the issue of unwanted commercial email.


Unfortunately, spam filters seem to have an anxiety attack when they encounter legitimate emails dressed up with pretty graphics. Since porn, free travel and other spammers like to use graphics, you, as a legitimate marketer, suffer at least some guilt by association.


"Spam filters tend to work with formatting rather than words," says Mark Sunner, chief technology officer of MessageLabs. "Some companies attempt to pre-format their emails in HTML with a logo and letterhead. The more you have of it, the more it brings alarm bells," and creates false positives.


David Skoll, president of email filtering solutions provider Roaring Penguin Software Inc., believes an enterprise can minimize or even eliminate the problem of false positives by implementing a server-based filtering solution that leaves the final decision about what is or is not spam up to each end-user. "People are getting fed up with the hack-and-slash approach toward [spam management]," he says. "Server-based solutions learn over time what is considered spam and what is not, and can be tailored and configured down to the user level."


Daniel Tynan, author of "Privacy Annoyances," and a regular columnist for Sales and Marketing Management magazine, sees both sides of the issue. "It is possible to tune spam filters to get false positives down, but the typical overworked network administrator too often says that 'we are getting so much pornography,'" that the spam filter remains turned on to maximum strength, Tynan says.


So what can a legitimate emailer to do to avoid being caught in the spam trap? Experts offer several suggestions:



  • If you are sending a message to someone you don't know, consider sending the email as plain text, rather than as HTML, which makes the message look like a Web page. Tynan recommends plain text because spammers often use HTML computer code to hide "beacons." These are small graphics that when a user opens up a spam, sends a type of "message opened" acknowledgement back to the sender.

  • Don't send attachments if the recipient does not know you. Levine, who is also a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, says that because many spammers and virus writers use attachments to spread pornography and malicious computer code, spam filters and anti-virus software sometimes view attachments with suspicion.

  • In your message subject line, be as specific as possible. This point is especially relevant because spammers have gotten smart enough to write messages with perfectly plausible scenarios, such as "Conference call tomorrow at 10 a.m." "That being the case, don't send a generically titled message, but give as many straightforward details as you can in the subject line," says Levine, who suggests naming specific conference call participants or departments. In other words, instead of typing "Conference call tomorrow at 10 a.m." in your message subject line, Levine suggests trying something such as "Conference call with audit committee tomorrow at 10 a.m." Given the specifics of that subject line, spam filters would recognize the message is not generic, and would probably let it through to the recipient's inbox.

  • Even if your message is legit, stay away from message subject words that spam filters look for. Although these words vary with each anti-spam software product, a typical list of such terms is available from free anti-spam utility SpamAssassin. A few suspect terms to avoid include: "for only" and "hello," subject lines that start with dollar signs, and words like "free" or "guaranteed" spelled with all capital letters. See the sidebar for a more comprehensive list of these terms.

  • Obtain permission first. "Email works best when there is full agreement between the sender and receiver," says Gartner analyst Sarner. In some cases, permission would entail contacting the recipient, advising her that you will be sending her an email, and then asking that she adjust her spam filter to ensure that the utility she uses lets your message in. Of course, seeking permission to email a company changes the nature of the email from a cold call to something that is expected. That is fine with Sarner, who views the false positive risks as so acute that sending unexpected email without notifying the recipient first can be a waste of time. Otherwise, "these [unsolicited messages] are going to be reported as spam, blocked and then ignored," says Sarner. "You will want to rise above that noise level, and the best way to do it is to start out with a telephone call or even a face-to-face meeting."

Because the cost-benefit balance between too much spam and that occasional missed potential customer is elusive, the wisest policy is, unfortunately, sometimes a case of the lesser of two evils.


"Fundamentally, it stinks to have to make Draconian tradeoffs, but if you are a business, you have to put up with it," says Levine.

Don’t worry. You’ll have a job this time when it bursts.


I'm still getting calls about an online resume of mine that has not been updated in a year.


Having been in the business for some time now, even I am shocked when I get calls from recruiters presenting CMO positions. CMO! Are you serious? CMO? It's a sign.


In the downturn of the dotcom bubble, many job seekers were struggling, looking for anyone interested in our skills, let alone anything above a managerial position. If there were internet jobs flipping virtual burgers, many of us would have gladly taken them.


Oh, how times have changed. In order not to panic my current employer, I will say that I enjoy my current job immensely and the people I work with. I have learned that it is considerably more important (to be happy where you work) than making a boatload for a short time, not being happy and imploding-- again. The difference this time around is that there are thousands of people just like me.


However, this signals to me the absolute dearth of people available for internet jobs, and it raises a concern over who these companies are finding to fill those positions.


Those who knew nothing about technology and were chasing the fast buck in internet v1.0 were cleared out in the first implosion.


What was left were those people who were passionate about the internet because they could envision just how it would actually change society. The promise was still there, the vision was just a little cloudier.

Worry because you may have to find another job sooner than you’d like.


Between client-side and agencies, switching jobs in the internet biz is common. However, I am running into more and more people I know who have new cards from funded startups.


Heck, in my last job I did it, again -- and imploded -- again. It's in our blood. It's attitudinal, and unfortunately it's a disease many of us cannot be cured of. But it also signals the euphoric optimism we had learned to be so wary of. We are much more accustomed to risk. We don’t expect a pension. Hell, we don’t even expect Social Security to be around when it’s our time to collect.


People just coming out of college and being lured to startups are unaware that there is a 90 percent chance that their company will crumble in less than 12 months, but they believe in success nonetheless. I am meeting more people describing their web 2.0 company, and I cannot figure out how they are going to make money. It's the "miracle" plan we’ve all seen before. They just get the "influencers" and then look at the product adoption curve. Wow, we’ll all be rich.


Not likely. But it’s possible. Investors invest in many companies. They know that they will not all survive, but the upside of the portfolio of companies that they do invest in is usually positive. Only one or two of them have to survive for the investors to make money.


The employees of those companies buying into that dream, however, will have the same rude awakening and emotional letdown as those who have gone before them. They will all learn from it and carry those learnings over to their new businesses. It’s a cycle of birth and rebirth that increases our overall knowledge and makes this business more stable over time-- the same way it did with radio, television, telecommunications and the auto industries that have had the same cycles.


Just realize that you may get a little weary of being born again in the process.

Don’t worry. Bubbles change society for the better.


Bubbles create opportunity and possibility-- and not just for those who are self-absorbed. The cycle of rebirth has funded many additional dreams and startups and has inspired others to use what they know for good, not evil.


Craigslist.org is demonstrating, to the utter bafflement of the investment community, that doing something positive does not have to entail endless monetization. Enough money, it turns out, is sometimes enough.


Individual internet ideas can and do make a difference. People like Matt Flanery, Premal Shah and Olana Hirsch Khan with Kiva.org are fundamentally and positively changing people’s lives. They did not invent micro-lending but saw the enabling possibilities of the internet, and they are not alone.


Democratization of information is an idea. Empowerment is an idea. Peace is an idea. But these companies are not ideas, they are real. The internet is changing what we can do for the betterment of our planet.


The overwhelming consensus of humans impacting the planet's environment has had the same application of the madness of the crowds, this time inducing positive social change and investment in everything from solar technology and sea-wave generators to carbon offset programs and recycling.


Every car used by CityCarShare.org helps take 20 cars off the road. TerraPass.com and CarbonFund.org allow you to not only offset your carbon footprint, but help assuage your guilt about driving that SUV.


Large organizations still benefit, but it’s the smaller, dynamic businesses that are innovating within the bubble. It reminds us that the internet is a tool. What do we want the internet to be? Or ourselves?

Worry that I am writing this article for iMedia.


No, I am not going to impart you with any mystical knowledge, nor am I arrogant enough to think I would have any. However, the fact that there is general buzz and concern about the concept of a new internet bubble does have consequences. It can precipitate groupthink actions that cause the predicted fear in a self-fulfilling prophecy.



  • Action: Concerned investors are fearful that the U.S. market is over inflated, so investors switch investments and invest overseas to balance portfolios.

  • Result: Investors pulling out of riskier investments in the U.S. and deflate stocks of U.S. internet companies.

  • Cascade action: Venture capital firms decide not to invest in the third round of funding for startups due to reduced investment capital at their disposal from the firms they have already taken public.

  • Cascade result: web 2.0 companies -- expecting to receive that funding -- fail to meet their goals, close their doors and people become unemployed.

In other instances, the association with a failing company or the perception of wrongdoing causes groupthink actions, or the Arthur Andersen effect. Many people are unaware that they were cleared of wrongdoing in the Enron debacle. However, the perceptive damage had already been done. A change in perception, if adopted en masse, can cause the collapse.


(This is) even more precipitous for internet companies since many do not have capital equipment that has tangible value. The upside is a faster potential rise due to fewer financial anchors, but also increased potential for a precipitous decline.

In this case, you should and shouldn't worry.


Several presidential candidates have announced their decision to run via their website-- not via television. This signals a realization of the fundamental shift in people’s media consumption habits.


Many papers have predicted the death of publicly-matched funding due to the restrictions on fundraising, as candidates need more to fund their campaigns and compete. The internet is uniquely poised to take advantage of this for three reasons.



  1. It provides the ability to raise funds from many small donors efficiently (e.g., the Howard Dean effect). It is estimated that they will need to each raise $2MM a week, every week, from now until the primaries.

  2. The political influencer segment -- newshounds who drive others' opinions and voraciously consume or voters who are more likely to form groups and join organizations to help others or campaigns -- indexes significantly higher online.

  3. It gives the candidates an ability to virtually travel, provide videos and hold chat sessions to reach voters in a more one-on-one fashion, and influence those who will cascade that message.

However, with the enormous amount of political money shifting (hands), there will be inventory gaps and significant ad pricing pressure, which will raise the overall value of those companies offering internet advertising.


"But that does not signal a bubble, that signals growth!" Yes and no. The difference for online versus offline is that pricing pressures online can cause exponential increases. Since political campaign money has a short shelf-life (i.e., doesn’t do a candidate much good after an election), this can also cause cascade effects.


This makes it difficult for new companies, especially startups, to grow their brands efficiently. They do not get the same efficiency per ad dollar spent, and that will signal doom for many companies on the cusp.

Don’t worry. You can find people during this bubble, but you have to look in all the right places.


Hiring talented people has become difficult, and the arrogance of some of those being interviewed has definitely increased. Even I get a laugh, however, when I see job postings asking for 15 years of experience in internet-related businesses. It's a sure sign that the company looking is seriously clueless. Know what the relative experience levels are before you make yourself look stupid to top candidates.


The first time there was a problem. There were so few people because the industry itself was only five years old. It was quite possible that a recent college grad did know more than anyone you could find, and they would be cheaper-- even with their six-figure salary request. This time, that is not the case. Hiring is tough, but there are a lot more people out there. The recent college grad does not know more than anyone else, and in most instances, knows considerably less. Experience, it turns out, does count for something.


But here we are again. Interviewing MBAs so sure of their skills, and with the number of offers they're receiving, it is more like they are interviewing you. Piece of advice: send them packing. Hard work, diligence and a voracious appetite to learn are more important. It turns out that intelligence does not ensure success. However, diligence and hard work tend to increase your odds substantially.
 
Mine your own employees for their contacts. Substantially increase the bonuses you give them for referrals that are hired. They will become evangelists for your own company. Most employers underestimate the value of culture within a company, but hiring known quantities referred internally substantially increases the odds of a cultural fit. Hire someone without it and you can be paying for it with internal dissent.

These hamsters are true connoisseurs of fine food



On the cute/hilarious front, YouTube newcomer HelloDenizen has put forward a great sophomore effort with this video. "Sometimes love is best expressed through tiny food."

Science? Um, no thank you.





Apparently, most of what you think you know about science is just not true. But there is a simple explanation for all things scientific. This is a great spoof of the new hit show "Cosmos." We particularly enjoy the white church minivan.

There's a new beer mile world record, folks!



As an avid runner, it has to be said that what this man was able to do is pretty amazing. The first couple of minutes are a bit tedious, but once you get to the actual act, it's pretty incredible. This should probably be filed under "don't try this at home, kids."


Written by Associate Media Producer Brian Waters.

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