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How to protect your email reputation

How to protect your email reputation David Fowler

Spam traps and spam complaints are two of the most glaring indicators that an email marketer may be illegitimate, and they can quickly convince ISPs to evict you from the inbox. Here's how to sidestep these email-deliverability trouble spots and protect your sender reputation.

Spam traps: The biggest red flag
Nothing says "please block me from the inbox" like sending email to spam traps.

Spam traps are email addresses that receivers and ISPs use for the specific purpose of identifying spammers.

They fall into two categories:

  1. New email addresses that have never been used by a real person. Because these accounts do not belong to anyone, there is no way that anyone could have opted in to any marketing program.

  2. Email addresses that were once active and have been inactive for a significant period of time. ISPs recycle these addresses and designate them as spam traps. Their reason being that if the original users no longer check these email accounts, you must be a bad guy if you're still sending to them.

When you send to spam traps, the penalties are immediate. ISPs will often put a block on your IP address and refuse to deliver your messages until the offending addresses are removed from your list.

How to avoid and recover from spam traps
It goes without saying that ISPs do not publicly divulge which email addresses they use as spam traps, so it's nearly impossible to identify and remove individual spam traps from your lists.

But it's not difficult to identify whether or not your email lists contain one too many spam traps. Most receivers have a zero-tolerance policy for email marketers who send to these forbidden addresses. You will know when your deliverability stats inexplicably plummet and your IP address starts showing up on multiple blacklists.

Maintaining an accurate subscriber database is key to avoid accumulating spam traps in the first place. You should:

Implement a double opt-in confirmation process. Sometimes a simple typo, such as typing the number 0 instead of the letter O, can turn a legitimate email address into a spam trap. If the user must click a confirmation link from the email address in question before it's added to your list, you won't inadvertently activate a spam trap.

Focus on growing your house list organically instead of buying data from list brokers. I'm not suggesting that all list brokers engage in questionable business practices. However, buying a bad list with less-than-healthy data is the No. 1 way that email marketers unwittingly damage their sender reputations.

If you find yourself in spam-trap trouble, you'll need to proactively re-engage your house file and specifically re-opt-in the people who haven't responded to your campaigns in a while. Segmenting your database based on recent activity will help remove spam traps and get back in tune with your customers' communication expectations and preferences. You may also need to reach out to specific ISPs and blacklist services to reestablish your legitimacy.

Spam complaints: Deliverability misdemeanors that can turn into serious offenses
In the eyes of ISPs, spam complaints are less damning than spam traps, but they still can count against you. Spam complaints occur when email recipients click the "Report as Spam" button, signaling to their ISPs that your message is unwanted and unsolicited.

ISPs understand that a certain number of spam complaints are inevitable. Often, hitting the spam button is a simple matter of convenience. Most free email clients, such as AOL and Gmail, make it easy for users to scan their inboxes, select all the messages they don't want to read and report them all as spam with a single click. That's much easier than individually opening each message and manually clicking the unsubscribe link. So ISPs only penalize senders who accumulate too many spam complaints.

But how many is too many? It varies by ISP, but the generally accepted rule of thumb is one spam complaint per every thousand emails sent. In other words, each ISP tracks the total email volume you send through their networks against the number of spam complaints you generate.

When you stray beyond the ISPs' spam-complaint thresholds, they often respond by placing temporary blocks on your IP address that may ban you from the inbox for up to 72 hours. If complaints continue to be an issue, you may experience a permanent block on your IP address.

How to monitor and minimize spam complaints
If a user reports your message as spam, you'll never know it unless you participate in that ISP's feedback loop. Feedback loops are a communication mechanism where ISPs tell email marketers which email recipients reported their messages as spam. For obvious reasons, ISPs don't share this information with anyone and everyone. You have to apply to each ISP to receive this data.

Fortunately, a quality email-service provider will handle this on your behalf. As part of the account-setup process, email deliverability teams apply for feedback loops. When users report your messages as spam, the email-marketing software automatically removes these addresses from your lists.

It's important to proactively monitor your spam-complaint rate to make sure it remains low and to identify the root cause if it suddenly goes up. Connect with your ESP to make sure you're on top of things.

David Fowler is the director of email strategy, deliverability, and privacy compliance for Lyris.

On Twitter? Follow Lyris at @Lyris. Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

David Fowler is the director of email strategy, deliverability, and privacy compliance for Lyris. He consults with email marketers to help them get better results from their email programs.

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