Aug 27, 2007

Are your email messages being blocked or filtered?

eLearning Series

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Are your email messages being blocked or filtered? Make sure that your messages get through. On average, 15 percent of messages sent by companies do not get through to their customer’s inbox. Despite strong filters and blacklists, we’re receiving more and more unsolicited pieces of email each day. It costs time and energy to sort through and hit the delete button – time and energy that employees could be using to help solve customer’s problems. And the worst unsolicited email – pornographic content – makes us worry about opening any message in front of young kids.

Yet 48% of the US population has an email account, and 84% of them check their email frequently. When people go online, one of the first things they tend to do is check email. The fact that so many people – 136 million active email users in the US alone – put up with porn, body-part extension offers, herbal extracts, the chance to earn $15,000 a week from the comfort of their home – attests to how important email is in the lives of the everyday citizen.

Why is email so important? For grandparents, images of their grandchildren can smile at them from their inbox. For friends across the country or the world, email is a great way to stay in touch – without having to worry about time zones, long distance charges, or if the person is available at that exact moment to talk. For businesses, email is a cost-effective way to stay in regular contact with the 80% of past customers and prospects who make up only 20% of revenue.

So how can you make sure that your messages get through? There are two distinct categories of barriers that block your messages: physical barriers (like blacklists and filtering systems), and psychological (where quick decision makes the difference between the ‘delete’ key and a read message).

1. Physical Barriers

Blacklists. The first line of defense against unsolicited email for many businesses, organizations and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) is to filter all incoming email against blacklists. Blacklists are lists of sites that may have sent unsolicited email in the past. I stress the word ‘may’ because the lists are typically compiled by volunteer organizations without any notice or due process. Many companies and ISPs subscribe to one or more blacklist, and if your company’s mail server is on the list, your messages will by default be automatically blocked. Blacklists aren’t infallible – in a recent study, nearly two-thirds of messages marked as spam by blacklists were false positives. So before all else, make sure that you or your web hosting company is not listed on any blacklists. Here are a few places to check: http://www.mail-abuse.org/, http://spamcop.net, http://www.spamhaus.org

Filters. Filters work by looking for lots of exclamation points or dollar signs in a subject line, sexually-explicit words, as well as other patterns in messages that are common to unsolicited email (such as the exiled royal from sub-Saharan Africa that needs your help to transfer money out of his country). Some companies use filters that do reverse-lookups (sort of like Caller ID for mail servers; you’re blocked if you have the equivalent of ‘anonymous’ displayed in the window). Others will allow a few messages to trickle through, but will start to filter similar incoming messages if you hit a certain threshold of volume (approximately 50 per hour for AOL, for example). Yet as soon as new method for filtering unsolicited email appears, nefarious spammers attempt to find ways around them.

That’s why many unsolicited email messages often contain only graphics, or may have random letters and characters in the subject line or message to fool filters. The main problem with filters is the false positive problem. This article is chock-full of information about how to avoid spam filters; ironically, many of the keywords in this message may trip sensitive filters and prevent this message from being delivered to people who signed up on the CustomerParadigm website for this newsletter. Several of our Fortune 50 clients are not able to receive their own HTML email newsletters because their IT department’s filtering procedures trap them. For many of these companies, it’s important to only send messages in plain text.

2. Inbox Psychology Relevance

If a message comes into your inbox from your brother-in-law, chances are good that you’ll either (a) open it up because you still like him, or (b) delete it and curse for the next half hour. Likewise, if your company has a good relationship with someone – a relationship that is built on trust – your message will be opened and perceived as valuable. But if you treat your email database as something that you just ‘blast’ messages to whenever you have an item that drops a penny or two in price, the recipient is much less likely to open and read your message.

Anticipated. If we meet at a networking event, and I tell you that I’ll send that very valuable article on email marketing that will make your career blossom, when you see the message from me arrive in your inbox, you’re excited to open it. I set an expectation and the message was anticipated.

Permission. Sometimes it’s wonderful when an old high school friend just drops in from out of town and asks to sleep on your couch for the next couple of months. But most of the time, surprises aren’t that much fun. If you don’t have a prior business relationship with someone, ‘surprising’ them with an email newsletter is not a very effective way to build trust. (And it’s illegal in 27 different states).

Personalized. The TO: line of a message is very important. I’m much more likely to open a message if it is sent to “Jeff Finkelstein” vs. just to my plain email address. Why? Perhaps it’s because I’m narcissistic – I like to see my own name. Or perhaps because it implies that the person who is sending something to me knows more than just my email address that was screen-scraped and scavenged from a website by an rogue, automated piece of software. A message that has everyone’s email address in the BCC: line, but the TO: line is blank, is even more suspect.

Then I look to the sender’s email address – and sometimes excuse them and open and read the message. And I know I’ve said this many, many times in many, many articles: Don’t ever put everyone’s email address in the TO: line. Not only did you just paste in your entire list of customers, prospects and contacts for everyone to see, I’ll bet your unscrupulous competitors would love to get their hands on the list and start sending unsolicited email in an attempt to steal your clients away.

Time is a Limited Resource. There’s a reason that it costs $2 million for a 30-second ad in the Super Bowl. It’s because people’s time is a limited resource. Today everyone is doing more with less. And each and every communication that you have with people takes them away from something else. So before you hit that ‘send’ button,’ make sure that your message adds value to the relationship. You might get away with a non-value added communication the first time. But the next message that you send will likely end up in the ‘deleted items’ folder.

Test. Test. And Test Some More. Before you send a message, test it out to make sure that it isn’t blocked. Sign up for a free hotmail account. Get a free AOL trial membership. Send out a few test messages. And ask some friends at different companies to make sure your messages aren’t filtered into their junk folders before you send to your entire list.

Conclusion. Federal legislation will be here soon. There are currently 27 different state laws that regulate unsolicited email. But even the definition of what constitutes ‘unsolicited email’ varies widely from state to state. And state boundaries and jurisdictions are easily crossed with the click of a mouse. Federal legislation that supersedes the myriad of state laws will hopefully help slow the flow of non-permissioned email. Industry solutions, too may help, but there are currently as many proposed solutions to unsolicited email as there seem to be flavors of spam.

I was recently called to testify as an expert on pending anti-spam legistation at Colorado’s state capitol (a rare occasion to see me wearing a full suit and tie). After the testimony, I was chatting with one of the state senators who was terrified to let her grandchild use the Internet because of all of the pornographic spam she received. It’s likely she receives a lot of unsolicted email because her email address is listed on the state government’s web site. Spammers play the numbers game – hoping that just 10 people out of two million will click through and make a purchase – so they ‘grabbed’ her email address and added it to their list. If it takes people a mere three seconds to look a subject line, decide that the message isn’t for them, and then hit the delete button, the 1,999,990 other people who don’t make a purchase spend a cumulative 70 days hitting the ‘delete’ button. That’s a lot time wasted. And a lot of impatient people who try to hit delete even faster.