Email used to be the Wild West of the Internet. Email lists were rivers, just waiting to be exploited in the search for gold, and the inbox was a lawless place—a free-for-all where anything was fair game. But people didn’t like being treated that way. So now we have spam filters (and regulations).
As a result, the most successful email lists are no longer the ones that do the best job at manipulating people. The best email lists are the ones that develop healthy relationships with subscribers and send emails people genuinely look forward to.
That’s because landing in the spam folder is a serious consequence. Not only do you lose your ability to email the person who marked you as spam, but if it happens too often with too many people, you may lose the ability to send emails altogether.
Staying out of the spam folder is ultimately about treating your subscribers right. If you follow email best practices, you probably won’t have anything to worry about. Still, there are some nuances to crafting emails that won’t get marked as spam.
Some of them are about avoiding the email tactics that automatically trigger spam filters, which prevent your subscribers from even seeing your email. But people can mark you as spam, too. And that means you also need to think about what’s going to trigger them to dump you in the spam folder.
Here are 12 tips for staying out of the spam folder.
1. Avoid Using Spammy Words in Your Subject Line
Blatantly spammy words and phrases like “no obligation” or “no credit card required” are some of the most basic ways to trigger a spam filter. The specific words and phrases vary depending on the email service provider, but some of the other ones you should avoid are:
- “Special offer”
- “Dear friend”
Additionally, any words or phrases can trigger spam filters if you use exclamation points and question marks together, or if you put everything in CAPS. These words, phrases, and attention-grabbing techniques are go-to’s for spammers, and most of us are naturally suspicious when we see things like that in a subject line.
We’ve found that putting “free” in your subject line and the body of your email doesn’t trigger spam filters, but that changes if it’s accompanied by multiple exclamation marks and question marks, or if it’s written in ALL CAPS.
Instead of using spammy words and phrases, focus on writing subject lines that communicate what your email is actually about—and choose words that trigger an emotional reaction, not a spam filter.
Tip: you can take a look through your spam folder to get an idea of what kinds of subject lines are usually used by spam emails.
2. Meet the Expectations of Your Subject Line
Nobody likes to be tricked. When you use a bait and switch to get someone to open your email, nobody reads that and laughs, “Aww, you got me!” Instead, they get frustrated. And regardless of whether or not your email was relevant to your audience, it just earned you a permanent spot in the spam folder.
A strong, attention-grabbing subject line can significantly increase your email open rate. But that higher open rate is worthless if your email doesn’t deliver what your subject line promises—because you’re just increasing the number of people who are going to be mad after reading your email.
Again, the way to avoid this is by writing subject lines that clearly state what your email is about. And there are plenty of ways to increase opens without misleading your readers.
3. Don’t Use Link Shorteners
Link shorteners like Bit.ly are useful in print, where your audience can’t click on your link. It makes it easier to create a memorable URL. They also help in places where you can only use a limited number of characters, like Twitter. But there’s no good reason to use one in an email, and if you do it, you’re probably going to trigger a spam filter.
Spammers use link shorteners to disguise malicious links. So if you use a link shortener, it automatically raises a red flag. The email service provider thinks, Why didn’t they use the actual URL? What are they trying to hide? And since there isn’t really a good reason to use link shorteners in an email (people can directly click your links, and you don’t have limited space), they’ll probably decide it’s safer to protect their users from a potentially malicious link.
4. Only Link to Reputable Websites
On a related note, your emails should never send people to websites they (and their email providers) can’t trust. That’s a surefire way to wind up in the spam folder. Sometimes you need to link to a tool—such as a quiz—that isn’t hosted on your website. That’s fine, but you need to be confident you’re using a reputable quiz creator.
If a URL you’re sending people to is triggering spam filters, you could create a landing page that functions as a middleman. But there are two reasons why that’s not the best solution:
- It creates an additional step between your audience and the desired action. They have to click/tap again to get where you need them to go.
- It still sends people to the sketchy URL.
The ideal solution is to find another more trustworthy website that can accomplish the same objective, and send people there instead.
5. Grow Your List the Right Way
In most cases, you probably shouldn’t buy an email list. Every subscriber on that list has built a relationship with the organization that originally grew the list. They didn’t agree to enter into a relationship with your brand. You didn’t earn a spot in their inbox. And so even if they’re part of your target audience, these people are going to immediately feel violated by your email. It simply doesn’t belong in their inbox. If their spam filter doesn’t catch you, they’re going to mark you as spam themselves.
The safest way to get a huge email list is to grow it yourself. Whether you use email signup forms on your blog or advertise a lead-gen campaign, you need to earn every subscriber. However you grow your list, be sure that people intentionally opt-in to your list. Just because you have someone’s email doesn’t mean you’re entitled to use it.
It’s certainly tempting to put your message in front of everyone you possibly can. But for most people, spam simply means “an email I didn’t ask for.” So when you show up in their inbox uninvited, they’re going to kick you out.
6. Send Emails Consistently
Imagine you met someone at the hardware store in the plumbing section, and you helped them find the parts they needed to fix a problem at home. You mention that you’re a plumber, and they ask you all sorts of questions related to the job they’re trying to do. And then they ask if you would come over to help them.
But instead of showing up later that day, you appear at their door six months later.
That’s what it’s like when you wait too long between emails. Your subscribers forget who you are, how they met you, and why you’re in their inbox. So they “close the door” and put you in the spam folder.
If you want to avoid the spam folder, you need to find a consistent rhythm to email your list. One a month is probably not often enough for your audience to stay engaged, but really, the send schedule you create depends on your list and what you’re trying to accomplish. It might be once a week. Or every couple of days for the first few weeks and then just twice a month. And at the very least, you need to make sure you have a welcome email set up that lets them know they’ve successfully joined your list.
Either way, you’ll want to set these expectations up front, so your subscribers will be prepared to see you regularly.
7. Remind People How They Got on Your List
Similarly, it’s helpful to remind people why they’re hearing from you. If a subscriber can’t remember how you got their email address, your presence in their inbox feels like an intrusion. So be sure to make it clear what you’re doing there. (This is especially important in your drip campaign when you first begin communicating with someone.)
After someone converts from your lead-gen campaign, for example, your first email should be a thank you for downloading or signing up for whatever they requested from you. And the next one should remind them about it: “You recently downloaded ___, so we thought you’d like to learn more about ___.”
You can even consider including a one-line reminder in your email template that says “You’re receiving this email because you signed up for [thing] at [website]”
8. Create a Re-engagement Campaign
When subscribers start ignoring your emails, you’re in danger of getting marked as spam. They’ve stopped paying attention to you, and you’re just taking up space in their inbox. That’s when it’s time to try something different: a re-engagement campaign.
A re-engagement campaign is (usually) an automated set of emails that starts sending when a lead goes cold—when they’ve ignored, say, your last three emails—and stops when they engage with an email. It might even just be a single email.
Your re-engagement campaign could offer a gift. Or simply remind people what they’re missing out on by ignoring your emails. It might also ask people to opt-in again to continue receiving email from you.
The purpose of this email or email series is to basically break the cycle and ask, “Hey, you—yeah, you—are you paying attention?”
9. Segment Your List
People mark your email as spam when they feel like it’s not relevant to them. This creates a challenge for email marketers because chances are you have several distinct groups of people on your email list. They may have different roles or interests that significantly impact the kinds of content they’ll be interested in and the types of sales pitches they’ll respond to.
A senior pastor, for example, is going to approach your giving software from a very different perspective than a church tech director, an executive pastor, or a church administrator. And it wouldn’t be nearly as relevant (or effective) to only send emails that apply to all of the main categories of people you’re talking to.
Your sales reps use different approaches to different types of leads, and your emails should, too.
That’s why you need to segment your email list. Segmenting allows you to use what you know about your leads to break them into groups. It’s like creating separate groups within your main list. And it helps you send more relevant messaging, so you’re less likely to wind up in a spam folder.
10. Write Valuable Emails
If people feel like your emails aren’t worth opening, they’re not going to. And then you’re basically just waiting for them to decide if it’s easier to unsubscribe or mark you as spam.
But if you consistently write valuable emails, people look forward to seeing you in their inbox. They can even forgive the occasional irrelevant email because they learn to trust that the next one will still be worth checking out.
Don’t take your subscribers (or your open rates) for granted. Create content that’s worth reading.
11. Optimize Every Email
Send the best emails you possibly can, and you’ll have the lowest spam complaints you possibly can. But the only way to be sure every email is as good as it can get is if you test it. A/B testing lets you isolate specific variables—such as your subject line, images, button text, or other copy—to see how it impacts opens, clicks, conversions, and complaints.
This is key to craft the most relevant, effective emails you can. And that means testing should be an ongoing part of your email marketing.
12. Make it Easy to Unsubscribe
When a subscriber decides they’re done with you, one way or another, they’re kicking you out of their inbox.
You might think that if you make people work to unsubscribe, they’ll give up and let you keep sending them emails. But that’s not what happens. If it’s too hard to unsubscribe, people mark you as spam.
Once someone starts looking for your unsubscribe link, you’ve already lost them. So don’t make them jump through hoops or force them to uncheck all the boxes of every list they’re on. Make it easy to do what they’ve already mentally committed to doing, and give your unsubscribe link a clear, easily clickable spot at the bottom of every email.
Similarly, you need to make sure people have the option to universally unsubscribe. If someone clicks your unsubscribe link thinking they’re not going to hear from you anymore, and the next day they receive another email because they were on multiple lists, you’re going straight to spam.
Just Treat Your Subscribers Like People
Every subscriber on your email list represents a person who has a relationship with your organization. Some of those people have known you for years. Others just met you. If you want to make sure these people don’t mark you as spam, it’s actually pretty simple: just treat them like people.
Or perhaps more accurately, treat them how you would want an organization to treat you.