checking if emails are spam

Emails ending up in the spam folder?

Got spam?

My amazing psychic powers tell me you do. Everyone does. Maybe you don’t see a lot of it because your email provider does a good job of filtering it from your inbox, but it’s there, trust me.

What you may not realize is a fair number of legitimate emails get caught up in spam filters every day. It happens to companies and charities of every size. In my own email, legit mail from places like Doctors Without Borders, The Running Room, and my real estate agent have been filtered out and caught in the spam folder.

What you may also not realize is a fair number of your emails to clients, especially anything marketing, sales or promotional, is likely getting caught in those same spam filters. Based on personal experience, this seems to be happening more frequently recently.


Well, here’s the thing. Spam filters use a large number of factors to decide if an email is legitimate or not. These factors are changing all the time, based on feedback from people when reading their email – if they are opening things, clicking links, or marking items as spam. It’s also changing based on a variety of other things, including the content of actual spam mail.

Other than this very general outline, email providers do not publish the ins and outs of their spam filtering system. Why would they? It would only give spammers a leg up in sending spam and having it hit your inbox. Spammers are constantly changing what they do in order to increase their delivery rates.

Unfortunately what we have is an arms race between email providers and spammers, and those of us sending legitimate mail to our clients are caught in the cross fire.

So what’s a small biz person to do? Email is a great way to reach out to clients, but you want to stay out of the spam box.

Here’s a few things you can do to help make sure your emails get delivered to the people you want to see them.

1: Ask your clients to add you to their contacts list. This tells their email provider you are a legitimate sender.

2: Ask your clients to please mark your emails as ‘not spam’ when they do end up in the spam box. Again, this tells their email provider you are legit, not a spammer.

3: Be very careful about your subject lines and content. There are a variety of things you commonly see in spam email that you should avoid. For example, using ALL CAPS anywhere in the email (but especially the subject line). Also, using words such as ‘promotion’, ‘free’ or ‘no obligation’ can get you sent right into the spam box. If you need to send someone a file or multiple files, it’s also best to use a service such as Dropbox or Google Drive and link folks to where they can download the file – don’t include it as an attachment.

The next few apply primarily to those of you who run email lists with a service (Mailchimp, Mad Mini, Constant Contact, or one of the many other options out there). But really, even if you don’t use a service, if you send some emails to a list of clients, these factors are really important to consider.

4: Never, ever assume you can add someone to your list. Just because they emailed you to ask a question about your business doesn’t mean they want to be on your mailing list. Your absolute best bet is to have them sign up themselves using a sign-up form on your website and using double opt-in to be 100% sure they really do want your emails.

5: Speaking of opting-in, you also need to be very clear on what your mailing list is for and how often you expect to be sending emails. If you tell someone the list is to let them know about your upcoming speaking engagements, and you instead email them about a product you’re launching, that’s probably not going to fly with them. But wait, can you ask your list if they’re interested in something different you’re doing? Totally. But you need to ask them to opt in to that. Best practices would be to create a new list just for your product launches, and ask people to opt in if they like. Or, let people know the format of your list is changing and remind them they can unsubscribe at any time if they’re no longer interested in hearing from you. The key is to be totally transparent and never assume that they care about something just because they used your services in the past.

6: Clean your list regularly. If someone isn’t reading your emails and hasn’t done so in a year? Purge them from your list.

7: You do have an unsubscribe link clearly placed somewhere in your mailing list emails, right? If not, you’d better fix that! Not only is it best practices, it’s the law.

8: This one is a bit more technical, so if you’re uncomfortable with setting DNS records, I suggest you have someone help you out.

Those of us with mailing lists are strongly encouraged to set DKIM and SPF records for our emails. In essence, these records tell email providers that a place you’re sending email from (such as Mailchimp, or your own email provider) is legit. This helps them filter email as spam or not spam.

How exactly to set those records depends on where you send email from. The basics for Mailchimp users are explained here; the process would be similar for those using other services. You can also contact your mailing list provider for more details. I will note that it’s important to do this properly, because a record that is set incorrectly is actually worse than one not set at all.

Want to read more in depth about this stuff? You can head over to Mailchimp’s great post about this, read Google’s documentation on sending bulk emails, or go straight to the legal stuff and read the Canadian Anti Spam Law (CASL) or CAN-SPAM in the USA (yes, it’s actually called that, no, I’m not bullshitting you).

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