Spam Traps and Spam Complaints: How to Steer Clear

By Jan 19, 2011

Ecclesiastes certainly predates email, but “there’s nothing new under the sun” pertains to deliverability problems as much as to anything else.

“Customers aren’t making any new types of mistakes,” says Dennis Dayman, chief privacy officer of Eloqua. “It’s the same sort of things I’ve seen happen for the past 17 years. There’s been some new technology, but nothing really new in terms of relevancy and permission.”

Even so, because many email marketers are continuing to have the same deliverability problems due to the same type of errors year after year, it’s worth revisiting two of the more common obstacles to marketing emails landing in subscribers’ inboxes:

* spam traps. John Murphy, president of ReachMail, dubs spam traps “a silent killer on your deliverability.” These are once-legitimate but now abandoned email addresses that ISPs such as Hotmail, Yahoo!, and AOL take over and monitor to see who is mailing to them. The reasoning is that legitimate mailers would know that these addresses are no longer in use, so only spammers would continue to send messages to them. Therefore, the ISPs bear this in mind as part of their reputation scoring.

What makes spam traps especially tricky, Murphy says, is that the sender doesn’t receive any sort of bounceback or error message when mailing to them. “These spam traps look deliverable,” he says. Nonetheless, “when you’re a legitimate marketer but you send to people who have not opened your email in a very long time, it does cost you.”

For that reason, Murphy recommends regularly cleaning your lists and ceasing to mail to addresses that have not opened any of your messages in a year. Dayman advises being even more proactive: Create a separate file segment of subscribers who have not taken an action in at least three to six months, then send them reactivation messages asking them to update their preferences, opt down, or unsubscribe.

True, you don’t want to lose subscribers. But you don’t want to continue mailing to someone who simply doesn’t want to hear from you either.

“It’s going to take a long time to change the mentality of some marketers from “once I get an email address, I’m going to send to it forever,” Murphy says. “But there are more and more consequences to sending to people who are not engaged.”

*spam complaints. The percentage of email recipients who report your messages as spam obviously hurts your reputation score as well. If your spam complaint rate goes above 0.1%—that’s one per thousand—“you need to really think about what it is you’re sending,” Murphy says.

This is where you really need to understand what Dayman calls the “digital body language” of your subscribers—how they are engaging, or not engaging, with your emails. But by tracking not just spam complaint rates but also open rates and clickthrough rates over time and by campaign, you can gauge when your emails are losing relevancy for your audience.

Dayman believes that ensuring that your content is relevant to subscribers and is in line with their expectations is the easiest and most effective way to minimize spam complaints. Granted, continually tracking engagement and tweaking content is more difficult than the “set it and forget it” mindset of some email marketers, but it pays off, not just in improved deliverability but in improved response as well.

And when honing the relevancy of your messages, look at frequency as well as content. Overmailing is a common cause of spam complaints, unsubscribes, and unopened emails, which is why it’s important to offer subscribers the choice of “opting down,” or receiving less-frequent emails, as well as the ability to opt out.

The overriding key to avoiding both spam traps and spam complaints is diligence. “A lot of marketers are taking the easy way out,” Dayman says. “They buy a list and think that’ll work for them. They think they can just push the send button and that’s it. If marketers are willing to improve and not take the easy way out but instead continue putting in the work, they’re going to be fine.”