Practical Ecommerce

How To Navigate The War On Spam

Business owners face a unique dilemma when it comes to managing their email. On one hand, email communication is vital for promoting goods and services to customers. On the other, business owners are no different than individual email users in that their inboxes are susceptible to mounds of spam.

Spam filters have evolved to the point that savvy email users can minimize the amount of junk email they have to see. However, in a parallel development, spam perpetrators have evolved to the point that they needn’t worry much about spam filters. Further, even in 2007, a surprising number of Internet users’ machines aren’t protected by firewalls, anti-virus software or spyware tools and malware (malicious software) tools.

Spammers compromise those machines, usually without the owners’ knowledge, to create a network of computers called “botnets,” which are then used to distribute junk email. More than 100,000 PCs are recruited into botnets every week without the owner’s knowledge according to Steve Linford, CEO of The Spamhaus Project, an international non-profit organization whose mission is to track spammers.

So, how do you ensure your legitimate email campaigns get to your clients while keeping your own inbox free and clear from messages inviting you to get a mortgage on the cheap or buy the latest medical miracle?

Dave Dabbah, the director of sales and marketing with email software and service provider Lyris Technologies, says businesses should make sure email communications are disbursed only to people who have given your organization explicit permission to email them.

Communicating only with those who have given you permission improves a businesses’ email campaign return on investment, according to Dabbah. You’ll get better email open rates, fewer messages in a client’s spam bucket, and you’ll maximize the rate at which messages get into a client’s inbox.

Creating An Email Campaign

Nonetheless, even properly targeted email can miss the mark if the message itself isn’t carefully crafted. The content of an email campaign can often send your sales pitch into a subscribed customer’s spam folder.

Opt-in mailings are “too often filled with hyper-sales pitches. They look like spam, so the filters are trained to reject them‚” said Chris Fortune, the creator of SpamEater, an application he created to help email respondents kill spam.

Spam filtration systems work against databases of blacklisted domain name system (DNS) servers, known for disbursing junk email, but they also take a deeper look to examine message content.

“I know that you are convinced that your bulk email is not spam but, in general, people don’t want your sales brochure in their email,” Fortune says. “If they want it, they can set up their spam filters to allow you as a sender.”

There lies the rub. Business owners want to earn sales legitimately by communicating en masse with customers and prospects who have given them permission, while Internet service providers (ISPs) and spam-filtration software developers want to eliminate spam. The two positions are equally legitimate; however, business owners often unknowingly doom their electronic communications to the spam heap.

The key is to ensure your email campaigns have something more to offer than merely a sales pitch, Dabbah says. He advises business owners to take several additional steps to ensure their messages measure up:

  • Make sure your email and server setup fully complies with all authentication protocols. Such protocols validate that the sender is who he is supposed to be. The company you use as a host for your site and your email marketing service provider should be able to help you with any authentication questions.
  • Make sure you receive and quickly process unsubscribe-requests. Many ISPs now monitor a sender’s unsubscribe-processing habits, using these as a variable in filtering decisions. • Use a tool to analyze email subject lines for words that trigger spam-filtration systems.

Clint Smith, co-founder of email marketing and communications company Emma, says businesses should also consider how often they initiate email campaigns.

“Avoid sending too frequently. Spam-filtration applications might see that as poor sending behavior,” he said. “Also, don’t try to send and send and resend to addresses that bounce back. Make provisions to get them out of your database expediently.”

One clever tip Smith offered was to encourage subscribers to add your campaign’s “from” address to their email program’s address book, virtually assuring safe passage for legitimate business communications.

When Good Emails Go Bad

Suppose your business’ legitimate email campaigns end up on some spam blacklist, which can cause untold damage to your company’s online reputation. Do you have any recourse?

Dabbah says that the company would need to contact the organization that has blacklisted your server’s IP or the ISP that has listed you as a spammer and open a dialog with that company.

“If you have a good reputation, your case is more easily made. ISPs tend to respond positively to senders who are adopting best practices, so don’t be shy communicating this information,” he said.

SpamEater creator Chris Fortune, however, reiterates that even legitimate email campaigns can carry with them elements generally identified as spam practices. His recommendation for companies that inadvertently end up on the bad side of blacklists is to evaluate your campaigns.

Even if the client-base to whom you send messages has opted in, is the content of your campaign distinctly different from what you might find in spam?

Yet Fortune acknowledges good email marketers can suffer from the results of bad seeds sown by increasingly tricky spam generators.

“As filters get better, spammers are resorting to criminal behavior,” he said.

For example, let’s say that your company’s server is the victim of a DNS server attack. Spammers successfully exploit your server, and your company’s IP address is, all of a sudden, recognized by patrolling organizations as a vendor of spam.

“It can seriously damage a business’ online reputation,” Fortune says. “With time, the damage will fade. To avoid it in the future, make sure your ISP’s DNS server has been security audited.”

Protecting Your Business Email From the Scourge of Spam

Business owners are email recipients, too. They want their campaigns to hit others’ inboxes, but they certainly don’t want to have to deal with spam in theirs.

Dabbah offers several tips for users of all stripes — business owners, savvy surfers, casual users — to minimize the amount of incoming spam that goes unfiltered.

  • Don’t post your email address online in text form in a forum or other location online. If you must post your address, type it in such a way that email address extraction programs can’t pick it up. For example, type your address as yourname(a)address.com, where (a) represents the @ symbol.
  • Review website privacy policies before you complete registration forms.
  • Look for the TRUSTe web privacy seal on the website. TRUSTe monitors its seal holders to ensure they properly enforce their privacy policies.
  • Watch out for prechecked boxes that might give a website permission to share your information. • Don’t click anything that would allow you to view images in messages you suspect to be spam. Image viewing is one way that spammers validate your email address.
  • Never respond to an email offer from a spammer. Not only is this how spammers make a living, it’s also how they target victims.
  • Don’t resend or forward chain email messages because you then lose control over who sees your email address.

Fortune said most anti-spam products perform similarly. He recommends buying a product featuring a configuration with which you’re most comfortable. “Results depend on how much you customize and train your filters,” he said.

Emma’s Clint Smith noted the vast majority of business communicators initiate legitimate email campaigns.

“They’re not out to spam. They’re trying to do the opposite,” he said.

However, just as email recipients are best served by customizing and training spam-filtration systems to minimize the amount of junk email that comes in, business owners should take a close look not only at their message delivery practices, but also — as Fortune noted — the content of their communication.

Smith says, “Understand how you’re sending your email, and know to whom you’re sending it.”

Learn More

For more information on the CAN-SPAM Act and the requirements for commercial emailer, visit the FTC CAN-SPAM

Practical Ecommerce

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Comments ( 2 )

  1. Legacy User February 28, 2007 Reply

    Again, spam will only worsen because there is profit in spamming. It is only by removing the profit motive will spammers stop.
    Programs such as SpammerSkewer http://www.spammerskewer.sourceforge.net will cause a reduction in spam by making advertising via spam unprofitable.

    — *William Keeley*

  2. Legacy User March 1, 2007 Reply

    How about regular business email such as tracking confirmation and RMA emails?

    Many merchants face diffilculties in getting these through to customers without ending up in the customers junk mail inbox. Free email accounts such as Hotmail and Yahoo! are the worst!

    — *Shane*