Dirty Words and the Spam Filter

For years senders have been warned away from utilizing “spammy” words that could cause their emails to end up in the spam folder or outright rejected at ISPs. These words (and punctuation) include:

  • “Free”
  • “Percentage off”
  • “Buy now”
  • “Urgent”
  • Special characters (!, %, $, @, *….)
  • “Click here”
  • And on and on…

But, here’s the thing: They’re not hurting you and haven’t been for a while now. How do I know? Three reasons:

  1. Experience with client emails that go out with so-called spammy words in both the subject line and email body and hit the inbox just fine;
  2. ISPs have evolved to much more advanced tools to track and reject legitimate spam; and
  3. We see delightful, engaging emails that toe the line of “spamminess” make it into the inbox everyday. Overstock is another great example of a marketer that consistently uses all caps in their subject line to great success.

These “naughty words” used to be the buzzwords of every spammer, but now many marketers are utilizing them to help spur action to push subscribers down the funnel to purchase because they work. Copy that pushes subscribers to take action immediately has a propensity to increase actions and conversions and you shouldn’t have to worm around the above words to include in messages.

ISPs have incorporated a massive toolbox of ways to monitor, track and ding senders through reputation and subscriber engagement. Complaints are your biggest enemy, not email copy. If you have a bad reputation at ISPs, regardless of how “clean” your content is, you’re likely not going to get through to the inbox and vice versa.

Worry about improving your list health and how to engage your subscribers with your content instead of laser focusing on what words are or are not kosher. Because ultimately end users, not ISPs these days, determine whether your content is deemed spammy.

One caveat is that individual and company filters are likely to be tighter on what content is and isn’t acceptable, so be aware of this, set up accounts at the major ISPs, partner with companies like Pivotal Veracity for reputation and deliverability monitoring, and test.

And there are a few content pieces you should still focus on when attempting to reach the inbox: incorporating a balanced image to text ratio, avoiding blacklisted urls/domains within the body of your email and ensuring you’re sending valuable, timely content to those subscribers that have opted-in.

Thoughts? Share them in the comments below.

– Kelly Lorenz
Email Marketing Strategist at Bronto Software

3 thoughts on “Dirty Words and the Spam Filter

  1. "Complaints are your biggest enemy, not email copy."

    As an email marketer (among other hats), I’ve wondered how well other people’s "Fre*e" subject lines really worked to fool the spam filters. Sounds like that sidestep is not even necessary.

  2. Good article Kelly.
    The caveat that company filters may still utilise bayesian filtering is an important one. Certainly as far as the big mail providers go that is not the problem if you are not getting to the inbox at the likes of AOL, Gmail, Y! and others. @andrewbonar

  3. Thanks for commenting Karl and Andrew!

    Karl: "Dirty words" are one of the most commonly misunderstood and misrepresented content in email marketing. Questions around content that’s acceptable and not is usually one of the first things new clients ask me about, and it’s frustrating because I still see experts and advisers giving advice to avoid these words when it’s just not a factor anymore. The advice I always give is to test almost ANY word (viagra is still a flag) and see if it causes a dip or issues with deliverability. 99.99% of the time, it’s not an issue.

    Andrew: Yes, I’ve found with my B2B clients that they have to be a bit more careful not only with content, but with redirects, links, youtube…so overall they have to be more careful. Do they still use the words "free" and "click here" and get away with it? You betcha.
    And, truth be told, I often get true spam (Nigerian princes, anyone?) into my Gmail and Yahoo inboxes all the time. That’s why deliverability is an art, not a science.

    Thanks again!

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