In July of 2008, Loren McDonald published Three Urban Legends of Email Marketing.  Thanks to some of the discussions on LinkedIn (usually a good place for blog fodder), I’d like to take a look at five other Email Marketing Urban Legends and some of the history behind them.

These legends are taken directly from a recent discussion on LinkedIn.com where someone suggested “top tips” to avoid spam filtering.

Before I begin it should be said that spam filtering has evolved quite a bit over the years.  And while most ISPs block messages based on IP reputation or a combination of IP reputation and keywords, very few in the 21st Century block solely on keywords.  You can download the Return Path Research Brief (in PDF) on Reputation v. Content Filtering here.

Something else to keep in mind is that the “Report as Spam” buttons didn’t start showing up in Web-based email services until AOL released their version 5 around October of 2003.

Subject Line Legend #1:  “(To avoid spam filters) Don’t use words in ALL CAPS in the subject line”

I shouldn’t have to remind readers that using all caps is considered shouting in the online world.  Spam filters don’t care if you shout at people but the people that you’re shouting at probably do.

Once upon a time – before “Report as Spam” buttons – recipients might have just ignored and deleted messages that shouted at them from the subject line, but in a post “Report as Spam” button world those recipients are probably going to complain.

So, the truth behind Legend #1 is that while it’s highly unlikely that messages will be filtered at the ISP level due to all caps in a subject line, it is highly likely that enough recipients will be pissed off and complain via the spam button that those complaints will damage the sender’s IP reputation.

Subject Line Legend #2: “(To avoid spam filters) Don’t Capitalize The First Initial Of Each Word in the subject line”

I don’t even know where this one came from, or any studies, tests, or proof behind the assertion.  I can only assume that it’s a variation on the “don’t use all caps” legend.

Look at your own Inbox.  What percentage of messages have the first letter of each word capitalized?  The proof that this is BS is sitting in your very own Inbox….  Many writers and publishers follow The Chicago Manual of Style, and I’ve never met an ISP that will punish senders for doing so in their subject lines.

Content Legend #1: “(To avoid spam filters) Avoid using the words ‘click here'”

In the early days of the GUI Web Hyper Text Markup Language wasn’t as intuitive as it is today.  We now have a generation that has grown up with the modern Web and knows that clicking a linked word will take them somewhere else.  It wasn’t until 2001 that the W3C published their link tips for Webmasters, and by then “click here” was quite common. 

I’ve never seen any statistical evidence that proved that ISPs ever blocked messages for nothing more than having “click here” in the message body.   Have you?  The best reason not to use those words in an email message was summed up by Stefan Pollard in “8 Tips for a Stronger Call to Action” when he said:

As a command, “click here” is beautiful in its simplicity, but it falls far short as a call to action – the trigger to launch the customer on the complicated path to conversion – because it doesn’t tell your email readers what you really want them to do.

Content Legend #2: “(To avoid spam filters) Avoid using the words free, trial, quote, sample and access”

Another word that’s often discouraged is “credit”.  I used to watch my deliverability statistics at FreeCreditReport.com and wonder who was making this stuff up….

Now before you get your panties in a bunch, or get all, “well, John, Spam Assassin says…”, I’m not saying that there aren’t words that have been abused – or domains or brand names – I’m just saying that there are no hard and fast rules.  There is no secret Master List of block-words, and Spam Assassin has dinged me points for using the a current year in a current year.  Like with most things email, it depends….

Miscellaneous Legend #1: “(To avoid spam filters) Have a real name as the ‘From’ address as opposed to a brand name”

As Ken Magill has said,

According to conventional wisdom—not to mention a study or two—most e-mail recipients decide whether or not to open their messages based on who is in the “from” line.

Now, think about this;  Did your subscriber sign up to receive email from you or from your company?  Do you think that maybe the subscriber is more familiar with your brand name than your CEO’s name?  And if the two are associated, like Bill Gates and Microsoft, who are you branding, your company or your CEO?

Actually sending from an unknown name could very well have your messages marked as spam without the recipient looking any further than the sender name and subject line.  Do you know who the hell Mary Jane Stevenson is and would you care if she was back in California?  Did you even know she left?

So now we’re up to 8 Email Urban Legends, and I’m sure that there’s more.  What are some of your favorites?