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Let’s (unintentionally) talk about sex

March 16, 2011

One of the inexorable truths of email marketing is that you can never second guess a spam filter.

The complex and often illogical algorithms used to select what is, and is not, spam can be infuriating for email marketers. We simply want to send a campaign safe in the knowledge our efforts will not be consigned to a junk folder. We want to present information clearly so recipients can quickly decide whether they are interested in our message or not.

However, increasingly we have to be wary of obscure (albeit often amusing) euphemisms. In the office we are often asked by bewildered clients why their message is being labelled as spam. The Extravision email marketing system has a selection of spam checkers that help us identify the reason it has been identified as spam, but even then it is not always immediately obvious what wording has caused it to be singled out. Identifying the guilty sentence requires an open mind and sometimes a vivid imagination…

In the early days of email marketing the filtering of spam wasn’t entirely accurate but the mistakes were pretty easy to spot. Back in 2004 I remember a campaign explaining regulations designed to combat “sex discrimination” in the work place. Amazingly, certain filters blocked these emails because of the word “sex”. This can be put down to an oversight by an over-zealous, ‘single-minded’ programmer.

As spammers and spam filters have evolved over the years, each has had to use more imaginative language to disguise / identify inappropriate messages. This battle over the nuances of the English language has resulted in the ‘guardians of email safety’ referring to an increasingly bizarre dictionary of suspicious sentences: A selection of sentences and word combinations that in the eyes of the spam filter have somehow lost their real meaning and instead are assumed an insidious attempt to corrupt our email boxes.

Investigating a recent ‘rogue’ email we were dumbfounded that the email (promoting our client’s ability to organise successful events) was flagged as spam because it apparently:

          [Talks about your sex life]

After a little investigation we identified the sequence that had alerted the spam filter to our wicked intentions. The guilty sentence:

          “your partner in successful events”

Now, we can all work out possible interpretations to this “successful event”. But must we really be so cautious that we don’t permit such perfectly reasonable sentences through the gates of our email system?

Spam filters will also interrogate messages for suspicious word combinations. These words can appear in any order, and if there are enough of them your message may not make it through. For example, if an email contained the below sentence:

         “Whilst we can’t guarantee you will be happy with our service we will do our absolute best to complete the work to your satisfaction.”

Although this is a perfectly reasonable statement, the presence of three potentially dubious words (guarantee, absolute, satisfaction) means it may well be marked as spam.

Who is to blame?

It isn’t us (email marketers) and it isn’t the companies creating and programming the spam filters. Both parties want the same outcome: Responsible emails getting through; spam being blocked and eventually eliminated. The blame lies solely with the spammers who exploit the medium to sell blue pills and spread viruses across the globe. But these people are hard to find, never mind hold to account.

So what is the solution? Is there an end in sight to this futile fight?

Well, personally I think the only real solution is email certification and accreditation programmes whereby legitimate email marketers pay a nominal fee to prove their authenticity and good intentions. The two front-runners in this area were ReturnPath and Goodmail, and things seemed to be picking up momentum. However, the recent announcement that Goodmail is ceasing to do business leaves a big question mark hanging over the industry. If Goodmail couldn’t make it work, or find a buyer; is there really a future for email certification / accreditation programmes? I genuinely hope there is.

What can we suggest?

Well, if you’re having problems with spam filters you should talk to your Email Service Provider who will certainly be able to help. If you don’t have an ESP who will help, then feel free to contact Extravision.

Or failing that, I suggest you watch episode after episode of “The Inbetweeners”, “Peep Show” and similar shows until you have such an unhealthy knowledge of inappropriate euphemisms you can reach the mythical holy grail of email marketing... the ability to second guess a spam filter.


Posted by Alastair Campbell

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