Don't be labeled a "Spammer"

How to ensure your messages won't be seen as spam

If you operate a mailing list or newsletter, you risk being branded a spammer even if you never break the rules. You could lose your email account, even your web site... all for a crime you didn't commit! While there's no perfect solution, here are some tips to help you avoid becoming a victim of somebody's bad memory.

The Danger

Every time you send out an email to a large audience, you're running the risk that somebody will have forgotten that they signed up for your mailing list. Normal people will put it down to bad memory, and accept the email with good grace or follow the instructions to unsubscribe themselves from your newsletter. A few trigger-happy induhviduals won't even bother to read your whole newsletter; instead they'll just reach for a preprepared "complaint" that they fire at every "spammer", and at the "spammer"'s ISP.

The Consequences of Failure

If you are labelled a spammer, many nasty things can happen to you. Often, your ISP will deny you access to your account pending an investigation; a similar reaction from your web hosting company may shut down your site (temporarily, we hope...) Finally, you will be blacklisted: a sordid and often secret process whereby your email address is added to hundreds of confidential lists around the Internet. These lists are maintained by ISPs, cyber-vigilante groups and others, and a listing on one of these groups will guarantee that in future your email address will be cut off from some recipients (your email will be filtered automatically and thrown away before it arrives).

7 Hints to Help You Survive

Prepare for the worst: Always keep a backup copy of your website on your local PC (never make changes to your site by working on it remotely). Keep a piece of paper handy with full contact details (telephone, fax, email and snail-mail) for your ISP and web hosting company. Always keep a copy of all your outgoing email, especially the newsletter itself.

Make sure you really ARE following the rules: Don't include anyone on your mailing list (even friends, family, colleagues etc.) without their explicit permission. Make people work to sign up for your newsletter by requiring them to email a certain address with a "subscribe" instruction or by providing a newsletter sign-up box on your site for them to add their address to your list.

Don't surprise people: If your current newsletter is about Deep Sea Fishing, and you suddenly have an urge to start up a newsletter about Wind Surfing, don't send your existing readership a copy of the new newsletter and assume they'll be interested! Instead, post a short notice in an issue of your current newsletter inviting readers to sign up for your new newsletter.

Don't trick people into giving you their email address: Make it clear what people are signing up for ("A newsletter about X") and how they can unsubscribe ("Just send your email address to and we will unsubscribe you immediately.") Don't put people on your mailing list for any other reason (such as failing to untick or tick a little box on a feedback form, signing your site's guestbook, applying for an award you offer or downloading a piece of software you are selling)

Always start your newsletter in a consistent way: The trick is to build familiarity; your readers have to learn to recognise your newsletter immediately. If possible, tie the subject line of your email to the content. It may not be wildly exciting, but it will help people distinguish your newsletter from a spammer's unwanted gibberings. Naturally, you need to make sure your newsletter's online archive is equally consistent.

Always make it easy for people to unsubscribe: Give clear instructions about how to unsubscribe from your newsletter somewhere within the newsletter, perhaps in a separate section at the end along with your site's contact information. Test the unsubscribe mechanism to be sure it actually works; nothing irritates people more than being unable to get off a mailing list even after following the instructions.

Finally, make sure your newsletter doesn't look like spam: Avoid the use of ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, excessive use of "!" marks, proofread and spell-check your newsletter well (when was the last time you saw well-written spam?) and above all DON'T say "This is not spam." as that's what all the spam messages say. Instead, explain WHY people are receiving the newsletter: "You are receiving this newsletter because you signed up at" (Make sure this is true i.e. if people go to the URL in question they really will find the sign-up form they used to join your newsletter!)

What to do if Things go Wrong?

If the above doesn't work, and you do get into trouble, call your ISP immediately and explain in a calm and polite manner (even if you want to rip the support person's head off and feed it to your dog) why your newsletter is not spam, and could you pretty please have your email account back. When I had problems once my ISP was so understanding (after reviewing a copy of the newsletter) that I am now on a special list of people who should NOT be cut off without prior consultation!


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