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Spammy words: the outdated concept that deserves coal in its stocking

Concerned about spammy words affecting your email campaigns? Discover the myth behind them and optimize your emails for better inbox placement during the holidays.
Marketers learning about email marketing and spammy words.

Here are just a few examples of queries that crossed my inbox and Slack in the run up to seasonal sending in 2023:

  • “My third party consultant says our emails land in spam because they contain words like ‘sale’, ‘offer’ and ‘discount’.”
  • “Will including words related to Web3 such as NFT, blockchain, and crypto affect my inbox placement?”
  • “Our company name includes the word ‘finance’ – do we need to not reference our brand to get to the inbox?”

Back in 2021, I collaborated with my Australian colleague Toshi on a blog post about spammy words in subject lines – TL;DR: no, including a spammy word or emojis in the subject line is not going to be the key reason your email is landing in the spam folder. This doesn’t just apply to your subject line but to all the copy in your emails.

This wasn’t news in 2021 – it’s been a long time since the weighting attributed to Bayesian filters looking for specific words in content was drastically reduced by most major receivers and filtering software. 

Instead, mailbox providers look at how their users engage with your emails to decide whether or not they belong in the spam folder. A lot of positive engagement such as opens, read time, and link clicks indicates a wanted mail stream that belongs in the inbox, and a lot of negative engagement like deleting without opening or actively marking as junk indicates an unwanted email that belongs in the spam folder.

So, why does the outdated concept of spammy words refuse to die? I have some theories – and some more useful advice that’ll actually help you reach the inbox this holiday season.

Tackling email deliverability beyond spammy words

Everyone wants that silver-bullet quick change they can make to get their emails out of the spam folder and into the inbox – including me.

Marketers are busy people at the best of times, and the pressure is even greater around revenue critical sending periods like Singles Day, Black Friday, and Christmas. Changing words in subject lines or copy is faster and easier to do than the hard work of reviewing your sending strategy and implementing best practices

It’s also easier to report to your manager or CMO that the problem with a poorly performing database or campaign was a few specific words, as opposed to telling them you need to review your whole strategy for a mail stream (especially when you’ve got your holiday content calendar all lined up).

Unfortunately, simply asking WinstonAI for subject line alternatives to “huge savings this Black Friday” is not a golden ticket to the inbox. If your emails are landing in the spam folder, it’s going to be because you’re not hitting the key rule of deliverability: right person, right message, right time, and right frequency. Your recipients are interacting with emails in negative ways that indicate they’re unwanted, and you’re going to need to change your strategy to achieve your revenue goals this season.

Being told by an expert that you need to change up how you collect and manage your contacts, personalize and target your content, decide on the frequency at which you send, maintain consistency and meet expectations, or manage changes to your program is hard to hear and tougher to implement. That’s why you need to be looking at your strategy now, and not the week before Cyber Monday.

Email filtering and its role in modern deliverability

As discussed in the 2021 blog post, we do occasionally find some rare examples where there is more weighting placed on spammy words. Usually, the exceptions are older, regional ISPs that provide mailboxes or old versions of filtering software used by independently run corporate mail servers. However, the volume of emails sent to these receivers and filters tends to be extremely small, and this isn’t something used by major B2C mailbox providers like Gmail, Hotmail/Outlook, and Yahoo, or modern corporate B2B mail exchange providers or filtering services such as O365, G-suite, Proofpoint, or Mimecast.

Bayesian filtering is still in use by receivers and filters but in a much more intelligent way. Blocks of content (including branding, images, copy, and footers) and technical headers for emails are sampled to create a “fingerprint”. A score is then created for the fingerprint based on recipient engagement to create a level of confidence as to whether emails that match the fingerprint are likely to be wanted or spam. The key thing is that engagement is used; a fingerprint isn’t spammy because of specific words. It’s spammy if actual recipients have previously marked emails that match the fingerprint as spam.

I rarely come across instances where fingerprinting is the cause of spam foldering. Usually, I’m able to work with senders to identify where they’re not following best practices, and once they change their strategy they’re back on track. 

Choosing the right deliverability expert

“My third party consultant says our emails land in spam because they contain words like ‘sale’, ‘offer’ and ‘discount’.”

This example came from a new Dotdigital customer who had previously commissioned a deliverability review from a third party “deliverability consultant”.

There are many deliverability consultancy companies out there, and most are reputable and have teams made up of people who are highly experienced and well-known subject matter experts and thought leaders in the industry. Most – but not all.

When you seek deliverability consultancy outside your email provider, keep in mind that less reputable companies may have different goals. They may want to provide what look like quick and easy wins with the minimum of time spent on their side to really analyze your sending strategy. 

They may partner with one or more ESPs and get a kickback from referring you by suggesting changing ESP will fix your deliverability issues (spoiler alert: your sending practices and inbox placement will follow you). Some consultants are simply inexperienced with deliverability or have knowledge that was relevant a decade or more ago but doesn’t align with modern mailbox providers, filtering software, or deliverability practices.

Always start out by talking to your email marketing platform’s deliverability experts – any ESP worth their salt should have dedicated and experienced consultants to talk to. They’re invested in your success on their platform and they can often provide added value when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the user interface and making strategy changes. 

They should also be up to date on the very latest and greatest trends and changes in deliverability because they’re so close to the actual sending daily. If they’re like the Dotdigital Deliverability & Messaging Operations team then they’re active in the deliverability community and are members of amazing groups like M3AAWG, where they work alongside postmasters on initiatives that better the ecosystem.

If you’re looking for an external deliverability consultant, be sure to ask for some examples of what they analyze and advice they commonly give clients, and if you see anything about looking for spammy words in content then run for the hills.

What can I do if my emails are landing in spam folders?

Our in-house team of deliverability experts here at Dotdigital wants you to be as successful as possible on our platform to keep you as a customer. We’re always going to take the time to really understand your sending, and we’ll be honest and give you the tough advice you need to hear and implement to actually achieve your inbox placement goals.

Whether you just want a quick deliverability health check before the busy season, are looking for data and insights on your inbox placement through Christmas and beyond, or want support from a dedicated Consultant for a challenge/project or on an ongoing basis, we have a deliverability package that will suit your budget and needs. Reach out to your Customer Success Manager or for more information on our deliverability products.

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