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Apr 21, 2008 | 3 minute read

Why Innocent Emails Get Flagged As Spam

written by Linda Bustos

Diagnosing Email Delivery ProblemsBryan Eisenberg recently wrote a great post on email conversion that included some tips for avoiding spam filters from Yasifur Rahman.

I noticed that a Musician's Friend email got trapped in my Spam box in Gmail, so I referred back to this post to see if I could diagnose how the email got flagged as spam. I found a few items that might have caused the delivery failure based on the article's tips, plus a few other borderline-spammy red flags.

Diagnosing the Problem

Here is the Musician's Friend email with images off (Firefox):

Musicians Friend Email

Here is the web version of the email if you're curious, it's quite long so I didn't take a screenshot.

Now let's go through the Grok post's tips one by one:

1. Always use images and text. Check.

2. Keep top header under 100 pixels and simple as possible. Check, check.

3. Link to sender's landing page. Enhhh, links to a funky landing page from equally shady domain:
The email has many links that point to that domain. This is likely for special analytics tracking purposes, but if it causes a major delivery problem, it may not be the ideal system.

4. Avoid overuse of commonly used spam words and characters. “$,” “FREE,” “$xxx?"!!!" "Prize" etc were cited in the blog post. Musician's Friend uses "free" 3 times - but once in the footer as the toll-free number, and once as part of a promo code. I doubt this is judged as excessive, since most spam filters are relaxed about a few references to free, otherwise the majority of retail emails would never reach your inbox! However, other words like "no obligation," "Please hurry! This offer expires at 11:59pm" and "for sale" make the email sound unsolicited.

5. Choose white background and left-align creative. White backgrounds are the safest bet. Colorful backgrounds are more frequently flagged as spam. Spammers often center their messages, so left-aligned content looks more authentic. Musician's Friend's background is white, but the whole creative is centered, even the whitelist request at the top.

6. Have a smooth transition between image and text. MF's pass/fail depends on what browser and client you use. Gmail renders differently in Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari browsers. Gmail is default images off, and in Safari, the images and text are broken apart when you first open the message unlike the screenshot above which is taken from Firefox.

7. Include a subscription date in your message. Nope. But that would help.

Other Possibilities

Sender domain. Sender name looks fine, but the domain is wonky. The sender email is - a complicated and suspicious domain. I compared this to the welcome email from Musician's Friend in my Yahoo account and the email came from which dodged Yahoo's bulk folder.

For more research on sender name branding tactics check out the Email Experience Council's reportlet on the subject.

Uber-long Subject Line. "Musician's Friend Invite: Be Your Own Record Label; New NiN Album at TuneCore" is the subject line. "Invite," "be your own" (boss?) and ";" may be considered spammy or frequently used by spammers. Or, "NiN" mixed case is a flag - how many times have you had an OFFeR fOr CIaLiS?

Open History. Perhaps I've never opened other Musician's Friend emails or deleted them right away. Or...

Other users were not interested in the offer. As I blogged about a couple weeks ago, customers may perceive offers that they're simply not interested in at the time as spam and use the "report spam" to express their feelings. They may want to remain on the list, but they don't understand the implications of hitting report spam. Gmail may have received one too many of these reports for this contest from Musician's Friend.

What do you think was the main reason this email never made my inbox?