Skip to Main Content

Feb 2, 2009 | 4 minute read

How Did Target Miss My Inbox?

written by Linda Bustos

I just found 9 messages from Target trapped in my Gmail spam box in the last 30 days. In fact, every message from Target has missed its mark since Christmas.

This is similar to what happened with Office Depot and Chad White's Hotmail inbox. If it can happen to the big boys, it can happen to you.

But how does reputable email end up in spam folders?

There are many reasons why an email sender may get shaft from ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail. These include but are not limited to:

Email Complaints

ISPs take into account which email senders receive a lot of complaints by way of "report spam" clicks. These buttons are supposed to be for marking unsolicited emails, but many folks believe it means unwanted email -- in other words "this email wasn't interesting to me." Also, consumers mark messages as spam when they find the frequency of messages too frequent.

Since I subscribed to Target's email list in early October, I have received 3 emails per week. For some folks, this is simply too much commercial email, thank you very much -- especially in these economic times. If enough Gmail customers were trigger-happy with the Report Spam button last month, this could be why Target's in the sandbox.

It's recommended that all email marketers take advantage of feedback loops. Feedback loops tell you which email addresses reported your message as spam and they're provided by ISPs themselves. I'm not aware of a feedback loop for Gmail, but Yahoo recently launched a feedback loop, joining Hotmail, AOL and others.

List Hygiene

Email marketers should regularly clean email databases, removing "hard bounces" (email address doesn't exist, email address typo), honoring unsubscribes and "scrubbing" (checking your list against a list of known bad domains and rogue accounts.) Feedback loops are also helpful to keep a clean list.

Keeping it clean is important to your sender reputation. ISPs do notice when you have a dirty list which may indicate it's outdated, it's rented or you're not honoring unsubscribe lists. Or enough people are signing up with fake emails (hard bounces) or their designated spam email address (rarely accessed accounts) because they need to provide an address to receive a special offer or create an account but don't really want to hear from you.

Email Design

Gmail and other email clients display HTML email with images off as default. This is what Target's email looks like:

I've written before on the importance of designing email for images-off, and Target's isn't all bad. But I would advise Target to start using alt text to describe offers/content in images.

Apart from navigation labels (which are all links) and boilerplate text, there is no text content in Target emails. This makes it hard for email recipients to get the gist of the offer without manually turning images on, and look spammy to ISPs. Remember, spam filter robots can't see images. All the robot sees is one-keyword links without a message body.

Otherwise, Target does the basic things things right to avoid spam filters including asking email recipients to add Target to their address books to ensure future delivery in a welcome email and each email's header.

There's also an unsubscribe link at the bottom of each message, though including it at the top might prevent people from marking the message as spam instead of unsubscribing.

What Could Target Do To Ensure Gmail Delivery?

I can't tell if Target's emails are landing in spam filter limbo across the board in Gmail (or any other client), but it's possible.

If you've read this post thus-far, you know that Target can join feedback loops (though not for Gmail) and clean its list, which it's already doing. It can also look into optimizing its HTML design for "images off."

Beyond this, Target can also:

1. Become authenticated
2. Segment non-responders and market less frequently
3. Segment non-responders and attempt to re-activate them through a "win-back" email, otherwise remove them from the list

Two excellent articles on re-activation campaigns:

Wendy Roth's 6 tips to win back inactive subscribers

Dennis Dayman's Reactivation Examples

Allowing an email subscriber to respond to a friendly "Hey, do you still want to hear from us?" winback email is better than simply removing a non-responder. Marketing Sherpa and E-Consultancy both caution that even if unopened, your email can have impact. Some folks are just busy for a while and can't get around to opening your message but still want to receive your messages. Others head directly to your site if the subject line speaks for itself or if your message simply reminds them that they should re-visit your site to shop (or your physical store).

Another issue is if you optimize your HTML for images-off, your email can be understood without turning the images on. To register as an "open" requires images-on so a 1x1 invisible gif can be downloaded from your email server (unless the recipient clicks on a link). The irony is optimizing for images off may cause you to bucket subscribers who don't turn images on as non-responders and market to them less, or nix them from your list. One more reason to send a winback email.