Why Are My Marketing Emails Going To Spam?

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In the world of email marketing, there's probably nothing more frustrating than crafting the perfect email marketing message and hitting send only to realize that a huge portion of your list didn't get the email, because it arrived in their spam box.

If this ever happened to you, you're one of many email marketers who asked the question “why are my marketing emails going to spam?”

This is often followed by slamming your head against the desk or a quick facepalm.

While there are many reasons your emails may end up in your customers' spam boxes, it's most frequently because you tried to get too fancy with your email.

Emails containing too many links, too much HTML, with attachments, or with “naughty” words in the subject line or email body are much more likely to end up in the spam box.

Let's dive into some of the most common reasons (the ones mentioned above and a few that are more technical) and give you an idea of how to fix each one.

You’ve Been Marked As Spam

The first reason your emails may end up in your subscribers' spam boxes should be a fairly obvious one, they're manually marking it as spam.

It's not uncommon to have at least a small portion of your list (typically about 0.1% or fewer) mark every email that you send them as spam, it's just part of the email marketing game.

That being said, if a large number of users begin to mark your emails as spam (anything over that 0.1% mark) it can begin to trigger a few different algorithms that will mark a larger number of your emails as spam.

These algorithms can take one of two forms: they can either be triggered by your email service provider themselves or by the email inbox provider, such as Gmail.

How To Fix It

If your email service provider is the one taking action, this can usually be resolved fairly quickly by communicating with their deliverability team and explaining to them why you had some emails that were marked as a higher spam rate than normal.

Usually, they'll be able to put you on a higher priority server or IP address and return your email deliverability to where it was previously.

However, if one of the email inbox providers, such as Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft takes action if you can be much more difficult to resolve and their algorithms can continue to take action against every email that you send to the point where they are blocking all emails being sent to that specific provider (for example any email on your list with an Outlook.com email address).

To figure out which of these scenarios is taking place, there are two things you should take a look at.

First I would suggest proactively reaching out to your email marketing platforms support team to see if they have any flags on their and or if you've recently been moved to a different server or IP because of the large spike in emails being marked as spam.

Second, I would take a look at your email deliverability reports. Most email service providers make this fairly easy to do and give you the ability to look at whether or not emails are being delivered based on the service you are sending them to.

This will give you an idea of if you're being blocked or moved to spam by a specific service provider, such as Gmail.

If you identify a specific provider that is automatically moving you to spam, your email marketing platform should be able to offer you a little bit of support on how to get around that.

Additionally, I would suggest segmenting off that section of your list and sending it to them separately to see what the deliverability is like.

In addition to getting a slightly better picture of whether or not you're blocked globally by the service, you'll be able to secure a few positive signals from the service, like opens and clicks (overall engagement really) which may help shift their algorithm back to treating you more favorably.

Once you start to see a little bit of movement, continue with your regular email rhythm keeping whichever service has you in quarantine as a separate email list and sending that separately from the rest of your emails.

Over the course of several emails, you should see a gentle shift in the number of emails that are being delivered and increasing engagement with that service and can eventually reincorporate this segment of your list into your standard email broadcasts.

Your Subject Line or Email Body Uses Naughty Words

The second common reason we see emails being sent to the spam box instead of your subscribers’ inboxes is the use of “naughty” words in either the subject line or the body of the email.

Every email provider maintains a list of these “no-no” words that will automatically move emails to the spam box.

These include a wide variety of things, but some of the most common offenders include:

  • Anything you write in all capital letters
  • Nonstandard punctuation, like multiple exclamation points
  • Anything related to making money online, such as easy cash
  • The simple use of the word “free” or “no-cost”

It almost goes without saying that if you're in the e-commerce world some of these words or phrases may be more difficult to avoid, than if you're just a content-based website.

That being said, there are lots of clever ways of getting around using any of these words, so get creative.

How To Fix It

Thankfully, if this is the reason (it very often is, when someone has an email that is going to spam) the fix is fairly simple.

If you find one of the offending words (or have the suspicion that your email contains one) make the edits to remove those words from either the subject line or the body of the email and resend the same email to anyone who has not opened it.

This resending to people who haven't opened your email should be part of most email marketing plans anyway, but it will give you a really good idea of whether or not the words you removed had an impact on the deliverability of the email.

Pair this strategy with a quick look at your email deliverability reports and you'll know if this was the case.

You Have a Low Engagement Rate

The third common reason we often see emails going to spam instead of to the inbox is that your list has a low engagement rate, meaning you're not getting many opens or clicks when compared to the number of emails that you are sending.

While the benchmarks vary from industry to industry and country to country, we typically aim for a 20% or higher open rate and a 1% or higher click-through rate for all of our different lists.

If your metrics are below this, especially over a period of time, many of the email service providers will automatically start moving you to spam, as they assume people are no longer interested in those emails anyway.

This is a fairly common problem with people who have purchased lists or with older email lists that are being emailed regularly.

How To Fix It

Thankfully, the solution to this problem is fairly simple (although you may not like some of the recommendations).

If you think this is part of your problem, the very first thing you should do is divide your list into two sections, engaged and not engaged.

Some email service providers, like Convertkit, refer to this list (and help you with this process automatically) as cold subscribers.

Each email service provider has slightly different criteria for when they label someone this way, but if you're sending emails regularly and someone has not opened any of your emails in the last 90 days, I would suggest marking them manually as cold or creating a cold segment.

From here, we're going to continue sending our standard broadcast emails (we suggest sending at least one per week) to the people on the warm or engaged list and sending a reboot campaign to the cold list.

The Reboot Campaign

What we refer to as a reboot campaign is a simple 5 to 7 email process trying to re-engage the people on your cold subscriber list.

Essentially, what we're going to do is send a series of 5 to 7 emails over the course of the next few weeks with the goal of simply getting people on this list to open that email (if you want to be extra tough, you could require them to click a link).

If someone opens any of these emails, they are moved back to the warm or engaged list and if someone reaches the end of the series without having opened any of them, you remove them from your email marketing platform.

I can hear quite a few of you screaming and jumping up and down, why would I want to delete people from my email list, that's potential money down the drain.

The truth is if they haven't been opening or engaging with your emails anyway in the last 90 days chances are they aren’t going to engage with you in the future and keeping them on your list is simply costing you money.

Once you've removed these bad apples from your list, it's not uncommon to see an increase in overall email deliverability and an increase in open and click-through rates because many of the email providers like to see these quality signals to deliver the largest number of emails possible to the inbox.

You Have Too Many Links or “Bad” Links

Another common reason your emails may end up in spam instead of your subscribers’ inboxes is that you're sending too many links or you're sending bad links.

Generally speaking, if you have more than two or three links in any single email, you'll see a larger number of emails not being delivered to the inbox (this can mean either they end up in the Promotions tab or they’re being delivered directly to spam).

It does make sense that most email providers would use this number of links as a signal of possible spam, given that most emails between friends or colleagues would contain one or two links maximum.

On the other hand, many e-commerce companies (like my nemesis Best Buy) send emails completely loaded with links.

Even if you're only including one or two links in your emails, if they're going to broken pages or shady websites this can also affect where your emails are delivered.

For example, if your links are redirecting (meaning when they click on a link, they are taken to a page and then redirected to another page), this can be seen as a sign of something malicious by email providers.

Additionally, and something I shouldn't have to mention, if your links are going to naughty or otherwise scammy websites, this is also frowned upon.

How To Fix It

The solution here is fairly simple, don't send as many links.

We generally suggest that you limit the number of links in any email to one or two. 

Not only does this help with deliverability to the inbox but keeping emails short and digestible helps to increase click-through rate and overall engagement.

The suggestion for the number of links does not include the unsubscribe link or the updated preferences link, that some email service providers include in email footers.

You Don't Let People Unsubscribe

In addition to sending too many links, another common problem when it comes to emails being delivered to the spam box is not sending enough links.

What we're specifically talking about here is the inclusion of an unsubscribe link at the bottom of all marketing emails.

There are a variety of different laws including CAN-SPAM which clearly state every marketing email must include a clear and obvious way to unsubscribe.

Email inbox providers are smart enough to know if you're bulk sending a message and if they see any of this book sending without an unsubscribe link they can automatically move you to spam.

Additionally, it's illegal and extremely frustrating for the people on your email list if they truly don't want to receive it.

There is not really any reason not to include this, other than the gripe that some marketers have any time people unsubscribe and corporate marketing metrics that make list size a priority over common sense.

We need to change the way that we think about unsubscribing from our email list and encourage it for the people who are the right fit, but that's a rant for another day.

How To Fix It

Just like the other potential link-related issues, including an, unsubscribe link is extremely simple.

Most email service providers, like Convertkit, force you to include the unsubscribe link by default and even have a feature where they don't detect an unsubscribe link in any broadcast email that will automatically add it for you, so you do not run into this issue.

If your platform does not do this for you, I would suggest taking a look at the documentation to see how to add it to the footer of your email by default.

You’re Being Too Fancy

As human beings, we love shiny and beautiful things, and a well-designed email with lots of bright colors and images is no exception.

In fact, most people say they prefer these kinds of emails (although according to most studies they don't actually open them or engage with them as much).

Unfortunately, if you spent a ton of time designing a beautiful email, chances are it could lead to a higher number of your emails being sent to the spam folder.

How To Fix It

The fix here is one of the easiest for any of the problems we're talking about in this article.

Send text-based emails.

While it's not as pretty as a well-designed and HTML-loaded email, text-based emails perform better (they have higher open and click-through rates) and they're more likely to get delivered to your customers’ inbox.

If you can't avoid including design elements and trying to make your email pretty, try to minimize the amount of HTML that's being used. This means removing things like lots of images, colored backgrounds, changes in font size and color, etc.

Thankfully, it's very easy to send a text-based email (all you do is write a copy) and they perform better than their original counterparts in virtually every metric.

The only problem may come if you have to report your director of marketing and they tell you your emails are ugly :).

You’re Sending Attachments

Another quick technical reason your emails may be delivered to spam is if you're sending any attachments in marketing emails.

Since attachments can contain files, like viruses or malware, email providers are very strict about when they allow them to be delivered.

If you wanted to send me an attachment, email providers understand that you and I are friends and that the attachment probably is not malicious. On the other hand, if you're sending a broadcast email to your entire marketing list that includes an attachment, this is a giant red flag to email providers and they will likely move it to the spam box.

After all, if you wanted to spread around a nice little virus there wouldn't be a much easier way than sending it to a whole bunch of random email addresses as a file attachment.

How To Fix It

Just like with making the move to text-based emails, the solution for sending attachments is fairly simple.

If you have a file that you must send to somebody via email, do not send the file and send a link instead.

This can be accomplished by either uploading the file to your website and giving them the link there or by using a service like Dropbox or Google drive, uploading the file you want them to download, and sending the link instead of the file.

This trick is also handy if you're sending files larger than a few megabytes and can be used with files of any size or type.

You’re Missing Sender Information

Just like with the inclusion of an unsubscribe link, there are a variety of laws that require the addition of sender information to your email.

You should always include things like your physical address and the name of the company at the bottom of any marketing emails.

How To Fix It

This problem is fairly simple to fix.

Take a look at your settings inside of your email service provider and make sure to fill in any relevant fields, like your physical address and phone number.

Most email service providers will automatically include this information alongside the unsubscribe link at the bottom of any marketing email.

If you've added this information and don't see it appearing in your emails, take a look at your email service provider’s help documentation or if you can edit the footer directly, add the information manually.

You Need To Setup Authentication

While some email service providers, like Convertkit, handle dealing with all the technical setup and hassle that relates to making sure email service providers know where your emails are coming from and who is sending them, others (like active campaign) require that you set this up on your own.

One of the easiest ways to think about this is how you behave with your cell phone.

If your phone rings and you know who's calling you, because you have their number and picture saving your phone, you're likely to pick up the call.

On the other hand, if it's a random number or one that Google has already flagged as potential spam, you're likely to send it to voicemail or just ignore it entirely and let it ring.

Email inboxes work much in the same way, although a bit more technical than that.

Inbox providers look at up to three different things to verify that the person sending the email is who they claim to be and based on those three things decide whether or not to deliver the email to the inbox.

You'll commonly hear these three factors referred to by their acronyms:

DKIM

SPF

DMARC

If these are not set up properly (or at all) email inbox providers will send you directly to spam.

How To Fix It

While the technical process for setting these up will change slightly depending on your email service provider, it's essentially a two-step process.

First, you'll want to take a look at your email services help documents to find the records for each of the three factors talked about above.

Then, you'll need to log in to your website hosting and add each of them as records under the TXT record setting in your host’s DNS management screen.

While this sounds like something only a techie person could do, it's a game of copy and paste.

You copy the settings from your email service provider and paste them into the creek screen on your hosting.

Once this is done, you never have to do it again and if you're not sure how after reading the help documentation, you can reach out to your hosting support and they may be able to do it for you.

What If I’m Not Sure?

If you take a look at this list and you're still not sure what the problem is (some are more obvious than others), I would suggest taking a look at an email validation and testing tool.

There are a few different tools that I've used in the past that can help us identify exactly what the problem is by simply sending a few of our emails their way.

The two that I would suggest taking a look at are Postmark and Litmus.

Postmark will give you a free spam check and all you have to do is copy and paste the text of your email into the box and give you a good idea of whether or not they think that email will be delivered to spam or the inbox and why.

Litmus is a slightly more robust tool and does have a cost associated with it depending on the number of emails you would like to test.

In addition to their ability to identify the reason your emails may be going to spam, they have a great testing tool built-in (and it works with many email service providers) for you to see and understand how your email will look and be received in more than 90 different email clients and devices (desktop versus mobile for example).

That’s a Wrap

As you can see, there's a wide variety of reasons why your marketing emails may be going to spam, now it's time to put on your detective hat.

Take a look at a few of the recent emails you sent and see if you can identify any of the problems that we laid out above.

As mentioned, some, like using naughty words, are more easily identifiable than others, but if you run into any issues along the way feel free to use any of the tools that we suggested or reach out to us and we can help point you in the right direction.

Chris lives at the intersection of business strategy and growth tactics. Having consulted with dozens of different businesses (as well as building several of his own), he brings a unique perspective on what's working across the eCommerce world in businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Further reading

5 STEP ON DEMAND TEXT BOX (Delete this when you add back to active)