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You might think you don’t have to worry about spam because you’re a campaign, an advocacy group or a consultant. You’re not trying to spam anyone – you’re just sending out press releases, fundraising emails and action alerts that are a normal part of any campaign.
Well, they can easily qualify as spam. In fact, anyone who sends mass emails should be worried about spam. There’s no point in writing a great press release, fundraising solicitation or action alert only to have it blocked by a spam filter and not delivered to your intended recipients.
Most spam filters work by looking for specific keywords and phrases that are commonly used by spammers. Once the filter gets triggered, it sends your email into the recipient’s spam box or blocks delivery entirely. In a worst case scenario, the internet’s spam cops can contact your bulk email provider and shut down your organization’s ability to send mass emails. After that it can take days, or weeks to straighten this out and get your bulk email permissions restored.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to ensure your writing is completely free from spam words. Even worse, spam filters are constantly changing, because spammers are always looking for new ways to get around the filters.
Your goal should be to minimize the number of spam words in mass emails and keep them out of the subject line entirely. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some broad categories of words to steer clear of. Avoid words that could in any way be related to:
- Dating, sex or terms that could be connected to pornography.
- Size, growth or potency: This includes words like firm, increased, massive, lacking, long, power, rising, strong, weak, big, giant and huge.
- Age or weight are common triggers, too. So cut out gut, loss, old, trim, young, old and aging.
- Pharmaceuticals are also a no-no. So remove doctors, hospitals, medicine, drugs, pain, pharmacies, pills and prescription.
- Money, finances or mortgages can indicate spam so withdraw bank, charge, credit, investment, loans, pay, poor, spending, statement, stocks, home, house, collect, earn, assets, price, debt, bankruptcy, cash and check.
- Shopping terms like buy, deal, free, online, save, sale, discount and cheap can also go.
- Urgency is also popular with the Nigerian banking set, so don’t write breaking, fast, first, last, new, now, today, tomorrow, latest or just.
As an example, let’s consider this proposed email subject line: “House should weigh charges against drug firm tomorrow.” At first glance, this line doesn’t seem spammy at all. It obviously isn’t intended to be. But an automated, pre-programmed, unthinking spam filter will see House (mortgages), weigh (age/weight), charges (money/finances), drug (pharmaceuticals), firm (size/growth/potency) and tomorrow (urgency/time) and conclude that this must be spam. Blocked.
Remember, spam filters don’t take into account that these words might be normal, even essential, in a public affairs context. They don’t know or care that you work for a legitimate organization or that you’re working on an issue defined by a particular spam word. And they certainly don’t make exceptions because “that’s just what it’s called.” Spam filters are automated computer programs that don’t think, care or give a damn how important these words are to you.
You can get away with using a few spam words in the body of your email, but you should make every effort to use them as infrequently as possible. If you must use spam words, don’t put them in the subject line and don’t embed links in them. These are like neon signs telling spam filters where to look.
The best way to avoid spammy language is to add a “spam proof” to your organization’s normal proofreading process for mass emails. Every person involved in writing mass emails should be familiar with and encouraged to actively police spammy language. It will help if staffers have a printed list of spam words and topics that they can hang on the wall next to their desk.
If you’re new to spam proofing, you would be wise to also assign a specific staffer to this role, someone who’s generally available for proofreading near the end of the review process. There are three things you need in a good spam proofer:
They have a filthy mind.
A lot of spam words look completely innocent and innocuous in a public affairs context. It will help to have someone who can look at a seemingly inoffensive word like “open” and immediately recognize its smuttiest and sleaziest potential uses. Dirty minds make for clean emails.
They must be a capable writer.
Once a spam word has been caught, it can be tricky to find the right substitute word or reconstruct the sentence. Messaging experience — and a thesaurus — will help the spam proofer come up with compelling alternative ways of saying the same thing that won’t trigger spam filters.
They’re empowered to overrule more senior people in the campaign or organization on questions of spam.
Principals and directors – especially those with decades of experience and backgrounds in policy, law and technical fields – don’t like being told what they can and cannot say. The spam proofer, even if it’s an intern, must have the authority to veto their spam words. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing the spam proof.
Whether you work in communications, fundraising or field, if you write a lot of mass emails, spam filters can be the bane of your existence. If they aren’t, some of your emails might not be getting through.
David L. Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a consultancy focusing on the strategic applications of political psychology. Follow him on Twitter @firstpersonpol.