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Content Schmontent; It's Your Behavior, Stupid


By Ken Magill

A post by marketing software firm HubSpot last week on so-called spam-filter trigger words and phrases caused a bit of a kerfuffle among email marketing experts on Twitter.

“One of easiest ways to avoid spam filters is by carefully choosing the words you use in your email’s subject line,” said the piece in question. “Trigger words are known to cause problems and increase the chances of your email getting caught in a spam trap.”

The article then went on to list a bunch of words and phrases to be avoided such as “as seen on.”

To which a bunch of folks in email marketing circles responded: “Pshaw!”

“Content filtering hasn't been a big component of spam filtering algorithms for nearly a decade,” wrote Chad White, research director for Responsys, in the article’s comments. “Sender reputation and increasingly engagement metrics are way more important. Any marketer with half-decent permission and list management practices will be able to use these words and phrases without worry.”

White was among the post’s multiple detractors in its comments and on Twitter.

Email deliverability consultant Laura Atkins, however, took a more nuanced approach.

“The words and phrases posted by HubSpot are pulled out of the Spamassassin rule set,” she wrote on her blog. “Using those words or exact phrases will cause a spam score to go up, sometimes by a little (0.5 points) and sometimes by a lot (3+ points). Most spamassassin installations consider anything with more than 5 points to be spam so a 3 point score for a subject line may cause mail to be filtered.”

She continued: “If you use too many words and phrases used by spammers, then your mail is going to be difficult to distinguish from spam.”

Fair enough. But here is my beef with HubSpot’s post. It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong. It’s that it allows some folks to focus on the wrong things—a situation I have personally experienced.

My writing style has always been a little coarse. Why? Because I’m a little coarse.

One morning during a meeting at a former publisher, I was trying to make people aware of some the truly idiotic email practices we were engaged in and explain why we should stop—sending too much off-target mail, for example.

“Maybe it’s your content,” said one of the folks at the table. “Your newsletter can get a little rough.” [paraphrasing]

The conversation immediately turned into a debate over how important content is when it comes to spam filters. What is more, I was never able to steer the conversation back to what was important: our idiotic email practices.

As the biblical saying goes: “You’re never a prophet in your own land.” In business, this saying translates to: “If I say it, it won’t mean much. But if I can show someone else has said it, my point will have more validity.”

As a result, people tend to wave trade articles around in meetings when the articles make a point they want made. And there’s a lot of crap to wave around out there.

So when I saw the HubSpot piece, I immediately envisioned some beleaguered email marketing manager getting the article shoved down his throat by a colleague or superior in order to shift the blame for their email program’s poor performance from stupid business practices to content.

Should email marketers try and limit so-called spammy words and phrases in their subject lines and content? Sure. But it is literally the last thing they should concern themselves with.


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