August 28, 2002
To filter or not to filter...

When I first read Kalsey's Anti filter-posting, I thought they had gone mad over there at Kalsey's Consulting...

Rather than complain about the state of spam filtering, Soltoff should work toward keeping his client's messages from being filtered by ensuring that they don't look like spam. And if he wants to truly help email marketers, he should write a column on how to prevent your email from triggering spam filters. I'll even help him research and write it.
Reading the article he's referring to puts things a bit more in perspective... Still - I check my "spam" mailbox a couple of times a day, and so far not a single email has gone wrong - in fact, Spam Assassin has been letting a few mails through lately, and it bugs me a bit...

Please - don't teach spammers how to avoid SpamAssassin, Kalsey! Although I see a potential, legitimate use of promotional email to subscribing customers; rather teach those users who wish to subscribe to such mailings to create a "whitelist" of allowed senders?

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Comments

There's a variety of reasons why teaching legitimate marketers how to avoid being caught in spam filters won't help spammers a great deal.

Most spam out there is related to a few short subjects. Porn, money, enhancing your... umm... parts, and ink jet cartridges. While it's possible to avoid some of SpamAssassin's filters (ALL CAPS for instance), you can't disguise the content of the spam without making it impossible for the target to understand what you are hawking.

The reason SpamAssassin works is that most spam has certain distinguishing characteristics. This is for several reasons. First, spammers blanket their message to millions in hopes that a few respond. In order for this sort of firehose marketing to be cost-effective, it needs to be cheap. Several of the techniques used by spammers to keep their costs down are dead giveaways to spam filters. HTML mail with no text version is one example.

Spammers also must go through great lengths to mask their identity. Throwaway email accounts with randomly generated user names, relays through lots of mail servers, and URLs consisting of IP addresses.

The third characterisict of spam is that it is unwanted by nearly everyone who receives it. That means in order to be effective, the ad must intantly grab your attention and make it easy to respond to their offer. That's why spam has large fonts, bright colors, Flash, and embedded forms.

Any spammer with technical know how already can figure out how to get around SpamAssassin. But most spammers don't fall into this group. Most are "spam kiddies" who, like their wannabe hacker cousins, use tools and techiniques developed by others to attack your inbox. They wouldn't understand how to do half of what they do if it weren't for the tools.

The thing is, most of what would be discussed in an article on not getting trapped by spam filters is just good marketing sense anyway.

Don't ues all caps. Not only does it look like spam, it annoys people. Don't try and hide your URL behind IP addresses, usernames that look like URLs, or other schemes. You have nothing to hide, and doing these things makes your business look shifty. Make sure to include a plain text version of your newsletter along with your HTML message. Clients that can accept HTML will show it, the others will automatically display the plain text. Despite what you may think, there are lots of people who can't read HTML mail.

Posted by: Adam Kalsey on August 29, 2002 02:26 AM

That turned out to be much longer than I planned... :)

Posted by: Adam Kalsey on August 29, 2002 02:27 AM

Thanks for your response(s), Adam :-)

I agree with your insights as to HOW professional, serious opt-in email marketing should be done - having seen the rules SpamAssassin triggers on - a lot can definitely be avoided by being - well - serious... (not adding recipient-identifying parameters when referecing images in HTML-mails, providing a text only alternative and so on) Of course I agree.

What bugs me is that some spammers now have started DOING this -- following this type of advice -- sliding their "get your Discovery Gold card for free now"-messages juuuust below the default threshold of SpamAssassin by having them appear in plaintext messages, no all caps, no lots-of-whitespace-in-subject and all those other classical spam-indicators. The less spammers can learn about these techniques the better, IMHO...

Posted by: andersja on August 29, 2002 02:38 AM

LOL... Got to admire SpamAssassin. Like most MT users, I get an email when new comments are posted. SpamAssassin picked up the email with my reply above and gave it the following verdict:

Subject: *****SPAM***** [andersja's blog] New Comment Posted

SPAM:

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Anders Jacobsen's blog: Email whitelists are starting to work (February 11, 2004 12:30 PM)
"[...] Whitelisting is gaining popularity with free webmail services like Hotmail, and this extract from a marketing email shows that marketeers are waking up to the challenge. [...]"

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