HomePostsAug 10, 2010

Confessions from an accidental spammer

“Thou shall not spam” is one of the ten commandments of the web. Sending out unwanted email is unnecessary, intrusive, and, at times, downright abhorrent. Who would do such a thing? Yours truly did… but if you give me a chance to redeem myself, I think you’ll understand (and, more importantly, learn something).

I wrote a post a long while ago about spam. A conversation at a previous employer sparked my thoughts on the matter and, from that conversation forward, I became a nearly-militant anti-spam campaigner. My colleague argued that spam is just junk mail that people don’t want but how do you know if people don’t want it unless you try it out. My argument was that spam is email that was not asked for explicitly. It’s one thing to send a one-to-one email out of the blue, it’s another to send a bulk mailing to people who “probably wouldn’t mind.”

Just this last spring I decided I wanted to start sending out a semi-regular email to my clients, friends, and family about my business and how things are going. I wanted to introduce my impending new logo, notify everyone of my change in work situation, and rekindle a few business relationships. I also wanted a reason to comb through my Gmail contacts and classify like a crazy person.

It took me a while to get everything together for this MOMENTOUS OCCASION but I finally had the logo complete, the template written, and my contacts classified. Little did I know that this occasion would be a bit too momentous.

Spoiler alert #1: it was the contact list

That I was using this newsletter as an excuse to get extra OCD about my contact list sounds like a lame one but if you’re the type to do this then you understand. I have a long list of people I’ve worked with, pitched to, and Helped and I wanted not only to identify them (via category) but also “ping” them and make sure they knew I still existed.

So I combed and sorted and tagged and collated. As motivated as I was to stay in touch with a number of different people, I was also careful to vet anyone that I thought would be totally uninterested. I took out friends who wouldn’t care, family who might not understand, and leads that had long gone cold. In short, I was trying to only send this email only to people who I thought would want to get a one-to-one email.

Spoiler alert #2: it was the content

I was saving most of the designing and building for the end since I had not completed my new logo. I wanted it to match my website and stay very simple. I also had a lot of ground to cover and wanted to get everything across as quickly as I could. In the end, I wrote and built what I thought was a great way to connect and inform a large group of people.

Looking at the template, you might think that I made a mistake by putting the unsubscribe information in the most visible place possible. I wanted to be as completely transparent as I could be and use this list in the future if I had anything else to announce. To be confident that future mailings would only go to those who wanted them, I put an easy way out at the beginning of the message.

Spoiler alert #3: it was my intent (and theirs)

By the time I was ready to send this bad boy, I felt good about the content, really liked the layout, and felt comfortable with the list of people I was sending to. In my mind, anyone who had approached me for a project and had exchanged a few friendly emails with me would be happy to hear about what was going on with JoshCanHelp and want to see a few recent projects. Hey, maybe a couple would remember their project and approach me about moving forward.

It was all sunshine and rainbows… until a few days after I sent the email. I got a notice from Mailchimp that a disproportionate number of people had unsubscribed from my newsletter. This didn’t surprise me; I assumed a certain subset would not be interested and opt-out. I even made it really easy to do so. Unfortunately, after a certain ratio of unsubscribes to recipients, you start to become a spam suspect. My account was frozen and placed under review. Not only that…

I’m in more spam folders than a lottery announcement

I’m guessing it’s not that bad but I am getting routed to my DAD’S spam folder so the issue is serious.

Intentions mean nothing when you’re dealing with algorithms so follow my advice here and keep your email domain safe.

1) Never send bulk emails out to a group of people without first getting their permission.

My biggest mistake was using an email marketing program to keep in touch with clients and prospects like a regular email program. A forward to 50 of your friends looks very different to email servers than a full HTML, image-rich business message. Even if it’s a rare mailing, send out a subscription request before sending out a newsletter. More personal than that? Send a few at a time through your regular email program.

2) Just because you have an email address doesn’t mean you should use it.

This applies, of course, to those who think it’s OK to buy a list and send out marketing information but it also applies to those of us who keep track of email addresses for a long time. The only people this newsletter went to were people I communicated with. The problem, though, was that a few of these were over a year old (read: over a year since we communicated). Hey, I’m great and all but that doesn’t mean people remember me… and the new logo probably didn’t help either. If you want to send a business contact an email, do it one-to-one or not at all.

3) The road to spam hell is paved with good intentions

Because I wanted to keep in touch with people and also wanted to give people an out, my unsubscribe link was right at the top. See, my intentions were good! On the other end, I’m sure there were several people who knew who it came from, figured that they wouldn’t need my services for a while, and clicked the link to reduce the number of emails they’re getting. No harm done, right? In the end, all those unsubscribes combined together made all the difference in the world. I should mention that I didn’t get any spam or abuse complaints so no one officially marked me as spam.

Always learning

I’m sure everything will be fine in a few months and my good email name will be back to normal. In the meantime, I might lose a job or two because I didn’t get back to someone. Getting your domain marked by incoming email servers is nothing to sneeze at. Be careful, think twice, and validate those emails!

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