Why Innocent Emails Get Flagged As Spam

Diagnosing Email Delivery ProblemsBryan Eisenberg recently wrote a great post on email conversion that included some tips for avoiding spam filters from Yasifur Rahman.

I noticed that a Musician’s Friend email got trapped in my Spam box in Gmail, so I referred back to this post to see if I could diagnose how the email got flagged as spam. I found a few items that might have caused the delivery failure based on the article’s tips, plus a few other borderline-spammy red flags.

Diagnosing the Problem

Here is the Musician’s Friend email with images off (Firefox):

Musicians Friend Email

Here is the web version of the email if you’re curious, it’s quite long so I didn’t take a screenshot.

Now let’s go through the Grok post’s tips one by one:

1. Always use images and text. Check.

2. Keep top header under 100 pixels and simple as possible. Check, check.

3. Link to sender’s landing page. Enhhh, links to a funky landing page from equally shady domain: https://mfgtrc.rsys1.net/servlet/website/ResponseForm?tMnmkJEVTTBTWUY_f.40_wkhth_0NgL9hkLEspgKHlmpJFntHpsDJht
The email has many links that point to that domain. This is likely for special analytics tracking purposes, but if it causes a major delivery problem, it may not be the ideal system.

4. Avoid overuse of commonly used spam words and characters. “$,” “FREE,” “$xxx″”!!!” “Prize” etc were cited in the blog post. Musician’s Friend uses “free” 3 times – but once in the footer as the toll-free number, and once as part of a promo code. I doubt this is judged as excessive, since most spam filters are relaxed about a few references to free, otherwise the majority of retail emails would never reach your inbox! However, other words like “no obligation,” “Please hurry! This offer expires at 11:59pm” and “for sale” make the email sound unsolicited.

5. Choose white background and left-align creative. White backgrounds are the safest bet. Colorful backgrounds are more frequently flagged as spam. Spammers often center their messages, so left-aligned content looks more authentic. Musician’s Friend’s background is white, but the whole creative is centered, even the whitelist request at the top.

6. Have a smooth transition between image and text. MF’s pass/fail depends on what browser and client you use. Gmail renders differently in Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari browsers. Gmail is default images off, and in Safari, the images and text are broken apart when you first open the message unlike the screenshot above which is taken from Firefox.

7. Include a subscription date in your message. Nope. But that would help.

Other Possibilities

Sender domain. Sender name looks fine, but the domain is wonky. The sender email is MusiciansFriend@MusiciansFriend.rsys1.com – a complicated and suspicious domain. I compared this to the welcome email from Musician’s Friend in my Yahoo account and the email came from service@musiciansfriend.com which dodged Yahoo’s bulk folder.

For more research on sender name branding tactics check out the Email Experience Council’s reportlet on the subject.

Uber-long Subject Line. “Musician’s Friend Invite: Be Your Own Record Label; New NiN Album at TuneCore” is the subject line. “Invite,” “be your own” (boss?) and “;” may be considered spammy or frequently used by spammers. Or, “NiN” mixed case is a flag – how many times have you had an OFFeR fOr CIaLiS?

Open History. Perhaps I’ve never opened other Musician’s Friend emails or deleted them right away. Or…

Other users were not interested in the offer. As I blogged about a couple weeks ago, customers may perceive offers that they’re simply not interested in at the time as spam and use the “report spam” to express their feelings. They may want to remain on the list, but they don’t understand the implications of hitting report spam. Gmail may have received one too many of these reports for this contest from Musician’s Friend.

What do you think was the main reason this email never made my inbox?

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11 Responses to “Why Innocent Emails Get Flagged As Spam”

  1. My guess is the sender’s shady email domain and the overuse of spammy calls to action.

  2. ThierryF1968 says:

    I am now blacklisted as a spammer, I guess somebody managed to hijack my yahoo account
    I only discovered this as one of these emails were sent from me to me…

    I have obviously changed straight away my password, but I am not sure how to remove my email address from the spammers list

  3. The most likely reason the Musicians Friend email was sent to your Gmail spam folder is:

    - A lot of people likely signed up for the email newsletter primarliy to enter the weekly contest, and then after a few weeks descided they no longer wanted the emails – and hit the Gmail spam button rather than unsubscribing.

    I signed up for the email, and the confirmation/welcome email was authenticated for SPF, but not DKIM. So assuming the regular emails also have SPF records, authentication is likely not the issue.

    For more on what Gmail looks for, visit the Gmail site:
    - http://mail.google.com/mail/help/bulk_mail.html

    Loren McDonald

  4. Ayat says:

    I’ve been suffering from this issue through outlook because countless important e-mails are filtered to my spam folder! It really stinks, and I always have to remember to check my overflowing spam folder for any messages that may have made their way down the wrong pipe! :)

  5. I’m also subscribed to Musician’s Friend emails and this message made it to my Gmail inbox.

  6. DJ Waldow says:

    Linda -

    I agree completely with what Loren said. The other reasons (spammy words, background color, subscription date, etc) are secondary to authentication, spam complaints, and hard bounces.

    I’d also add…

    The “wonky” (your word) sender domain is often used by ESPs for reply-tracking purposes (a quick search of “rsys1.com” will identify the ESP).

    The “funky landing page from equally shady domain” (again, your words) – https://mfgtrc.rsys1.net – is, as you’ve stated, “for special analytics tracking purposes.” Another search for “rsys1.net” will again point to the ESP.

    Use of these tracking domains are common across many ESPs.

    dj at bronto

  7. It’s great to have the email experts drop by to clarify things :)

    I suspected that the domains were there for a good reason, though I also was wondering how different email clients handled such domains.

    If a filter could trap something for using “free” or similar words, I assumed it was possible for unrecognized landing page domains to also be problematic, as per Grok’s recommendations to include a link to the sender domain. Would you then say that these domains have no effect on deliverability, or that they are usually fine, but using a regular domain is preferred?

    The Gmail guidelines are helpful. Would be nice to have standards across clients that are enforced :)

    I’ve been paranoid for years about using “free” in personal emails, like “feel free to contact me at…”

    I’ve substituted “if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask…”

    I know ISPs are more relaxed about that stuff now :)

  8. Michael says:

    Google should read this post too…
    Look here: http://www.blogzwonull.de/skurriles/google-muellt-sich-selber-zu.html Ok, it’s a german post – But just look at the picture… that dosn’t need any further explanation ;)

  9. Hi Michael,
    Learning German is definitely on my to do list. There are a lot of fantastic German ecommerce blogs that I can’t read. There are great French ones too, I can semi-read those :)

  10. Linda,

    My emails (sent from gmail) are going into many of my intended recipients’ spam folders with alarming frequency now.

    As ThierryF reported above, his Yahoo account had been hijacked – I’m also wondering the same for my gmail account, although I’ve never seen direct evidence of it.

    Is there any way to know for sure if one’s email has been added to a universal blacklist?

    And, if there is such a list, how do you get taken off it?



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