At the bottom of all email strategies, before conversions, opens, and clicks, lies one simple goal – actually making it into the subscriber’s inbox.

Many brands put a lot of time and effort into crafting emails with great content and conversion-driven designs but don’t think about whether these emails are actually being seen.

When an email is flagged as spam, it won’t make it into the subscriber’s inbox. Now I’m sure a lot of you are thinking “I’m a real brand, I send great content, I definitely don’t send spam”, but you may be sending it without even knowing. This happens more often than you may think – spam can be produced by brands of all sizes and industries. In fact, spam makes up 45% of all emails sent and advertising spam is the most prevalent type online.

Types of spam chart

Advertising spam is more prevalent than any other type.

The reality is that many emails never get seen by subscribers, and end up being of no value to the sender at all. So in order to make sure your emails are getting seen, it’s important to understand what spam is, what the consequences are, and how to stay out of the spam folder.

What is email spam?

As defined by SpamHaus, email spam is: “Unsolicited Bulk Email”.

Spam is email that is not asked for, and sent to multiple people at once. Any brand, no matter how big or small, could produce spam.

Brands that send spam are usually using a “batch and blast” email strategy – where they send the same content to their entire list. None of it is based on subscriber interests, and doesn’t reflect what the subscribers want to see.

What are the consequences of sending spam?

The consequences of sending spam have to do with email deliverability – the rate at which you land in a subscriber’s inbox.

Email deliverability is a massive topic, and there are a lot of great resources already on it.

Long story short: if you’re sending an email that is flagged as spam, email servers will stop trusting you, and you’ll be more and more likely to end up in your recipients’ spam folder (or even worse – your sending will get blocked or throttled).

This means that all the hard work you put into your email campaigns will go to waste, as it’s likely they won’t even be seen.

And once your deliverability starts to be affected by spam, it only becomes harder and harder to get your emails out of the spam folder and back into the inbox.

Why are my emails going to spam?

Introducing: Spam Filters. These filters detect an email as unsolicited and prevent them from reaching a user’s inbox.

Gandalf from Lord of the Rings meme saying "You Shall Not Pass the Spam Filter"


True story, if you’re not careful

Spam filters determine this based on a wide variety of criteria – and a lot of it has to do with your previous interactions with subscribers. Based on these interactions, the spam filters give you a reputation score for both the subscriber individually and the email provider in general (ex. how all Gmail users interact with you).

While the criteria can be pretty advanced, there are multiple indicators that you could be sending spam. These are what I’ve seen as some of the most common reasons a sender suffers from low deliverability.

1. Low Engagement Rates

Something that tells email servers that your emails should end up in recipients’ inboxes is whether or not they’re being engaged. If your campaigns aren’t getting opened or clicked, this is a sign that your list isn’t happy with what you’re sending.

You could start out landing in inboxes 98% of the time, but if you change your strategy and your subscribers stop interacting, this is where deliverability could take a turn for the worse.

2. High Abuse Complaints

One thing worse than a subscriber not taking any action with a campaign is when they take a negative action – like flagging your email as spam. This is where someone receives your campaign but doesn’t know who you are, how they got on your mailing list, or why they’re receiving this email.

So, they end up reporting it as spam.

Email with circled 'report as spam' button

You don’t want your Gmail users clicking this

According to Mailchimp, an acceptable spam rate is 0.01% for all email sends. If you’re receiving higher rates than this, it’s time to re-evaluate your email strategy.

3. Spam Traps On Your List

Spam has to do with much more than email content. List management is a massive factor in whether a brand has good or bad deliverability.

A spam trap is an email address that is used to indicate whether a sender is using legitimate permission and list management practices. These can be email addresses that are spelled wrong, have expired, or have been wrongly purchased off a list (never purchase email lists!).

If you’re flagged as sending to a spam trap, this makes it clear to email servers, ISP’s, and anti-spam organizations that you’re not actively managing your list and could be a spammer.

Email icons to flag sender as spam

One of these subscribers is expired, and is now a spam trap. Sending to this subscriber triggers a warning to your email server, saying you may not be a legitimate sender.

How to Keep Email Out of the Spam Folder

Avoiding the spam folder seems pretty straightforward, right?

Clean Email List + Engaging Email Content = No Spam Folders

The problem is, there’s a definite gray area when it comes to email deliverability.

In your email program, you could be doing some things right (ex. using an opt-in list) and some things wrong (ex. sending too many emails in a short time). These together will determine how successfully your emails deliver.

And if you’re already being flagged as a spammer, it can be a long road back. There’s no quick fix for email deliverability – all you can do is start making positive changes. 

Ready to improve your email deliverability? Follow these 10 tips to help keep your email out of the spam folder.

1. Segment your list

Send email content to list segments to improve your email engagement. Segments can come in many different forms, including demographic info like age, gender, location, or interest-based categories.

For example, if you run a website that sells sporting goods, segment your users based on the types of sports they play. This way, when you send an email with content related to football, you can target the users who are interested in that sport. This will increase your chances that they will open and engage with your email, and more importantly, ensures you’re not sending irrelevant content to subscribers who aren’t interested in football. If you want to take it to the next level – you can even include dynamic content in your emails like personalized product recommendations (check out this guide on email marketing best practices for more).

Email sorting

This segment (created in Mailchimp) would only include subscribers that are interested in football, and are over the age of 20.

2. Manage your email frequency

If you’ve been sending 2 emails per month, don’t randomly boost that to 5 emails per week. The best approach is to monitor engagement at different frequency levels. So if you want to start increasing the number of emails you send (ex. over the holidays), start ramping it up only to a segment that has shown high engagement levels in the past. If they respond positively, start branching it out in batches to your entire subscriber list.

Never surprise your subscribers though. The best practice is to give them a heads-up that they’ll be receiving more content from you. A great strategy is to even give them the option to opt out of certain types of emails or choose the frequency at which they want to hear from you, using your subscriber control dashboard in your email service provider (ESP)

3. Put your subscribers in control

Use the subscriber preferences dashboard in your ESP where subscribers can provide you with information for better email personalization, and indicate their email preferences (like frequency and types of emails they want to receive).

Not all subscribers know that these preference dashboards exist though – so make sure yours do! Include an email in your Welcome Workflow asking them to fill theirs in. Make sure you tell them they’ll be receiving personalized email content after, or even an add in an additional incentive of being entered into a draw for a prize.

4. Establish subscriber expectations

What each subscriber will receive in their inbox should be clear from the beginning. Include information on what types of emails you’ll be sending and how often in your opt-in forms and/or in your welcome email.

Once you’ve established these expectations, stick to them! Make sure any significant changes to your email program are made clear to your subscribers, so they aren’t confused when it happens. Confusion leads to unsubscribes.

4. Use opt-in lists only

This is a big one. Only email people who have agreed to receive emails from you (this can also overlap with spam legislation like CASL).

I could talk about email consent all day, but to save you some time, make sure you stick to these 3 main rules:

  1. Don’t assume a customer wants to hear from you just because they buy from you – give them the option to opt-in
  2. Make all opt-in forms very clear – always indicate you’ll be sending ongoing email marketing content
  3. Never never NEVER purchase an email list – not only is this not CASL compliant, but your ESP will also suspend your account, your list will be unengaged, and your email program will not be a success. Trust me.

5. Keep your list clean

Even if your list is opt-in only, you still need to manage it over time. Make sure you remove any addresses that are hard bouncing and have a working unsubscribe element in each email. While this will decrease the size of your list, it will increase the overall quality. And when it comes to email lists, quality is definitely better than quantity.

7. Use a friendly “from name”

Even more than a subject line, subscribers will decide whether or not to open a campaign based on the from name. Make sure yours clearly says who you are. Some popular from names include just using your brand name, or using the name of someone at your brand – ex. “John at Your Brand”. Try and avoid names that the subscriber may not recognize, like someone’s first and last name who they’ve never heard of before.

List of emails in inbox


There are varieties of from names shown here – including just showing a brand name or using a representative from that brand.

8. Use a “reply-to” address

Being able to respond to a sender is a huge indication to email servers that the sender likely is not a spammer. So never use a “noreply” address, use something that encourages and welcomes responses. Many brands use “info@”, but to make your emails even more welcoming to the subscriber (and to email servers), try personalizing yours a bit more. Think about options like “welcome@”, “hello@”, or “updates@”.

9. Make unsubscribing extra easy

Unsubscribes aren’t a bad thing, they will help keep your list clean and your engagement rates high. So make sure there’s always an unsubscribe element in your footer which can easily be clicked, and is implemented immediately (this is also required for CASL).

For added value, include a short optional unsubscribe survey that people can complete in this process. Include questions like “why are you unsubscribing” and “what email content would you have liked to receive”. This data will help improve your email strategy in the future.

10. Implement batch sending

Instead of sending an email to every subscriber at once, send the campaign in batches over a period of time (ex. 1,000 subscribers every 30min). This is especially useful if you have a large list/segment as ISP’s and email servers won’t be overwhelmed with pushing through thousands of emails at once.

Now It's Your Turn

I hope you learned some things about email deliverability, and are able to take away a few tricks to improve your own email program. Now it’d be great to learn about your experience with email deliverability and spam!

Have you had spam problems in the past? Were you able to improve your deliverability? How? Or have you never even checked in on your deliverability rates?

Let us know how spam has affected your email program in the comments, and share this post to spread the word!