August 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

Challenge and Response

If you can’t beat ’em, learn to deal with ’em. Direct marketing expert Herschell Gordon Lewis tells how to get around the spam filters.

Think back to the antediluvian year 2000. If somebody had used the phrase “spam filter,” you would have replied: “What’s that?”

Advance your rocket-driven Internet clock to mid-2003. Just as an exercise in astonishment, look up “spam filter” on Google: You’ll find some 250,000 entries under that subject. I’d say, “Wow!” but inspecting even a few of them, the serious student of spam filters has to wonder how many “filters” are just mindless blockades, keeping out useful messages along with the sexual enhancement products, discount mortgages and closeouts on trekking shoes.

The game of “Gotcha!”

If you’ve tested subject lines, you know that invariably “Free shipping” outpulls “Discount.” But no matter any more. Even the “first generation” spam filters hunt and destroy both “Free” and “Discount.” The advantage retailers enjoy (temporarily) is twofold:

1. Except for the most obvious profanities, first generation filters attack only the sender’s name and the subject line, not total text.

2. Our customers aren’t yet remotely as widely exposed to spam filters as are computers in business organizations.

Treat point 2 carefully. America Online 8.0 makes a major issue of its spam filtration and offers subscribers a single “Report spam” click. Danger! An AOL subscriber-and there are 34 million of them-who’s in a nasty mood can put The Mark of Cain on your perfectly innocent message.

Second generation filters penetrate more deeply into a message, looking for trouble. Some will throw any communications that have even a tinge of questionability into a “Dubious” bin.

So how is today’s marketer to compete, with all these negatives out there?

First, don’t run scared. Filters aren’t even close to saturation, and retailers-whose online offers may be aimed at consumers rather than businesses-are less likely to run afoul of them.

Second, if your online offers are aimed at businesses, alert them and give a reason (dollar-saving is the best) to let your stuff through.

Third, don’t let AOL cow you. Communicate with that octopus, explaining yours is a legitimate business and you’d appreciate knowing their guidelines. That step might-note it’s might, not will-generate benevolence when the inevitable nasty subscriber turns you in. One or two complaints don’t have much of an effect. They’re after the giant spammers.

Watch for these

Most spam filters look for these words:

free/complimentary

loan

cash

save/saving

win

mortgage/loan

increase/size

limited time

Viagra

compare

approved/approval

buy/own

sale/discount

prize

fun

discount

guarantee

and these symbols:

%

®

+

!

*

You get the idea. Any word or symbol that seems promotional is suspect.

Have you looked in puzzlement at an e-mail whose subject line is something like rwylysw taywt? It isn’t a mistake and it isn’t an accident. It’s an attempt-usually successful from a filtration standpoint- to bypass spam filters. From a comprehensional or annoyance standpoint? That’s a different matter. The same is true of subject lines where the words are spaced out-R E F I N A N C E N O W. They beat the spam blockers, but they’re confusing as well. They are nothing more than a lame attempt to keep doing what the marketer has always done and not find creative ways to slip by technology and communicate with customers.

And asterisks are death. Spam filters gobble them up like dustbusters at work. So, can you believe it? A flower vendor had this subject line on a Father’s Day e-mail: “Save up to $20* while you come through for Dad!” In the text, another asterisk suggested clicking on a link. The explanation at the end of the colorless rainbow: “$10 off for $75* or more, $15 off $95* or more, $20 off $125* or more.” Then, in mice-type: “*Exclusive of applicable service and shipping charges and taxes.” I long have opined there’s little room for asterisks in any selling copy and none in e-mail. Now the filters reinforce my opinion with strong teeth.

A hard look at a favorite word

A client who sells vitamins and supplements reports that even though spam filters attack the word “Free,” recent testing still has subject lines with that word bringing greater response than either “10% off!” or “20% off.”

I’ve seen replacements for “Free shipping”-“Of course we’ll pay for shipping” and “Never a shipping charge.” Do these have the simple power of “Free shipping?” Probably not, because I haven’t seen them repeated; but the end may be near for our favorite word, and not only for shipping.

That means a mild retreat. First generation filters don’t seem to recognize these substitutes:

-complimentary

-look what you get, with our compliments

-at our risk

-you don’t risk a dime

-not one penny

No, these aren’t as strong; but yes, they’re more likely to survive the filter attack.

Every commercial spam filter seems to include a “heuristic” option. More often than not, the word isn’t explained. All it means is the recipient has an opportunity to exclude filtration of words, symbols, and other elements he or she wants to get, while including filtration of words and phrases he or she doesn’t want. For example, an accountant lives and dies by the dollar, cent, and percent symbols. So, as a heuristic option, an accountant would exclude these from filtration.

For a retailer, a positive move can be notifying customers they should tell their online providers that e-mails from you should slide through because these are private offers or billing information. Starting the message with an apparently private offer to “preferred customers” can reinforce that suggestion.

Retailers have all the best of it, because most commercial filters are aimed at commercial customers-businesses that have many computers, each of which represents lost productivity due to unwanted e-mails. Meanwhile, most retailers’ messages go to individual’s private computers where the spam filters are not as pervasive.

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