How to avoid spamtraps this holiday season

Deliverability is essential all year round, but as the holidays kick off and inboxes fill up, our Deliverability team are here to help. This article is the first in our Deliverability holiday countdown series. Keep an eye out for more top tips and advice.

It’s the time of year when there’s the strongest incentive to skirt around some best practices and send as much email as possible to try to maximize revenue. However, the last thing you want to deal with during the critical holiday sending period is delivery or inbox placement issues. 

Sending to old data or data collected under less than ideal circumstances significantly increases the risk of degrading your sender reputation, reducing the chances of you reaching the inbox – even for recipients who are fans of your brand. Sending in this way also carries the risk of severe inbox placement issues or your emails being blocked entirely  – especially if you send to a spamtrap. Reputation damage can take a long time to repair and could negatively impact your ability to generate revenue from your emails for weeks or even months.

In this post, I’ll provide advice on the lump of coal in the stocking of deliverability: spamtraps. We’ll cover what they are, why they’re so bad, and how to avoid them and keep your inbox placement strong and healthy as we white-knuckle it through another festive season.

What is a spamtrap?

Deliverability for seasonal spamtraps

A spamtrap is an email address that would not actively sign up to receive marketing communications. They are part of the toolbox used by anti-abuse networks, security appliances, and mailbox providers to identify emails that would be unwanted or even harmful to recipients – and then to prevent senders of those emails from reaching the inbox of real people.

There are different types of traps:

  • recycled traps – these are email addresses that were once valid but have been abandoned and have been repurposed as a spamtrap
  • typo traps – these are entire domains that look similar to popular mailbox provider domains (e.g. gmial.com instead of gmail.com) that are used as traps 
  • pristine traps – these are email addresses created to be spamtraps and never used by an actual person to send or receive email

Why is sending to a spamtrap so bad?

A mailbox provider’s priority is to protect its users from unwanted and malicious emails. Regardless of your intentions, if you’re indicating that you’re a bad actor by sending to spamtraps then your sender reputation will be negatively affected. This means your emails are more likely to land in the junk/spam folder, may take much longer to be delivered, or may be rejected outright and not even delivered to junk.

Negotiating the removal of a blocklisting and repairing the reputation damage caused is not fast or easy. It can take weeks or sometimes months to fully recover from a bad blocklisting due to hitting a spamtrap. If your business is hit at the beginning of the holiday season, that could mean you’re only just back on your feet again in time for Valentine’s day 2021.

How can I avoid traps during the holiday season?

Most commonly we see clients hitting traps when they’ve succumbed to pressure to increase their sending volume and send emails to recipients they don’t usually send emails to. This is a bad idea for a few reasons:

  1. mailbox providers a) like to see consistency from senders and b) are often on the verge of overwhelm given mail volumes at this time of year. 
  2. recipients are all overwhelmed with far too much email and are less likely to engage with and more likely to complain about receiving emails they don’t remember signing up for.
  3. a lot of the ways marketers try to quickly increase volume at short notice significantly increase the risk of hitting spamtraps.

What is a bad tactic and why is it risky?

Bad tactic 1: sending to lists that haven’t been sent to for over 12 months. Or ever.

Risk: Recycled traps tend to be found in old data, even if it was originally collected using permission marketing best practices.

Bad tactic 2: trying to “reactivate” contacts from the suppression list

Risk: Abandoned email addresses will usually hard bounce for at least 6 months before being repurposed as a recycled trap. Good ESPs will automatically suppress contacts that hard bounce, and so these traps are likely to lie within your suppression list.

Bad tactic 3: purchasing or renting some more data to send to.

Risk: Not only is this against most ESPs T&Cs which means you risk having all your sending suspended when they spot the purchased data, but lists for sale/rent tend to contain a lot of scraped data. Spamtraps, especially pristine type traps, are very commonly found in this kind of data – and they tend to be the ones that cause the most serious kinds of blocklistings that have the widest impact across mailbox providers and take the longest to resolve.

If you are importing data into your dotdigital account during the holiday period (or any other time of the year) then our Watchdog will be taking a look and flagging anything suspicious. An import that’s got a high-risk score is more likely to contain a lot of nasties including spamtraps, and so we’ll block the upload while you take a look at the data sources and remove anything risky that’s made its way into your list.

What if you do hit a trap?

The key here isn’t identifying the specific trap you hit and removing it from your list. Spamtraps are intentionally a closely guarded secret, and for every one trap you find, there could be ten or fifty or a hundred more on your list. That’s because spamtraps indicate underlying problems with your data collection or management.

The first step is to use whatever information is available to try to identify the source of the problematic data. Different trap operators will offer up some information that’s redacted to a greater or lesser extent; some offer a rough estimate of the date and time when the trap was hit, others will provide the subject line of the email sent that hit the trap.

The next step is to temporarily stop sending to all data that’s come from the high-risk source while you go through step three: segmenting out contacts who you know are engaged. Purchase history, opens, clicks, etc. can all be used holistically to identify recipients who are most likely to be real people who want to hear from you.

Finally, it’s time to plug the hole in your data collection. Depending on the type of trap, it can indicate different areas of vulnerability:

  • pristine traps – make sure your forms are secured with CAPTCHA or double/confirmed opt-in, and remove any third party data from your lists
  • typo traps – ask your webdevs to add some basic validation to points of collection to check that the email addresses are valid. It’s pretty easy to add some logic that suggests someone might mean “hotmail.com” instead of “hotmial.cmo” in the email field. Plus double or confirmed opt-in at the point of data collection can help weed these out as well.
  • recycled traps – make sure you have a strategy for sunsetting contacts who never engage with your brand or who haven’t engaged for a very long time. Use knowledge of your sales cycle and typical customer journeys to plot the point at which the risk of keeping an address on your list outweighs the potential that they might convert into a customer. And engage a responsible ESP that suppresses email addresses that bounce.

In conclusion

It’s so easy to sabotage yourself in November by making some choices that temporarily boost revenue for Singles Day or Black Friday, but then tank your reputation so you’re in the spam folder throughout December and even into January. It’s far less risky in the short term – and more profitable in the long term – to be smart and stick to your sustainable sending and organic growth strategies to avoid jeopardizing inbox placement. 

If you need any help this holiday season with spamtraps or anything else related to inbox placement, our expert Deliverability team is always around to assist you in making the best choices for your business.

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