There are many pieces of the puzzle when managing an email subscriber list. Keeping the list squeaky clean is the best piece of advice any developer will give you, but we won’t drill down the specifics now. We often help clients maintain their lists, and we’ve even gone through pruning and cleaning a time or two. We’ve hit many walls and answered many questions, but one of the most frequent questions we’ve received is, “What is a Spam Trap email address?”
First, let’s cover some basics. There are a few different parties involved during the email process: the subscriber, the organization, and the email provider.
Subscribers sign up to receive messages from an organization - usually through the website or through forms (membership forms, lead generation forms, etc). They add their email address to the subscriber list with explicit consent. We call this opting in.
An organization sends an email campaign to all opt-in subscribers. Campaigns range from product deals, a company newsletter, or membership news - the content depends on the organization.
This message lands in a subscriber inbox, and the space is given by an email provider. Some well-known providers include Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, and Apple.
These three can coexist happily if all are following the rules. But sometimes rules are not followed, and that’s when things get messy.
What is Spam?
Spam is any unwanted or unsolicited messages received by an email user. You know those emails you receive about weight loss? Spam. What about the emails for an out of date credit score? SPAM. Oo, oo, what about that email from the African prince cousin of yours wanting to give away his millions, please tell me that one isn’t spam? … Spam, spam, spam!
These are obvious examples of spam. But spam isn’t always so obvious, especially to the marketer. The gray area of what qualifies isn’t always agreed upon, and unfortunately, many organizations are spamming and don’t even realize it.
Am I Spamming?
No, yes, maybe? The answer isn’t as clear cut as we’d like it to be, but if an organization is sending email campaigns to a subscriber that did not actively agree to receive them … Then they’re spamming.
So where do Spam Traps come into play?
Email providers have gotten wise to the spam game. Google admitted years ago that 94% of all email is spam1. 94%! That means only 6% of email is legit! That’s resources, time, and money wasted in the eyes of email providers. So they have begun to crack down, and the backlash is strong.
There are a few methods email providers use to combat spam: blacklisting, graylisting, and spam complaints are a few. But one of the best kept secrets is the spam trap email address. Where exactly do they come from?
You mean they don’t come from SpamStorks?
Unfortunately, SpamStorks don’t exist. But spam traps do.
A spam trap email address is inherently bad. It’s an address that email providers use to track spam across the internet. If it is received by an email provider, then they know that an organization’s list was collected improperly and through impure methods. How could that possibly be, you ask? Let’s break it down:
A Purchased List
Under no circumstances should a list ever be purchased. These subscribers have not opted-in to your specific email messages. They likely haven’t opted-in at all and were collected from robots scraping websites for emails. Email providers realize this and put fake emails out there for robots to find.
Evidence out there says a user changes their personal email address every 2 years. If this is true, then there are a mass amounts of addresses out there that are old, unresponsive, and expired. Unfortunately, many organizations do not clean their lists frequently enough. They just assume that every email they’ve collected since the beginning of time is active and legit. This is not true.
Email providers and spam companies have purchased and reactivated expired domains with emails to track just how old subscribers lists truly are. Because if a list is old, then that means it isn’t properly cared for. Additionally, this email address also becomes a beacon for spam since an organization is now sending an email to a subscriber who did not truly opt-in.
Misspellings happen, even when a potential subscriber adds what they think is their email address to an organization’s list. Unfortunately, there are many variations of misspelled domains and email addresses out there for the purpose spam tracking. For example, my real email address is email@example.com but I accidentally type firstname.lastname@example.org. A spam tracking company actually owns email@example.com and instantly reports this as spam. Because, again, this email address did not truly opt-in.
Is it really that bad?
Absolutely. Once an email provider sees that an organization is sending a subscriber list with spam traps emails, they know that the list is dirty and stamp a big ole’ “SPAM” on it. Large companies like AOL, Gmail and Yahoo will outright block the entire list, even if there are legitimate emails that do want to receive the messages. These unfortunate subscribers are wrongly prosecuted for the bad few.
Your list also begins to gain a negative reputation … And this reputation is stored across the internet through blacklists, graylists, and databases.
The problem cannot be ignored.
What if there are spam traps in a list?
This is where it gets tough. There is no easy solution for removing spam traps from a subscriber list. Spam traps signify that the list is impure and was likely collected incorrectly or was never properly managed. An organization doesn’t want to start over, but a wise CTO once told me, “If you mix manure in your ice cream, no matter what you do, it will always taste like manure.”
The purest way is for an organization to completely start with a clean list … And to do this, we suggest the double opt-in method. When a user signs up for email messages, the system sends a confirmation email asking them to confirm the subscription. From there, an organization needs to continue to clean and manage their list as often as possible.
Some subscribers may become disengaged over time. They no longer want to receive the email campaigns, but don’t bother to unsubscribe. Sending an email asking subscribers to re-opt-in every so often is a great way to keep a list clean, but also to keep open and click through rates as high as possible. Because the first goal of any campaign is engagement, and if a user isn’t engaged, what’s the point?