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Article : Communicating Via Email

Summary: This article discusses the things that you must consider in order to run effective email communications programs when mass-emailing. Covering topics such as formatting, preventing a SPAM classification, deliverability best practices and more.
Applies to:  All versions of Gnosis

Table of Contents

  1. Overview
  2. Email Etiquette & Law
  3. Avoiding The SPAM Tag
  4. Constructing HTML for Email

1. Overview

Mailing lists have a long history on the Internet and are an excellent vehicle for distributing focused, targeted information to an interested, receptive audience. Consequently, mailing lists have been used successfully as a highly effective direct marketing tool.

Unfortunately, mailing lists are also vulnerable to misuse through a variety of means. An all-too-common example is where an individual is subscribed to a high number of mailing lists and must take extraordinary measures to be removed. Also, some marketers misuse mailing lists, often through a lack of knowledge about longstanding Internet customs and rules, or because they attempt to apply direct paper mail methodology to the electronic realm.

As a result of the misuse of the medium, and the high incidence of SPAM and UCE (Unsolicited Commercial Email), there have been many quite successful strategies implemented to filter and protect email recipients. While these strategies are quite effective as mostly eliminating unwanted email, they also raise the bar and the complexity for successfully completing legitimate email campaigns.

This primer, "Communicating With Email" covers the hints, tips and tricks that are necessary to conduct successful email campaigns. It discusses the techniques that you should use to avoid being caught in SPAM filters, processes that you should use to minimize the number of recipients that report your email as SPAM, and techniques that help maintain consistent formatting of your HTML email messages.

(Please Note: This primer is provided to give you general guidelines of acceptible practice for the use of bulk email. Nothing herein should be construed to be providing legal advice regarding permissible uses or requirements for using bulk email. You should consult a legal professional to determine the legality of a certain set of actions or practice that you intend to use. You may also find it helpful to peruse these legal references and/or the SpamCon Foundation Web Site for details of laws covering SPAM and UCE.)

2. Email Etiquette & Law

Before we get started with the technical stuff, lets spend a brief moment reviewing the etiquette of responsible bulk emailing. There are a number of principles that are important to respect. These principles are embodied in the Connect4 terms of use that prohibit using the Connect4 system for SPAM or UCE, and they are addressed by numerous laws that govern what is considered a legitimate for the purposes of sending bulk emails.

There are basically four types of legitimate bulk email:

  1. Community Service / Non-Commercial / Non-Profit Information
  2. Commercial Transactional Information
  3. Commercial Advertising
  4. Other Commercially Motivated Mailings

There are a number of requirements that apply to all of these categories of email. These are:

  • The subject of your email must accurately reflect the content of the email.
  • The sender's email domain name must be a legitimate email domain name.
  • The body of your email must contain the full legal name of the sender and the sender's full physical address for mail.

In addition to these general requirements, each type of email has additional requirements and/or conventions that apply to it. Lets look at each of these individually:

Community Service / Non-Commercial Information

This first type of email is categorized as diseminating information about or recruiting support of community and/or non-profit activities or general information. Your email lists for these email campaigns should consist soley of persons that have either given you permission to use their email addresses, or provided their email addresses to you or a related entity with a view to enabling communication with them on topics consistent with the purpose of your email.

Commercial Transaction Information

As long as the recipient has initiated the transaction that is the principal subject of the email or has requested contact about a transaction, you may use the recipient's email address to communicate with him/her regardless of whether the recipient has provided his or her email address for that purpose. Because of the nature of this communication, it is not generally necessary to have an opt-out capability included in this type of email, however, you may wish to do so anyway to be sure that you comply with laws of all relevant jurisdictions.

Commercial Advertising/Marketing

Commercial advertising is the category of email that is most subject to legislative controls. If you will be sending advertising via bulk email, you should ensure that your recipients have all given you permission to send them marketing emails. This permission must generally be explicit, unless you have a pre-existing business relationship with the recipient. Even in this later case, it is often prudent to initially send an email first requesting them to opt-in to your email campaign before actually sending the advertising related email.

In addition to ensuring you only send to qualified recipients, you must adhere to the following strict protocols:

  • The subject heading must begin with "ADV:"
  • The body of your email must have a clearly visible Opt-Out capability that allows -- at a minimum -- the recipient to prevent any further emails from being received from the sending organization.

Commercially Motivated Emailings

This email category basically includes any other commercial email that does not fall into one of the above categories. Generally, you may only send email in this category to persons who have a pre-existing business relationship with your company, or, have provided to you their email address. Additionally, the body of your email must have a clearly visible Opt-Out capability that allows -- at a minimum -- the recipient to prevent any further emails from being received from your organization.

3. Avoiding The SPAM Tag

By far the most complex issue to be managed in the area of bulk emailing is that of SPAM differentiation. You are sending out hundreds or thousands of email messages, but, you need to ensure that your email messages are not tagged as SPAM so as to maximize their deliverability to the intended recipients.

There are a number of factors that are used to determine whether to classify a message as SPAM. These factors generally fall into three categories:

  1. Sender List Analysis
    The recipient's email server checks the known SPAM and blacklist lists to see if your server or domain name is listed. If you are listed (and many legitimate senders do get listed from time to time), your email will be blocked until the list entry is removed.
  2. Content Analysis
    This is the factor over which you have the most direct control and will ultimately have the most effect on deliverability of your emails. 
  3. Recipient Complaints
    Many ISP's and email services now provide a simple one-click "Report this as SPAM" button so that recipients can easily mark an incoming email as SPAM. Unfortunately, many users will use this facility to get rid of your email even though you are legitimately including their email address. If an ISP recieves SPAM complaints from more than 1% (yes, that's 1 person for every 100 messages sent), thay ISP may either bin all emails for your campaign, or worse, blacklist you (see sender list analysis above).

There are a number of techniques that can be employed to achieve the goal of maximum deliverability. These techniques fall into two broad categories -- what to do, and what NOT to do:

What To Do

  1. Keep your subject line to less than 50 characters
    Many SPAM filters will infer SPAM from very long subject lines combined with other factors.
  2. Personally address your recipient.
    Use Gnosis's mail merge customization capability to address your recipient by name instead of using a generic Dear Friend, or other generic salutation. Generic salutations increase your email's SPAM score.
  3. Make your opt-out link prominent.
    We recommend that you place your opt-out link prominently at the very top of your email and also at the bottom. By doing this, and making it as easy as possible to opt-out, you lessen the chance that a recipient will hit the "Report this as SPAM" button on their email client, an action that you definitely want to discourage as much as possible (see recipient complaints above).
  4. Ask recipients to whitelist your email address. 
    Every recipient who adds you to their "Approved Sender" or "Whitelist", increases the chances of successful deliverability to both themselves and to every other user at the same ISP. For this reason, it is a good practice to ask the recipient to add you to their "White List", "Safe List" or "Approved Sender List" - probably right up the top alongside your option for them to opt-out. 
  5. Remind recipients how they got onto your email list.
    Often, a recipient will not remember how they got onto your email list. This will be especially so if there has been a long interval between when they gave you their email address and when you used it to email them. To help them realize that you are not spamming them, it can be useful to provide a reminder how they got onto your list. Something like "You are receiving this because you have visited our web site and provided your email address, or, you have previously been a supporter of our cause." 
  6. Ensure that your emails are relevant and targeted.
    Employ the power of Gnosis's Recipient Group functionality to define which persons will be emailed for a given type of communication. Being discerning in your targeting of email communications helps ensure that your recipients always see your emails to them as relevant and not too frequent. Collect demographic and interests information on your web site preferences page where possible and target people appropriately according to their wishes and stated preferences. 
  7. Always use a valid senders email address AND a Sender Email Name.
    This will avoid an almost guaranteed intercept as SPAM. 
  8. If using a WYSIWYG HTML Editor other than the Gnosis Windows Client, Insert a Title.
    The Gnosis Communications Module HTML Editor completely removes the HEAD tag from emails it creates, so, missing Title tag content is not an issue. If however you use an external HTML editor like Dreamweaver, always remember to go in and give your document a Title, otherwise, you will automatically attract a higher SPAM score.

What NOT to Do

  1. Don't use large images in your HTML emails
    Remember that many users have image display turned off in their email client by default and By including large images in your email you are sure to have SPAM filters intercept your message. There is no general rule as to what is too large, just keep them as small as practicable and use jpeg files with 75% or more compression. 
  2. Don't link to images hosted on websites in other domains.
    Instead, save all images that you want to use in an email directory on your Gnosis hosted web site. Cross site linking of images will increase the likelihood of your message being SPAM flagged. 
  3. Content to Avoid.
    - Avoid using any RED text.
    - Avoid using commonly used SPAM words and phrases such as Mortgage, Viagra, Click Here!, emphatically guaranteed
    - In the subject, avoid using any of: "As Seen", $ sign, "For Only", "FREE", "Guaranteed", "Hello", "Your Bills", "Your Family", "Your Own", "losing pounds", and other SPAMMY language. 
    - Avoid using exclamation mark or question mark in your subject line 
    - Avoid using full sentences or many words with ALL CAPITALS 
    - Avoid large numbers of blank lines 
    - Avoid content that "SHOUTS" 
    - Avoid VERY small HTML font sizes, or, fonts disguised as white text on white background.

For a full (very long) list of typical SPAM triggers used by one of the common SPAM filters, see the web page describing SpamAssassin's tests.

4. Constructing HTML for Email

HTML was originally designed to be used on web pages, not in email messages. As a result, the HTML standard and HTML tools employ a number of functions and conventions that do not translate well in an email environment and in some cases, do not work at all. Unfortunately, this means that you need to get just a little bit "technical" in your composition of an HTML email message to ensure that it arrives intact.

The Gnosis Communications module will handle 90% of the nuances of HTML email composition for you, leaving only a few things for you to be careful of. We'll cover those few things in this section. If you are using a template created by Connect4 to send your emails then the advanced stuff covered in the next section has already been taken care of in the design of your template.

Using Connect4 Designed Templates

If you are using a Connect4 designed template, then, the following rules will be all you need to observe with respect to the mechanics of constructing your HTML email:

  1. Images must be referenced with an Absolute URL
    Do this:
         <img src=””>
    Instead of this:
         <img src=”images/logo.gif”>
  2. Use plain text or HTML as a source for your content, NOT Microsoft Word
    Plain text is text that has no special formatting or format commands embedded in it. When using plain text, you will have to re-apply the desired formatting to your text once you place it in your HTML editor. Alternatively, you may want to start with content already formatted in HTML. 

    Avoid copying and pasting from rich text editors like Microsoft Word as they add huge quantities of "junk tags" into your HTML that are sure to earn you a bright red star in the SPAM filters. If your content is already in an application like Microsoft Word, you should copy and paste it into Notepad to strip all of its formatting and leave only the text. Then, you can copy it again from notepad and paste it into your HTML email. 
  3. Avoid using Too Much Table Magic.
    If you are used to creating web pages, the temptation will be to create elaborate table layouts with column spans and row spans. In HTML email land, you can use just a few tables, but keep the number of rows and columns down to a minimum and do not use advanced formatting such as merging rows and columns (using rowspan and colspan).
  4. Do not use Flash Movies, ActiveX controls or embedded objects.
    While they might work in Outlook, they will just fail virtually everywhere else. 
  5. Do Not Use DIV Tags
    DIV Tags are prone to breaking in many email reader applications. Many WYSIWYG HTML editors love to put DIV tags into your HTML to apply formatting. Be careful of this and avoid where possible the use of DIV tags in HTML emails.
  6. Always include a Plain Text Version.
    Besides being friendly, SPAM filters will penalize you for attempting to send an HTML only version of your message. The easiest way to create a plain text version is to copy the main body of your finished HTML content and paste it into the plain text message area in Gnosis Pro. After doing this, you should check it carefully to ensure that it still makes sense in plain text context. 

Going It Alone (Without a Gnosis Template)

  1. Design your email to fit in 500 to 600 pixels width. 
    Unlike web pages, many email programs and web based email interfaces will allow less than 600 pixels width to preview your HTML email. Ideally, you should make it so that your email can collapse correctly to widths of 300-400 pixels, however, if this is not practical for your layout, using 600 pixels as a maximum width. 
  2. Do Not Use HEAD Definitions such as CSS.
    All code that you place in the HEAD area of your design is almost certainly going to be deleted by most users' web clients, hence, you cannot rely on formatting implemented through CSS. You MAY use CSS formatting for fonts, but, you will need to duplicate the STYLE declarations in your body area as well as in the HEAD area. This will allow your HTML editor to render the content correctly, AND the recipient's web email reader to render it correctly using the version contained in the body area.
  3. Use TAG CSS Style Declarations in preference to CLASS definitions.
    when using CSS declarations to define your text formatting styles, define formatting for tags (such as td, p, h1, h2, h3 etc... in preference to class definitions that can be applied to any tag. Tag formatting definitions are rendered more often and more accurately than class definitions especially when the definitions are present in the body area instead of the head area of the document. 
  4. Do Not Use Attributes or formatting in the Body Tag.
    The body tag will most likely be stripped from your email in most if not all web based email readers. As a result, apply "whole document formatting" using a table to contain all content instead of applying formatting in or to the body tag. 

See also: Knowledge Base Article: HTML Email & Web Pages
Knowledge Base Article: Managing Portal Files with FTP

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