I have a confession to make: I’ve been sitting at my computer for the last five minutes trying to come up with a metaphor for spam traps that wasn’t totally cringe-worthy. And I have failed. I have failed so badly that I considered referencing Jimmy Buffett’s song “Volcano” in which he lists all the places he wouldn’t want to land (like, you know, Three Mile Island and the San Juan Airport) and adding spam traps to that list. But that would be cruel and unusual to you, the reader, so I won’t do that. Let’s move right on to the details of spam traps, what they are, and how to stay the heck away from them.
What Spam Traps Are and Why They Exist
There are two basic types of spam traps: pure traps and recycled traps. A pure spam trap is an email address that exists for the sole purpose of luring in and identifying spammers. These email addresses are hidden around the Internet such that a nefarious harvester could find them, but no reasonable person would ever think to email them. (And they will never opt-in to an email list, but we’ll get back to that later.) A recycled spam trap is an email address that was once active, but after being long-abandoned, was taken over by the ISP for use as a spam trap. You could perhaps innocently market to a recycled spam trap, but basic list hygiene is all it takes to avoid this one.
Why does the world need spam traps? Because, well, spammers. This is one of the best ways for ISPs to learn who is sending unwanted and illegal commercial email and who is legit. Spam filters are always changing and being improved as they must be as adaptable as the spammers who seek to thwart them. Email marketing professionals need to stay up to date on all of the changes that occur within the world of spam filtering. However, that is one nice thing about spam traps, which are sometimes called honey pots: this is a pretty static means of catching spammers, and while new traps will crop up from time to time, following the rules will ensure that you don’t find yourself in trouble.
That trouble, by the way, involves being blacklisted and having ALL your emails considered to be spam, no matter how permissioned the rest of your sending is. It is a pain in the rear to undo this unfortunate status change, so avoiding it from the get-go is ideal.
How to Avoid Spam Traps
Avoiding spam traps is really quite simple for legitimate email marketers who are willing to maintain a clean list via basic list hygiene techniques.
Step One: Start with a trustworthy list. Never, ever, ever buy a list. Or, if you do even though I told you not to, be so very careful and responsible about your use of that list. Don’t rent or borrow or steal or in any other way obtain a list of email addresses for people who have not given their express permission for you to email them. Build your lists organically, either online or in person, and always opt-them in. Double opt-in email is super sexy, just ask anybody with an email address. An active spam trap will never opt-in to your email newsletter. I promise.
Step Two: Stop sending to readers who never open your emails. Recycled spam traps are a real thing. If you have readers who never, ever open your emails, it’s hardly worth it to keep sending to them in the first place. You haven’t lost anything and you’re gaining a lot more in sending and deliverability safety by taking them off your list. The same goes for sending to an old list that you haven’t been in contact with: always re-permission older lists before you resume sending. Every three to six months (depending on your industry and the frequency with which you email), export a list of non-opens so that you can keep track of the addresses who aren’t earning their keep on your list.
Step Three: Keep up with bounces. If your emails aren’t being delivered, pay attention. Hint: when an ISP takes over an abandoned email address, you’ll get a hard-bounce notification. Take it seriously because this is the only warning you’ll get before the consequences begin. (The good news for MNB users is that we auto-scrub hard bounces.)
How Will I Know if I’m Emailing a Spam Trap?
Oh, you’ll know. Generally, if you hit on a pure spam trap, you’ll see deliverability drop overnight pretty drastically. If deliverability goes from 99% to 25%, it’s pretty likely that somebody on your list isn’t really a somebody after all. Don’t wait it out: get help immediately if this occurs. Of course, you’ll probably hear from your none-too-happy email marketing provider if this occurs, so be at the ready to help them help you out of this mess.