How to prevent legit emails sent to customers who asked these emails from being considered spam?


I'm bootstrapping a business software and I've got a serious issue: I don't plan on doing any "mass mailing" nor "email campaign".

I will never ever send one email to someone who didn't ask. My business model doesn't resolve around mass mailing/spam at all: I've got a legit software that people so far do actually like very much :)

However I've got a very serious issue: I've got about a hundred beta-testers and some of them are PM'ing (sending me PM on message boards/forums) or contacting me directly from our software (it's a fat client and there's an option in it to leave your email: if the user does so, then his email is directly send to our Webapp server).

I need to send emails to these people yet some of them get considered as spam and end up in their spam folder.

I'm not alone: I've read horror stories on "Business of Software" about customers buying products and being unable to activate them, then being unable to reach or be reached by email. (for that specific case we're taking precaution: the very payment processing is going to be tied with the app and it shall automatically 'unlock' as to prevent that catastrophic scenario from happening).

Yet my question is: is there anything I can do? Can I contact, say, Google (we use GMail for a lot of things, including email) and tell them "we're not spammer, we won't ever send a single mail to a person who didn't ask?"

How can I make it so my legit emails are not considered spam? Once again: I emphasis that these are emails sent to people who willingly gave us their email address through either private messages or from our software and that are waiting for our emails.

Bootstrapped Customer Support Email Deliverability

asked Jan 11 '10 at 19:47
Tristan St.
180 points
  • Hi all, thanks a lot for your answers... I need to add that we're really not going to run our own mail servers. I'm using GMail to send my mail and for most people it ends up in the spam folder. It's not even a "subscription letter" I'm sending: actually it's a "one off" email, containing documentation and unlock key for beta-testers. I'd like to use keep using Google's GMail to send/receive emails for I don't have the time (and altough I'm techy probably not the skills) to configure my own mail server. – Tristan St. 14 years ago

4 Answers


Tristan, you should look at the previous discussions at -- a site much like this one, but targeted at system administrators.

In short, there is no way for you to say "Hey, I'm not spam! Don't filter me.". If there was, then spammers would abuse this system too (sic).

There is a war going on between spammers and good people, and sometimes innocents get hit. What constitutes a correct answer today may not be entirely correct tomorrow.

Having said that, here is a terse list of what I consider the most important things to do right now:

  1. Use separate outgoing mail servers for bulk email and business email (you stated that you don't do bulk email, so this is not relevant for you).
  2. Make absolutely sure that each outgoing mail server has a static IP address, has its SMTP HELO string configured correctly, and that reverse DNS lookup to the IP address will return its HELO address. (If you exclusively use professional mail providers (such as Google Apps) then this is already handled for you.)
  3. Set up Sender Policy Framework for your domain (SPF), i.e. whitelist which servers are allowed to send email on your behalf. It's not that hard to do; if you use multiple email providers then you just need to include each providers SPF record into your own. Here is Google's Apps for Domains SPF info. SPF is something you set up in your own DNS records.
  4. Write good email body text, i.e. use the recipients name prominently (maybe both in the subject and first line of the body), don't send pure HTML emails (if you use HTML, include a plain ASCII version too), don't use spammy language (ALL CAPS, MORE !!!!!!'s, certain words).
  5. Make sure the "unsubscribe" link or mechanism for opting in / opting out of communication is easy to find and easy to use. If people can't unsubscribe when they want to, they'll just hit the "This is spam" button in their email client, and your online reputation will suffer.
  6. This one is debatable: Send from a real address on your domain, which you actually monitor & respond to. This is to catch complaints from the (total ******) users who only know how to operate the "reply" button in their email client, and / or can't be bothered to actually press a "unsubscribe" link. Of course, providing good customer service is always valuable.

There is also a fine standard for strong email sender authentication called DomainKeys. It's a good standard, a few large email recipients support it (notably Yahoo! mail), so I'm not down on it at all. But right now it's pretty complicated to set up by yourself and support is not that widespread, so I don't consider it a "must do".

Real, honest statistics about email delivery success rates are hard to come by. Most of what I have seen was commissioned by the email deliverability industry itself, and therefore possibly biased -- and certainly some of it seemed alarmist to me. A fair guess is that if you do the above, then 'more than 98%' of your emails will be delivered successfully.

For peace of mind, you can from time to time check a online resource like MXToolbox's blacklist tester to verify that you're not blacklisted anywhere. This is for each outgoing mail server IP address, so if you use a large provider like Google for outgoing mail, then don't bother -- they already do this for their mail servers.

answered Jan 12 '10 at 03:13
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points
  • Hi Jesper, so even if I'm delegating all my email processing to Google (using GMail for all my emails) I can still configure the SPF? – Tristan St. 14 years ago
  • @Tristan: Yes. As written above, you set up SPF in your own DNS data (using whomever hosts DNS for you), and you include Google's SPF record into your own (so that Google can change things without your SPF record becoming false) and if you use addition mail servers (some of your own, newsletter service providers etc) to send email for your domain, then you include them into your SPF as well. See my links above. – Jesper Mortensen 14 years ago


The simplest, low-tech way to improve deliverability is to remind people to add your email address to their address book. Wherever you offer a user the ability to contact you, suggest adding [email protected] to their address book to ensure they will receive your reply.

answered Jan 12 '10 at 06:32
831 points


There is no bulletproof answer to this; the techniques used to identify spam are constantly evolving as the spam evolves so what works today may not work tomorrow.

The key things that often trip people up:

  1. Use your domain as the from address not Gmail. This may be controversial but it enables the next item.
  2. Have DNS configured correctly for your domain. This means a few things, primarily ensuring that DNS round trip name resolution (Your Domain's MX record->Server A record->IP Address->the exact same Server A record) is correct and you have an SPF record for your domain that's correct. This is largely in your control even with Gmail (because your domain is in your control.
  3. Monitor your domain's reputation if you think there's an issue. There are a number of free sites that can check if your domain is on any blacklists. If you get on a blacklist there's nearly always a mechanism to demonstrate you're a good guy and get off it (although they may be painful...)

Finally, I'd caution you to avoid have email be the only way of completing a transaction that's important to your business precisely for this reason. Email should be a backup / alert mechanism that ideally drives people back to your site. That way if an email went missing they can always go back to your site to get the information, complete the transaction, whatever.

answered Jan 12 '10 at 02:40
Kendall Miller
968 points
  • @Kendall Miller: Could you clarify what "DNS round trip" is, do you mean reverse DNS lookup? When / where do you see domains get blacklisted; the most common is that mailserver IP addresses or content links are what get blacklisted? – Jesper Mortensen 14 years ago
  • @Kendall: you're right indeed, that's why I'm making sure the payment process is automated and does not rely on the user having to receive an email. We have forums too, so I'll inform people that in case they receive no answers by email they should try to post their issue in our public support forum. Still I'm a bit surprised, I didn't expect to encounter that obstacle: they're legit email (and only about two to three sent per day as of now) and yet most end up in the spam folders :( – Tristan St. 14 years ago
  • If you are experiencing a spam problem right now, definitely look at your DNS. You can configure SPF on your own, and make sure you're using the right name to point to (if you use the wrong alias it may not reverse resolve correctly). – Kendall Miller 14 years ago
  • Microsoft has an SPF generation wizard that's pretty nice - and it just tells you what to enter in your DNS entry (which you can even do if you'r using GoDaddy or whatever for your domain): Miller 14 years ago


Great answers! For a wealth of information and on-going news about email deliverability, check out the Deliverability Blog.

answered Jan 12 '10 at 06:58
16,231 points

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