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I get a lot of emails. I’m not showing off; these days it’s not a sign that I’m in demand but rather that my email address has been found by some spam-producing git.

So, a while back, when I looked through my junk mail I wondered, “Which of these emails is legitimate and which is just crap?” You see, that’s the difficulty; amongst the offers to try the latest V.1.A.G.R.A and watch perky college students express their amour to unsuspecting farm animals are genuine emails – sometimes I miss missives from clients only realising many months later when the opportunity has passed.

But why does it matter if I open a dodgy mail from my junk folder?

“Well one of the main reasons why spammers send spam is simply to detect if there is a live human at the other end. If they get confirmation of that, then your email address gets put on a ‘gold list’. Gold lists get sold for quite a high value as they’re confirmed to have owners so the best approach is to simply delete; pretend no one’s home.”

So, it’s a Russian roulette: I don’t want to open a dodgy email in case it sprouts a virus or affirms to the sender that I’m here alive, encouraging them to send me yet more rubbish. But I also don’t want to miss something important – and some are so convincing, even an old timer like me is fooled.

For example:


  • Note the caps: I’m being told off, I’m a bit intimidated, THIS IS URGENT, but the lack of ‘!!’ suggests it’s serious as well.
  • The From alias is ‘Charles Russell LLP’. Charles is an imposing name; the LLP suggests he’s important (letters after his name). Now I’m really scared. It could be a lawyer or my bank manager or something.
  • I Google Charles Russell LLP; they’re a bona fide Law company in London. OOH – I’m sucked in. I must click, I must click!
  • I open it and am told I’ve inherited nine million pounds from Sir John Paul Getty Jr. Could this be true? Perhaps I met him when I was travelling, that night I was drunk at the Hilton in Hua Hin perhaps?
  • I read the email:
‘Please if I reach you as I am hopeful, endeavor to get back to me as soon
as possible to enable me conclude my job. I hope to hear from you in no distant time.’
  • He used ‘endeavor;’ that’s a grown-up word, a lawyery word. But then: “I hope to hear from you in no distant time” – hmm, not so good.
  • The email address, I discover, is a portal site flogging bits and bobs. tells me it’s hosted out of the Ukraine.
  • Yeah, it’s dodgy. Ok, move on.

“New message from Sarah:

  • The From alias is ‘FaceBook’. I use Facebook,
  • I also have a friend called Sarah. This must be real.
  • Of course it’s not. It’s actually from ‘f**kbook’, which I’ve yet to try out, ’though I’m sure their version of Farmville would be an eye-opener!

“(No Subject)”

  • This one is awesome. There’s no subject so it could be about anything.
  • I only have the From address to go on, which is ‘informes’. This could be a company name of some big fat client wanting to give me lots of work.
  • I open it. It’s not. I feel used.

Subject line advice

On the flip side, if you’re a well-intentioned company trying to send a legitimate email, how do you avoid getting binned as spam? A few ideas:

  • Be sure to use your brand in your From alias.
  • Don’t use CAPITALS.
  • Try not to use symbols and avoid ‘!’ at all costs.
  • Keep it short – PDAs truncate at 17 characters including spaces; most email clients around 35.
  • Apparently using a directive can help: “You should open this email”.
  • Equally imperatives can work ‘Open this email’, ‘Get a great new…’ but they can be a bit pushy.
  • Avoid spam words. This one’s a toughie as so many words can be construed as dodgy these days, so just try to avoid the obvious ones: Win, Prize, etc.
  • If you know this is the first email that a users is going to receive from you, be as clear as possible e.g. ‘(Name of recipient) message from Kate Toon – Copywriter’ or similar.

For more information, read my series of email articles

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