For Emails That Work – Avoid These “Disaster” Words

Did you know that many common marketing words can be dangerous to your email campaigns?

In fact, they can potentially make your valuable messages invisible to intended audiences, because spam filters block them.

This includes many of the words that have sold a gazillion products over the years …

The most powerful words in direct-response that get attention, build excitement, and prompt immediate action.

Sadly, those words can create a potential mine field in your email marketing. Here’s why …

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 established legal standards for commercial email, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces them.

Under this act, anyone who receives an unsolicited email can report the sender as a spammer. In addition, most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and virus-protection programs offer spam-blocking services that filter out offensive incoming emails.

Certain email addresses, words, phrases, text formats, and links cause spam filters to reject the email altogether. Sometimes the most innocent emails get caught in spam filters. You may have experienced this.

But does that also include people who “opted in” to receive emails from a company?

You don’t want to hear this … but yes … it can.

According to the CAN-SPAM Act, “There are no restrictions against a company emailing its existing customers or anyone who has inquired about its products or services or ‘opted in’ to receive emails, as these messages are classified as ‘relationship’ messages.”

However, certain words in your emails will not make it through many spam filters – even if your audience members agreed to receive your messages. It all depends on the context.

Therefore, you’ll want to avoid spammy words if possible to minimize the chance of having your emails blocked.

So, just what are those words?

Email Words and Phrases to Avoid

In a recent post at, Susan Gunelius identified 10 advertising words that marketers should avoid in the coming year. She said, “In 2009, perhaps more than ever, the words you use in your copywriting can determine whether you make a sale or lose a customer.”

I’ve included Susan’s 10 words here, along with others I found in my research. These common and surprising “dangerous” email words and phrases should be avoided in both the subject line and the body copy whenever possible:

  • Free
  • Visit our website
  • Opportunity
  • 50% Off
  • Click Here
  • Call Now
  • Subscribe
  • Bonus
  • Discount
  • Save up to
  • Winner
  • Prizes
  • Information you requested
  • Important information regarding
  • Guarantee, Guaranteed
  • Special Promotion
  • Great Offer/Deal
  • All New
  • One time
  • Order Now
  • Amazing
  • Really
  • Very
  • Drinkability (Budweiser’s new advertising catch-phrase)

Moderation Is the Key

For the email newsletter I send to my clients and prospects, I use Emma – an email marketing and communications service that automatically checks every email campaign’s spam or junk score to make sure it doesn’t contain any obvious words, phrases, or formatting that could hurt its chances of reaching the inbox.

While writing this article, I asked Emma if they could provide me with a list of the words, phrases, and formatting issues they check. I learned that this list is well-protected against the spammers who’d use this information to their advantage. (Of course!)

Instead, Suzanne Norman, Emma’s Director of Community Relations, gave me this reassuring advice:

“Commonly used marketing phrases are okay in moderation. That’s because most spam filters work on a scoring system. Overt, specific phrases like ‘get rid of wrinkles’ tend to score high, while something more mild and generic like ‘pennies a day’ will get a lower score. Be selective with those phrases, and you’ll stay below the average filter threshold that might mark your email as spam.”

According to Ms. Norman, there are no absolutes, and the anti-spam formulas keep evolving.

So to minimize problems, use known spammy words in moderation and get creative. Just be sure that your messages are still clear and strong when you use various word options.

For example, you should no longer use the four-letter word “free” as your default for a complimentary service or product, because it can trigger spam. Instead, consider using:

  • At no cost to you
  • No charge
  • Pay nothing
  • Costs you nothing

Just be careful of using fancy replacement words. Don’t assume everyone knows what “gratis” means in place of “free.”

Other copy tips to avoid spammy emails include:

  • Minimize any formatting that seems to shout at recipients, such as all capital letters, large fonts, exclamation points, quotation marks, or dollar signs.
  • Be very careful of the words you use as links to a website.
  • Keep toll-free numbers to a minimum.

As with most marketing, there’s an exception to every rule …

Some of the highest ranked spam emails end up getting the best response. So should you follow these guidelines every time?

It’s definitely good practice … but never say never …

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »

Click to Rate:
Average: 4.7
Published: March 4, 2009

8 Responses to “For Emails That Work – Avoid These “Disaster” Words”

  1. Excellent article. Thank you for this useful information!

    Pam BodineMarch 4, 2009 at 12:32 pm

  2. Thanks Pam, for the really amazing free advice and information regarding words not to write in emails. I guarantee it'll save me up to 50% off my email writing time.

    And the bonus is the opportunity to visit our website and receive a very great deal without having to subscribe.

    I believe I have it all in order. Now I feel like a winner of free prizes, and I'd suggest to everyone to click here and read your post.

    Just one time was all it took for me to get this all new zest for email writing.

    Thanks again, Tony

    Web Copy SpecialistMarch 5, 2009 at 10:10 am

  3. Thanks for such an insightful article this will help my growth as a web and email copywriter.

    Donald C ObiiMarch 5, 2009 at 5:41 pm

  4. Thanks Pam!

    And Tony, that was hysterical.

    Paula WilliamsMarch 5, 2009 at 7:11 pm

  5. Hey Paula...

    Whaa? What are you talking about? What'd I say?

    ;-) Tony

    Web Copy SpecialistMarch 11, 2009 at 5:32 pm

  6. This is truely an amazing article. It is priceless!

    KB Johnson-OhioNovember 30, 2009 at 1:17 am

  7. Tony you saved my bacon.


    Guest (Clyde McDade)October 4, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)

This name will appear next to your comment.

Your email is required but will not be displayed.

Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters

Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)