Newsletters, eMail, and spam war crossfire

I like email. It is much faster, much cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than paper mail. Email follows me when I travel, without having to give people a new address. Email is useful for personal communications, newsletters, discussion lists, and some kinds of business. Unfortunately, the advantages of email have not escaped the notice of both legitimate and illegitimate marketers and scammers. Junk email is a serious problem that threatens legitimate uses of email by (1) flooding the system with junk, making it harder to find legitimate email, (2) seriously reducing the trust people have in email, and (3) restricting the flow of legitimate email as people try to stem the tide of electronic trash. Of the last 5,500 messages sent to me that made it past the first line of defense (IP address blacklists), about 80% were junk and about 20% were good mail. Of course, anti-spam measures affect email I send, too. From the last email newsletter that we sent out, 5% of the messages bounced back or were detained by overzealous anti-spam measures. About 3% bounced back due to closed or suspended email accounts, or for accounts that the mailbox was over its quota. Some unknown percentage was silently detained or deleted without being read. (This is probably no worse than the problem of some paper mail being discarded without being read, except that we spent less money sending it.)

So, what will is the solution? Continue the battle. I’ll keep using email. I’ll adapt my junk filtering techniques even as the spammers adapt theirs to try to get past filters, and I’ll adapt my email sending strategies to make sure that messages we send look as little like spam as possible and that they are easy to safelist. I’ll use digital signatures and encryption when appropriate to combat the erosion of trust. I still want to be approachable by people I haven’t met before on topics relating to the World English Bible and our mission work, so I’ll keep my public email addresses and web contact form active, but keep my low-spam email addresses more private. (The web contact form is spam-free except for an occasional Nigerian scam letter– something I could probably fix with some appropriate text on the contact page.)

I wrote on this topic some time ago, and most of the general ideas are the same, but some things have changed. I have switched from Eudora paid mode with its spam filter to Mozilla Thunderbird with its built-in spam filter. Recently, I discovered that many of the junk email messages that I was getting were specifically designed to defeat Thunderbird’s spam filter, so I started using POPFile again in conjunction with Thunderbird, and now my spam filtering accuracy is back up above 97% again.

Enough on the mechanics of getting newsletters out and getting to read the good email. Another challenge with email in general and newsletters in particular is knowing what to write. The audience is broad, but includes lots of busy people with limited time to read whatever we send. We try to keep our “official” newsletters down to two letter-sized pages, without resorting to tiny type sizes. We also try to include some pictures, as they communicate so much, so fast. From our perspective, there is so much going on in our ministry and our lives that this turns out to be hard. It would actually be easier to write a very long newsletter every timeā€”one that most of our partners would not take time to read much of. We want to communicate effectively with our partners what we are up to and why, communicate vision for the ministry God has called us to, encourage people, stay steadfast in speaking and writing faith in Jesus Christ, be honest, seek to avoid inappropriate offense amonge a diverse readership, avoid saying too much about certain sensitive topics. It should be informative, fun, honest, discreet, appropriate, and honoring to God. It should encourage people to pray. It should be thankful. It should not be too long. If I really have more to say that is important, there are other venues, like this blog, one of our web sites, another newsletter, etc.

As if getting the content right isn’t enough, I try to use newsletter writing as an opportunity to learn new software. I have used Ventura Publisher (now an orphan product), Microsoft Word (perfectly usable, but not the best tool for the job), Microsoft Publisher (a good balance between simplicity and flexability), Writer (which can be used to create very nice newsletters at very low software cost, once you learn how) and (for our latest newsletter) Adobe InDesign CS2 (which has pretty much any feature you would want at a price you may not be able to afford) to write newsletters. These are for the “official” newsletters that go out in paper mail, posted on our web site, and emailed as PDF attachments. In between these official newsletters are email-only updates, which we normally compose in our email client (currently Thunderbird) and blog entries (like this one).

Mount Princeton in the morning with a rainbowI like to take pictures. I like to capture an impression of a part of the beauty that God created, even though it seems pale compared to the original. Evan likes to take pictures, too. (He took this one.) There was a double rainbow all around Mount Princeton, that morning. Sometimes I share pictures in email updates and this blog that have something to do with what we are up to. Sometimes I just share a picture because I think you might like it and thank the Lord for the beauty He has created. God is good!