The Other Walking Dead: Combatting Spam Bot Appliance Emails

Zom·bie OR ˈzämbē / Noun: the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.1

The infamous “Zombie” email address has been recognized in the industry for some time now, and it’s often referenced by sophisticated data cleansing companies and purveyors of e-marketing alike. The term is used to describe addresses that are no longer actively used by their owners, who are either deceased or simply piloting a different inbox.

Yet the addresses linger on your list, unengaged and undead.

These annoying cyber monsters suppress your reported mailing statistics, and, even worse, eventually get recycled into a spam trap. Regardless of the circumstance, your list will no longer be receiving engagement from those users ― that’s for sure. Or will they?

Unfortunately, Zombie email addresses have relatives. Perhaps you’re familiar with a branch of the family tree that’s closely aligned with the actual definition of what it means to be a Zombie. These email addresses are what I like to call “The Other Walking Dead.”

Although they’re close cousins of Zombies, in some ways these addresses act in a complete opposite way. In fact, they falsely boost your campaign’s engagement rates. The emails I’m referring to are the living representation of this apocalyptic nightmare. I’m talking about the dreaded spam bot appliance email!

Not unlike Zombies, spam bot appliance emails were previously inhabited by living humans. Only now they exist to simply replicate human behavior, or, as the definition states: “Give semblance of life for some evil purpose.” Now, whether you choose to believe in The Other Walking Dead is up to you … but they do exist.

Depending on the nature of your business, you could be at a higher risk of attracting spam bot appliance emails than other e-marketers. There’s a chance they’re building an engaged undead army in your email universe right now.

In this blog I’ll first give a general overview about how to identify these ghoulish devils that are feeding off of your lists with the false pretense of appearing to be actively engaged. I’ll also go over steps on how to rid your email list of them. Lastly I’ll touch on who controls the Walking Dead and who has a weakness for them. All of these things are good to know, but let’s first point out a good way to diagnose and remedy the issue.

Identifying and purging the Walking Dead email addresses

This can be a little trickier than combating a typical Zombie threat, which generally involves a simple mixture of elapsed time, segmentation, and ratcheting down on those sacred fatigue rulings. To some, this article could also serve as a major wake-up call and deliver an ‘Ah ha!’ moment that explains why some of that strong engagement hasn’t necessarily been translating into meaningful actions or actual sales.

Pay close attention to the click-to-open metric

The first thing you need to do in this fight is consistently watch your mailing reports (of course, you should already be doing this). An easy way to tell that you could have an issue with the spam bot appliance emails is to place a spotlight on the click-to-open metric and closely analyze it. Everyone likes that number to be as high as possible, but if you’re noticing either a 1:1 ratio of opens to clicks or if that metric has somehow surpassed the 100% mark, then you may want to consider it a possible red flag waving at you.

Granted, there are always those exceptionally high-performing emails, but for most senders having such a high click-to-open rate is a little too good to be true. It’s simply not a normal result for most standard marketing emails to receive that much of an engaged response … unless perhaps it’s an auto responder or something transactional in nature.

Keep digging into the details

The click-to-open rate is going to be the prelude that opens up your eyes to the possibility that there might be an issue. So if you’ve noticed lately that that metric has spiked into this unusually high territory of click engagement, then you’ll next want to focus on the time of click vs. time received (delivered) for those campaigns.

The unfailing footprint of a Walking Dead email address is immediate open-and-clicks, directly after delivery. Now, sure, this action could result from real, engaged people who are eager to respond to your offer, but that doesn’t normally happen on such a massive scale. This is a great way to continue narrowing down exactly who the culprits are. So you’ll want to group together all of the recipients that both opened and clicked within the first 1-2 minutes after receipt. This is the general time frame from which those particular email addresses would engage with your campaign.

In addition, when you’re reviewing a suspect campaign’s click details, look for another telltale sign: a click on the first URL. Often this can be the “View Message in Browser” link. Now, not many people are actually going to click that. After the thousands of campaigns I’ve delivered over the years, I feel confident in saying that that metric is rarely very high at all. If you’re seeing a strong number of your email openers clicking on that particular link (assuming it’s the first clickable URL), then you either have an issue with the content rendering, or more likely, you have an issue with the Walking Dead spam appliances. So pay attention to the activity on the very first clickable URL in the content.

If your reports supply you with recipient IPs, you could even try comparing the browser used to open the email and the IP associated address for anything that seems unusual. Again, at this point you’re simply looking for non-human behavior trends. For example, if you’ve delivered to a few thousand recipients and 25% opened within the first minute of receiving ― and they also clicked at that very same moment ― well, that raises suspicions. Would you characterize that as human behavior? I wouldn’t. Because these Walking Dead emails are actively engaging with you, you need to use unconventional tactics like this and reason with deductive logic in order to get real with yourself and uncover these bad actors.

Response plan for the Walking Dead

Once you’ve established the existence of these nasty spam bots, it’s on to the purge! If you were able to identify any Walking Dead by using the steps above, then please remove or suppress them accordingly. Keep those emails out of the next delivery by banning them. It’s simply the best road to take.

Another option, if your platform allows for it, is to discount from the mailing reports any email open or click coming from suspected users. This is done by identifying the problem IP addresses from the emails opened, where you hold high confidence that the users appear to be bots. If there is an issue, then chances are great they will all derive from a closely related sub net of IPs, too.

The caveat to this method is that you would still have the trouble emails on your list. So these emails are still being delivered, only in this response the engagement metrics would not be counted. It can work, but I always recommend finding ways to remove them completely instead. If your Email Service Provider plan is modeled for Active Contacts, then not taking these Walking Dead email addresses out of the list universe completely means that you’re just wasting space. Unfortunately you’ll never get a converted sale or call-to-action out of those recipients.

The last recommendation I have is a stealthy one. It’s a little trick that I came up with a while back when I used to captain a small ESP and send copious amounts of email. That false click (or first URL click) that was mentioned earlier can actually be the Walking Dead’s Achilles’ heel. Now these are bots, so they’re not looking at the rendering of your email content as much as at the actual html coding itself. What I would do is place an additional unsubscribe link that was invisible at the very top of the content. It’s not detectable to the normal rendering html, but it will be like a flame to the Walking Dead moth.

Who’s controlling these emails and who’s most at risk?

The puppet masters

By and large, the main culprit behind these actively engaged Zombies is Barracuda Networks. If you do discover an issue with these types of emails, then those guys are likely the perpetrator ― but not necessarily all of time. Typically, it’s the filtering agents that are backing the Walking Dead. The purpose behind those email addresses is not completely clear. However, it’s safe to assume that the agents employing them are definitely monitoring traffic to these email recipients very closely. My guess is that it helps them gauge how stale your email list really is. This also plays a role into how you become rate-limited or even blacklisted. These addresses are almost like a micro-spam trap, if you will, which is why I would recommend removing them all together.

Most at risk

Certainly anyone who is sending to old or stale email data is at the top of the list. In general, the most plagued industries would be those that tend to have the highest possible churn rate on valid email addresses. For example, education is probably the largest host for the Walking Dead emails. If you’ve attended school in the past 20 years then it’s almost guaranteed that you were, at one point or another, issued an email address. Not a lot of people use those, either. And even if you did use it at one time, chances are you eventually moved on to another inbox after leaving school or you no longer have access to it. I can’t think of any other industry that would create and churn out more stale email addresses than academia. Some honorable mentions, however, are the healthcare industry and local and state governments.

Folks, these kinds of bogus emails are just another inherent risk to purchased lists and prospecting . However, they can also occur organically, as people abandon their inboxes after leaving school or their jobs, or they become deceased.

So check for those Walking Dead spam appliances emails after your next big send. Don’t become a victim of these evil creatures ― fight back and vanquish your enemies!