10 signs a content offer is spam

No Spam illustration by Keith Cassatt

As an editor of a couple of different niche online publications, and a writer for some major tech magazines, I get dozens of unsolicited content offers a day.

I can’t ignore them, because I’m always looking for expert sources for the articles I write about cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, and am always looking for guest writers for my niche online publications.

Here are the things I look for when evaluating emails. If I see something that looks like spam, I flag it, so that Gmail will — hopefully — get better at filtering out these things automatically.

And if you’re a real expert or guest writer, or a PR person representing someone who is, and I’m not getting back to you, one of these could be the reason why.

The email doesn’t look like it’s from a real person

I can’t use experts or guest writers who don’t actually exist but are fronts for content farms.

Here are some signs that a person isn’t real:

  • Their photo is a stock image
  • Their email address is from Gmail or some other free service and ends in numbers.
  • Their email doesn’t include a signature section with their company and title and contact info including a phone number.
  • There’s no link to a LinkedIn profile or company website.

They’re offering filler content

Filler content is stuff that nobody would want to read of their own volition. It’s usually related to online marketing  or offers generic lifestyle advice. This is the kind of article that results from five minutes of research on Google. Nowadays, it is also has become easy to start a local marketing company and promote useful products in this field.

There’s no new value to this content. No news, no fresh insights. There’s no reason to publish it, and certainly no reason for readers to read it. If we do publish it, it will cause people to unsubscribe from our publication. Thanks, but no thanks.

They promise that it’s ‘original’ or ‘copyscape protected’

This means that they copy-and-pasted content from Wikipedia or some other site, then ran it through one of those word replacement filters that replaces words with their synonyms.

It’s stupid, and the results are unreadable.

For the niche publications I’m editing, I don’t mind running reprints of columns that have run elsewhere, as long as they’re useful to our readers. And when I’m looking for expert sources, this isn’t even relevant, since I’ll be doing phone interviews with them anyway.

They offer money

Anyone offering me money is automatically a scammer. No reputable publication charges to publish articles and no reputable journalist takes money to include a source in an article.

If you want to buy an ad, go buy an ad.

If you want to sneak in an ad disguised as legitimate editorial content, you’re not someone I want anything to do with.

I do occasionally review devices, books, or software that I get for free.

It’s not as great as it sounds — I cover enterprise technology, not food or fashion, so this isn’t stuff I’d be using in my real life.

Okay, I do get the occasional dongle, USB drive, pen, notepad, T-shirt, baseball cap or desk toy from vendors. When my kids were little, I used to give a lot of this stuff to them.

Depending on how valuable the product is, I either send it back to the vendor when I’m done reviewing it, give it away to random people, or throw it out. My office is cluttered enough as it is.

They tell me that they’re regular readers

Most people aren’t regular readers of anything I write. The ones who are, are typically specialists in whatever field I write about, and I probably already know them.

The thing is, I don’t mind if a guest writer isn’t a regular reader, as long as their work is relevant and useful.

I’m particularly open to new writers just starting out who want to break into tech journalism. I’ll assign them reviews, then round-up stories, then single-source stories, then multi-source news and features, in that progression. By the time they’re doing the last one, they generally have a decent base in the tech beat, and can take their clips to other publications where they can write for money.

But if the first thing the writer tells me is an obvious lie then clearly they’re not a writer I ever want to work with.

The email is full of errors

Some content farms have notoriously bad levels of quality control, and use people with bad English skills.

I don’t mind the occasional typo. After all, people do make mistakes. And I don’t mind writers who are non-native English speakers so there’s the occasional odd usage or grammar problem.

But emails that are chock-full of capitalization and punctuation issues and major language mistakes are a no-go for me.

Real PR agencies aren’t going to hire someone who’s that bad at writing, or, if they do, will make sure that there’s a copyeditor involved at some point before their communications get to real journalists.

And even if someone is a real person and does have something worthwhile to contribute as a guest writer, the amount of editing their work will require is probably more trouble than its worth.

They try flattery

The first time someone tells me I have the best site, or the best articles, or the best insights into something, it’s nice to hear.

But when I get a hundred of these a week, I start to suspect that maybe it’s not about how special I am, but about the fact that someone is trying to get something from me.

Sure, I like flattery — who doesn’t? But over time, I’ve gotten to the point where when I see it, I automatically start to look for the catch.

The email looks like a mass mailing

Many spam pitches look mass-produced. They’re so generic that they can apply to any website anywhere.

There’s been a new twist on this, where the sender says that they recently read some random article I posted, and offers some totally unrelated content.

Real PR people do sometimes do this. They’ll say, “I just read your article about AI in manufacturing. Are you working on any other similar stories? I’ve got an expert for you who might be helpful.”

That’s useful. I might want to talk to their expert, because I am, in fact, working on lots of AI stories these days, and I always need fresh people to talk to because my editors get annoyed if I quote the same folks in every article.

Some PR people will also send out mass emails for press releases. If the press release is about a survey on a topic I’m interested in, or is about an expert I might need someday, or inspire me with an idea for a feature, I’ll save them. So I don’t mind bulk emails in and of themselves.

But when this is combined with some of the other indicators on my list, it helps me decide to send the email to spam.

They insist on a link

Real writers and experts don’t need links. Sure, they don’t mind links to their sites, but if a magazine has a policy of not including them, that’s okay with them, too. They just want to get themselves in front of readers.

Being quoted in articles helps bring in new customers and helps build an expert’s or company’s reputation. For a writer, publishing articles helps increase their portfolio and their audience, helps them increase their expertise, helps them build their Rolodex of sources, and helps them practice writing and reporting.

Now, as it happens, when I post articles for some of the niche content sites I edit, the authors get a box with their name, photo, bio, and link to their website or LinkedIn profile. After all, it’s useful for our readers to know just who the writers are. If the writer happens to work for a vendor company, that means a link to their company website. Again, that’s fine — if the article is valuable enough to our readers, we’re happy to do this. Letting the readers know where the writer works helps them judge the article’s credibility.

But we never, ever, ever include irrelevant links inside the body of an article. No reputable publication does.

A couple of outlets I write for do include sponsored links on article keywords as part of their advertising strategy, but I believe this really distracts from the reading experience. You click on a link because you think it goes someplace useful, and it turns out to be just an ad. I hate that, and I hope publications will end this experiment soon. But in any case, these links come through official advertising channels, not through a random pitch over email.

They get my name wrong

I understand that “Korolov” can be hard to spell. But calling me, say, “Matt Smith,” is just wrong. You’d be surprised how many emails I get addressed to the wrong person, to “editor,” or just have no name at all.

My name and contact information are all over the place. If you can’t get it right, that’s a really, really, really bad sign.