Spam complaints: cause, effect and cure

Spam complaints are negative responses to an email. They are specific actions taken by the receiver of the email to let the ISP, ESP or sender know he’s not happy about the email and wants to report it as spam.

Spam complaints are a key driver of email deliverability, so it’s important to understand them.

Spam complaints generally take two different forms:

1. “This is Spam” report -

The most common type of complaint is when the email recipient reports a message as spam by clicking on the “This is Spam” or “Report as Spam” button (or equivalent) from within their web-based email application, such as those provided by Hotmail (now Outlook), Gmail and Yahoo. 

When this button is clicked, most ISPs or email providers will report that action, along with a copy of the email message, back to the sender via what’s known as a feedback loop. This feedback loop process allows the sender to unsubscribe that address. 

Gmail has a spam button, but does not provide a feedback loop. They instead utilize an unsubscribe header that will give a subscriber that clicks on the complaint button the option of unsubscribing or actually reporting the message as spam. If the subscriber chooses to unsubscribe, this information is passed back to the sender.

2. Manual complaint to an abuse desk

A more serious form of complaint is when the email recipient forwards the email to the abuse desk at the ISP, ESP or sender along with a personal note saying they consider the email to be spam. This is considered a more significant form of a complaint since it takes more work by the recipient to report this type of abuse—more than just the click of a button.

When the subscriber takes this action to report an email, the email addresses for these types of complaints are generally not automatically unsubscribed when they’re received. Additional action by the sender is required to manually unsubscribe or remove that email address from future sends.

How do they happen? Why do recipients mark a message as a spam complaint?

Not requested – Perhaps the most common reason for a complaint is that the email was not requested in the first place.

Not recognise – The recipient doesn’t recognise the email as something they subscribed to.

Too frequent – Mail that is sent too frequently will likely annoy subscribers and cause them to click on the spam button. 

Not frequent enough – The recipient may not remember signing up for your emails if the mail is sent infrequently or sporadically. 

Not relevant – Sending email that is not relevant to the subscriber or content that is different than what the subscriber agreed to receive when they signed up. Recipients that are interested in what you send will complain far less often. 

Received after unsubscribing – CAN-SPAM laws allow for up to 10 days to remove a subscriber after an unsubscribe request is made, but if recipients continue to get emails after unsubscribing, they are likely to mark the message as spam. Remove these unsubscribed addresses ASAP.

Just not wanted anymore – Some recipients may just click “This is Spam” as a way to unsubscribe. You can limit this by making your unsubscribe link obvious and making sure the process to unsubscribe is easy. 

Or, a recipient may just highlight several messages in the inbox all at once and click on the spam button to remove them. Your message may be unintentionally highlighted in this process. By prominently branding your “From name,” you can help prevent this from happening.

Take these actions to reduce spam complaints, but remember that consistently following best practices is the best way to prevent the causes (and effects) of high complaint rates.

1. Make sure your mail was really requested — Start by reviewing your address collection process. Receiving clear permission to send emails is critical.

2. Get the frequency right by setting proper expectations upfront — Be clear on what you will be sending and how often you will be sending it. 

3. Be familiar and recognizable — Send an automated welcome letter within 24 hours to acknowledge the subscription and help to establish a relationship with your new subscriber. 

4. And use consistent branding – Use the same “From name” and “From email address” on each mailing. If possible, your campaigns should use the same look and feel as the website where the permission was granted. 

5. Prominently display your unsubscribe link at the top of your message or in the pre-header — This may seem counter-intuitive, but if a subscriber is looking for a way out of receiving your messages, they will use the easiest way to do it. 

6. Keep your ongoing emails relevant and engaging — Offer incentives to click on your links, even if that click would not directly lead to a sale. 

7. List Maintenance — Implement an automated, ongoing process to remove or suppress old and inactive subscribers.

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