More E-Mail Complaints: It's the ISPs' Fault

  |  November 17, 2006   |  Comments

When users complain to their ISPs, you can be labeled as a spammer

Last time, I talked about e-mail complaints your company receives from subscribers. These complaints come from people who, instead of simply unsubscribing, take the time to write to you and tell you why your e-mail is missing the mark.

This week, I'll talk about the other kind of complaint your company is likely to get about its e-mail: recipient complaints sent through ISPs. These complaints are more damaging, because they're a result of people pushing the spam button on their mail interfaces. Having a high complaint rate in this context doesn't just mean unhappy users but also unhappy ISPs, which will be more than happy to block your e-mail from getting through at all.

Certainly if you send spam, you deserve this complaint rate. But if you have an opt-in mailing list and send regular marketing e-mail that's within all compliance rules, you aren't a spammer. So why is your ISP complaint rate high?

Push the Button

In their attempt to thwart spammers, mail front ends like MSN, AOL, and Google have caused an unwanted side effect. They've created a spam button that results in the user no longer receiving e-mail from that sender. To an end user, this has the same result as unsubscribing from the newsletter. Plus, it's easier. It's one click versus a longer unsubscribe process, which is different for every publisher. Users are being trained to stop getting e-mail by clicking that button.

Unfortunately, when users click the spam button, they are unfairly marking legitimate e-mail as spam. Instead, they should either unsubscribe or (better) change their preferences on your site or tell you why they don't like your e-mail anymore.

A Solution?

In addition to a spam button in the user interfaces, mail programs should also offer "unsubscribe" and "send feedback about this e-mail" buttons. This would require a standardized unsubscribe process and a standard feedback e-mail address that can be placed in e-mail headers.

Ben Isaacson, privacy and compliance leader for CheetahMail, has done a lot of work in this area. Isaacson brought this user interface issue up and sparked the idea for this column. "Similar to Web site user-generated feedback, e-mail recipient feedback has become a critical component of every e-mailer's behavioral measurement efforts (albeit, a negative component)," says Isaacson. "Every e-mailer should be tracking these key components from complaints; how they subscribed, recent behavioral activity, demographic profile, and type of content sent. While efforts such as MSN/Hotmail's effort to separate off an 'unsubscribe' button are commendable, it is still incumbent on e-mailers to mitigate both complaints and unsubscribes by better tailoring their e-mail programs to their recipient's preferences."

By providing easy one-click options to subscribers beyond simply marking something as spam, we encourage users to communicate with us directly or unsubscribe instead of calling our e-mail spam.

What Can You Do Now?

Users will always take the path of least resistance, especially if the outcome is perceived to be the same. What can you do in the meantime?

Until these additional buttons become part of major mail programs' user interfaces, do this yourself in your e-mail templates. Make the "unsubscribe" and "feedback" buttons prominent. Tell people that instead of marking the e-mail as spam, they can easily change their subscription status if they no longer want your e-mail. This information is usually buried in a footer in tiny print, so of course people choose the spam button. Encourage feedback, and make sure your e-mail is relevant and timely and meets users' expectations.

Once these mechanisms are in place, both of your complaint rates (from users and from ISPs) should go down.

Thoughts, questions, comments? Let me know.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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