Let’s Kill Off the ’Report Spam’ Button

  |  June 1, 2006   |  Comments

Is it too easy for e-mail detractors to voice complaints?

Later this month, if a cake is provided, I’ll blow out 50 candles to mark the anniversary of my birth. Not sure I’m any wiser after all these years, but I am less patient with those who waste time. This world has no shortage of real problems to deal with, so we should focus on putting our energies, support, and priorities in order. This entire debate around spam, filters, blocking, absorption, Sender ID (define), and DomainKeys (define) ad nauseam has reached my boiling point.

For the almost 28 years I’ve been in the ad business, there have been people who won’t stop complaining until there’s no shred of commercial messaging available anywhere on the planet. These are the folks who don’t like commercials on TV, too many print ads in their magazines, :30 spots on radio, billboards, telephone calls, direct mail, pop ups, banners, and so on. It appears these folks will never be satisfied.

What did we in the email business provide for this vocal minority? We created a button that allows these people to immediately act on their displeasure. But before we move deeper in this discussion and you think I’ve totally lost my senses, I’m completely and wholeheartedly against those who would defraud and degrade, those heinous perpetrators of porn, schemes of all kinds, and bogus pharmaceutical and mortgage offers.

However, in our vigilance to rid the world of this criminal activity, we’re going way over the top in terms of reputable marketers. The "report spam" button has become a weapon gleefully implemented by the crowd who detests advertising of all types. Its efforts are stymied in other media due to the complaint barrier. The email world, meanwhile, has made it incredibly easy for all detractors to voice their complaints.

It also seems the major ISPs have some level of accountability and responsibility for this issue. In the guise of protecting vocal complainers in their subscriber base (which must be a microscopic percentage of the overall base), they created spam complaint thresholds that are, in some cases, incredibly low. This sometimes causes marketers who send millions of reputable messages to be caught in an ongoing struggle to keep complaint levels below an arbitrary, unrealistic level. I continue to meet marketers who are trying to work within this system to keep email moving to the majority of their customer base while dealing with the minority of folks who will always complain. Sadly, the vocal minority appears to rule the roost -- and this should not be.

As true spammers continue to evade the law, reputable marketers continue to be subjected to an uneven set of guidelines that put little to no value on their companies’ reputation or stature. I’ve met with many Fortune 1000 companies that are exasperated about the challenges in our medium. Why should a major marketer with a spotless, decades-long reputation for providing quality goods and services be subjected to the same rules that apply to egregious spam abusers?

I recently met with a marketer who sent approximately 400 million messages last year to its very large customer base. Over the course of that year, the company received about 35,000 spam complaints, meaning complaints represented less than 0.01 percent of all messages delivered. This organization found itself, like others, subject to blocking and absorption by major ISPs. As opposed to simply blocking email, ISPs should do more to educate users on the proper use of the "spam" button to further protect reputable marketers and legitimate messaging. Consumers should be encouraged to opt out rather than to report spam. An innocent-before-proven-guilty assumption should be provided at this point, as legitimate marketers and ISP communities continue to work together to rid the world of spam.

It’s time we all realized the "spam" button may no longer be the most appropriate tool to solve the problem (in fact, spam’s on the decline based on our research and other studies). Starting today, let’s consider replacing the "spam" button with an "unsubscribe" button.

Although some marketers can’t accept an opt-out from a third-party ISP, consideration should be made to encourage users to click the unsubscribe link on communications from trusted senders. I believe many folks (who aren’t advertising malcontents) hit the "spam" button on advertising they opted in to because it’s become irrelevant to them. The marketer was provided a chance to build a relationship with this customer and, like it or not, may have failed to do so. It happens. Marketers should thank these customers for signifying they’re not interested and telling the marketers "don’t waste your time or money on marketing to me because I’m not going purchase from you." Given the option of the "unsubscribe" button, those who truly want to opt out of messaging can do so. The marketer must remove the name from the list and stop sending.

The customer who wants to unsubscribe is lost to the marketer. No amount of blitzing with offers will win that customer back. You must wait until the customer returns through some other acquisition channel to attempt a reconciliation of that relationship. Next time you get the chance, you should try to understand your customers’ needs better so your messaging can be more relevant.

"Unsubscribe" is a more professional term for policing lists and relationships between marketers, their customers, and ISP subscribers. It doesn’t bring with it the rash of emotional baggage and confusion "report spam" does. It allows our channel and ISPs to deal with the issue in a much saner, calmer manner. It puts complaints and complainers in their proper context vis-à-vis this channel and its relationship with other media and communication channels. It allows email and communications to flow more consistently and freely. It puts the power to end communications and relationships in the consumer’s control. Then, we can all go back to the work of nailing down the real criminal element who uses email to carry on its deceptive criminal activities.

Isn’t it time we put an end to this debate? Isn’t it time we put this issue in its proper context and stopped a needless obsession with throwing roadblocks in front of reputable marketers in leveraging our channel?

I welcome your comments and thoughts on this matter.

Until next time,

Al D.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Al DiGuido

Long recognized as one of the direct response industry's premier innovators and a pioneer in e-mail communications, Al DiGuido brings over 20 years of marketing, sales, management, and operations expertise to his role as CEO of full-service digital marketing company Zeta Interactive. Formerly Epsilon Interactive's CEO, DiGuido also served as CEO of Bigfoot Interactive, CEO of Expression Engines, EVP at Ziff Davis, and publisher of Computer Shopper, where he launched ComputerShopper.com, a groundbreaking direct-to-consumer e-commerce engine. Prior to Ziff Davis, he was VP/advertising director for Sports Inc. DiGuido also serves on the Direct Marketing Association's Ethics Policy Committee.

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