Handling Spam Complaints: Sourcing Complaints

In my last two columns, we discussed feedback loops and an initial analysis that should be done on your spam complaints. Today we’ll talk about the second of three analyses I do on spam complaints for clients to identify the underlying causes and address them before they become problems.

The data I’m using is real – these articles detail an actual spam analysis that I did for a client. In this case, they were already being blacklisted before we got the data from their e-mail service provider (ESP) to analyze. In reality, you should be monitoring your feedback loops and doing these analyses on a monthly or quarterly basis, so that you can identify any potential issues before they become serious problems.

In this analysis, we’re going to look at the sources of the e-mail addresses that complained to see if we can find any similarities.

For every e-mail on your list, you should have information on the source of the address as well as the date that it was added to your list. If you aren’t tracking this now, start. It’s useful information to understanding which sources are most valuable to you and which put you at a higher risk of spam complaints.

The over 37,000 spam complaints that this client received in a three-month period were analyzed, and here are the findings:


Over 70 percent of all complaints came from two sources – both appends which the organization undertook on a regular basis. In the e-mail world, append means that the organization provides information on a person that’s on their direct mail or other list, and the appending company matches it with an e-mail address. So you might provide names and postal addresses from your database and the append company will provide e-mail addresses back to you.

It’s not a perfect solution – you’re never going to get e-mail addresses for 100 percent of the names and addresses you provide. But it’s a quick way to grow your e-mail list. That said, it’s not always a quality way to grow your e-mail list. You need to be able to track performance on these appended names, including open, click-through, and conversion rates as well as spam complaint rates, to be sure that you’re getting a reasonable return on the money you invested in the append (it’s not cheap).

In this case, the ROI on the appended names is questionable. These are unique e-mail addresses that complained. For append source A, we looked at names that had been added to the list year-to-date; the complaints made up over 50 percent of this figure, suggesting that these e-mail addresses may not be worth what the organization is paying for them.

Here’s the problem with the way that most companies handle appends – they utilize a negative option opt-out instead of an explicit opt-in permission process. In a negative option opt-out, silence equals permission. Anywhere from one to three e-mails are sent to the appended addresses letting the recipient know that their e-mail address had been appended and giving them an option to opt out of receiving messages. But with open rates running about 25 percent on average, it’s safe to assume that 75 percent of the list never opens or reads each message sent.

So what’s the solution? The organization in question is moving to an explicit opt-in for names received from the two appended sources which are causing 70 percent of the spam complaints. This will dramatically decrease the quantity of names which will be added to the list from these two sources. Best case scenario for an explicit opt-in on appended names is 20 percent; often times the ratio is much, much lower. But adding names to your list that are highly likely to register spam complaints against you is asking for trouble.

Eliminating the spam complaints from these two sources will decrease overall complaints by more than 70 percent – which will decrease the complaint rate from 0.3 percent to just under 0.1 percent, which is the low-end threshold for problems.

In my next column, we’ll discuss the final analysis that you should do on spam complaints to protect or improve your e-mail reputation and deliverability. In the meantime, take a look at the source of the e-mail addresses that are reporting you as spam and take steps to address this before it becomes an issue.

Until next time,


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