Spam Complaints: ISPs Aren’t the Enemy

Whenever we meet marketers at deliverability roundtables or best-practices workshops, we know somebody will either accuse ISPs of warning users to hit the “Report Spam” button instead of unsubscribing from unwanted email or demand a way to refute a user’s spam complaint sent via an ISP’s feedback loop.

Neither tactic helps the marketer solve the real problem: ISPs want to reduce the barrage of unwanted email sent to their users, permission-based or not. Spam complaints are the number-one factor that harms deliverability with major ISPs. That’s more than email content and coding (28 percent of the marketers in our recent deliverability survey) or opt-in practices (25 percent thought that was the greatest factor).

ISPs don’t care whether your email message is transactional or double opt-in or sent to a list full of addresses harvested from the Web. If the message generates a lot of complaints, the ISP will filter it to the bulk folder, block you completely, or do whatever else is necessary to protect its users from you.

The “Report Spam” button that has so many marketers spooked doesn’t do that much damage by itself. If 1 or 2 or 10 users out of the 5,000 or 50,000 on your mailing list click the spam button in their email clients, your message won’t automatically be blocked or filtered. ISPs know users often hit the “Report Spam” button by accident when they just wanted to delete a message or mistakenly thought hitting the spam button would unsubscribe them.

However, if a significant number (typically 1 to 3 percent) of your subscribers click the spam button, the ISP will take action.

If you run a genuinely permission-based list but your message still generates more complaints than the ISP permits, you have a relationship problem with your recipients. You must fix the problem yourself. Cursing or complaining to the ISP that blocked or filtered you won’t solve it.

Most likely, you need to address one or more of these areas when dealing with a high complaint rate in a permission environment:

  • Hidden unsubscribe links and instructions. You must make it easy for your recipients to remove themselves from your list. Don’t hide instructions in tiny print or require users to enter passwords or confirm the request. Use a one- or two-step process at most. Test it regularly to make sure it works. If someone tries to unsubscribe following your procedure and fails, you can bet the next email you send will be reported as spam.
  • An old list. Your list might be 100 percent double opt-in, but if you haven’t sent a message to it in the last year or so, you lose brand recognition. To recipients who aren’t on your brand bandwagon, it will look like spam and be marked as such.
  • Poor sender and subject lines. A message sent from an unspecific address (“”) with a general subject line (“Information you requested”) looks like spam. Users rely on sender lines as their first test of whether an email is wanted and trusted or deleted. Subject lines are their second. A poor combination of both greatly increases your chances of receiving spam complaints. If you don’t have a strong brand, your content is aggressive or potentially problematic, or you send infrequently, consider including your brand in the subject line.
  • Lack of user preferences. Some people really do want plain-text messages instead of bandwidth-sucking HTML with video and sound, especially in business-to-business and tech sectors. If you haven’t already, provide a user-preference page at registration that allows users to choose their message format, frequency, and product or topic categories as appropriate. Honor those preferences to the letter.
  • Lack of user email address. Subscribers often opt in to a list with more than one email address, forgetting they’ve already subscribed. When they unsubscribe from one address but continue to receive email, they’re likely to complain. To reduce this risk, mail-merge the actual email address into your subscriber information area and display it in every message.
  • Unmanaged expectations. Explain clearly on your registration page what you’ll send and how often. Then stick to it. Don’t send anything readers don’t expect, no matter how much you think they’d like it. E-mail is no place to second-guess reader preferences.
  • Delayed removal of unsubscribes. An import-car manufacturer that just revived a two-year-old mailing list (an absolute no-no; see the second bullet point) said it could take up to 14 days to honor an unsubscribe request. Under the CAN-SPAM Act, you have only 10 days to remove the name. Most mailing-list software can remove the address as soon as it receives an unsubscribe click or request.
  • Unmonitored and unacted on spam complaints. If you aren’t on feedback loops at major ISPs such as AOL and MSN, sign up now. (Lists and instructions are here). Remove any subscriber who lodges a spam complaint, even if you can prove he requested your email. Yes, this adds a step to your email process, but it’s necessary to reduce incidences of blocking or filtering.

Implementing these steps is the most effective way to reduce spam complaints and subsequently boost deliverability and improve and maintain a sterling email sender reputation.

Next, we’ll delve into key steps involved in an email template makeover, the number-one step our deliverability survey respondents said they’d taken, or planned to, in 2006.

For more background and advice on spam complaints and deliverability, review our earlier column, “How Spam Complaints Affect Delivery.”

And as always, keep on deliverin’.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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