Survey Highlights E-mail Feedback-Loop Woes

The Q Interactive/MarketingSherpa survey on consumers’ e-mail perceptions launched a tidal wave of discussions in e-mail and marketing communities, because it quantifies what most of us have assumed about the way consumers view and deal with unwanted e-mail.

I wasn’t surprised to see that consumers view spam as all unwanted or irrelevant e-mail messages, even permission e-mail. What really grabbed me is the gap between perception and reality about what happens when a consumer clicks the report-spam button.

It heightened my concern with how ISPs manage the spam complaint process. ISPs give customers a way to complain about spam via the report-spam button in the e-mail interface. While a few major players, such as AOL and Hotmail, do a good job of sharing this data with senders, other ISPs don’t route that information back to the senders so they can act on it.

The Consumer Isn’t Always Wrong

Here’s what consumers think happens when they click the button:

  • 56 percent believe that clicking the button filters “all e-mail from that sender.”

  • 47 percent believe that hitting the report-spam button unsubscribes them from the list.
  • 21 percent believe clicking the button tells the sender that specific e-mail wasn’t useful so that it will “do a better job of mailing me” next time.

I can understand why they believe these things. I tried a little experiment in my Gmail account, in which I clicked a message to report it as spam. This notification appeared in a yellow box at the top of the message: “This conversation has been marked as spam. We’ll attempt to unsubscribe you from these e-mails.”

(Note: No actual e-mailer was harmed by this experiment, because I sent myself the test e-mail.)

Gmail’s apparent resolution might comfort consumers, but the notice actually gives a false impression of what happens. Gmail doesn’t support feedback loops, in which a message marked as spam gets routed back to the sender for action. Instead, Gmail routes future messages to the spam folder. The sender should follow best practice and remove that address from future mailings but can’t, because she doesn’t about the complaint. Instead, she’ll continue e-mailing repeatedly to the complainer and cause more messages to be banned or routed to the spam folder.

Remember, one complaint doesn’t necessarily doom you to the spam folder or the virtual wastebasket. The bigger problem is that consumers believe Gmail will get their names off the list. This simply won’t happen without a feedback loop. Worse, the marketer still thinks the consumers are happy and want the messages.

Are Feedback Loops Really Broken?

In reporting the survey results, Q Interactive asserts the report-spam complaint process is broken and calls on ISPs to fix it. In many cases, the company is correct. Several ISPs provide the report-spam button in their interfaces but have no mechanism to share the complaint with legitimate senders, who could use it to improve messaging.

Further, when ISPs have shared this data, senders have overwhelmed them with their desire to receive these responses. That excessive demand has led some to cancel their programs.

Take the latest challenge Yahoo faced with its beta Yahoo Mail Complaint Feedback Loop program. It has closed this program to new applicants while it retools the application process, promising “an improved, more streamlined online process for interested participants soon.”

Besides quantifying the spam-button use issue, the survey merely confirms consumer attitudes toward e-mail that have been around for a while. If consumers don’t recognize the sender’s name, if they didn’t request the e-mail, if it comes out of the blue, if it has no value for consumers, or if they don’t trust the sender to unsubscribe them, they’ll click the report-spam button instead.

Sure, some abuse the button by marking e-mail from legitimate senders who follow permission practices scrupulously, but some senders abuse the channel, too.

Case in point: I recently received several e-mail messages trying to get me to validate my e-mail address for a job-recruiting Web site I never subscribed to. I deleted the first two messages that said I needed to act if I wanted to keep getting messages. After the third, fourth, and fifth e-mail messages (all of which I reported as spam), I was frustrated, not only with the sender for pestering me but also with my ISP for continuing to deliver e-mail I had indicated I didn’t want.

Did this sender follow best practices? No! Is it a legitimate sender trying to clean up its list to improve delivery? Possibly, but it’s misguided. Did the report-spam button function the way it was supposed to and send this valuable reputation data back to the ISP and to the sender to help me control my inbox? Doubtful, and no.

Senders and receivers need to come together to resolve this challenge. Change won’t happen because of surveys, press releases, or even columns like this one.

Instead, ISPs, e-mail service providers (ESPs), marketers, advertisers, and publishers must work with industry associations to improve the inbox experience.

I urge all of you to get more involved. At the minimum, review the list of associations below and find one with goals and objectives similar to yours and get involved in the work:

Read More of the Survey Conversation

Mark Brownlow, one of my favorite e-mail bloggers, has an excellent recap of the conversations the study launched.

And until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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

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