Let’s face it, spam complaints happen. If you are sending email, you are bound to get a few spam complaints. But at what point do negative indicators, like spam complaints, start impacting your sender reputation and your ability to reach your subscriber’s inbox? Or when do they begin to raise the red flag or skyrocket to DEFCON 10 at your ESP?
This month, we’ve asked deliverability experts from Netcore, ActiveCampaign, SocketLabs, iContact and yours truly to help us understand some of the most common mistakes email senders make that result in complaints and how to get yourself out of trouble if your ESP has flagged your account.
So let’s begin…
Spam Complaints + Poor List Management = Recipe for Disaster
In most cases, whether intentional or not, the most damaging action for a client’s email program is mailing to a questionable or a low-quality list.
Spam complaints alone are often not the end-all to a program, but they are often a symptom of a larger issue(s). Tie an influx or steady stream of complaints in with mailings to non-engagers, aged, inactives, unknowns, traps, spam complaints, and those that skip the spam button entirely to file complaints directly and you just baked up a recipe for disaster.
The impact is almost immediate and damages both inboxing and reputation. And the impact is often more longstanding than a misalignment of cadence, content, etc.
Usually, the first step is to identify the recent change that brought in the questionable list (often confirmed by the associated metrics, SMTP responses, and resulting fallout).
If the list came in through an organic capture process with little security, then that hole needs to be closed with (re) CAPTCHA authentication.
Email validation at the source of collection is another key aspect. Not only will validation help keep some innocent mistakes from entering your DB, but it can catch some obvious concerns.
Review the overall statistics from your validation partner and look at trending over time. Is one source a continual problem, or was there a compromise?
If capture is not the problem, look at the source of the list. Is that list source vetted through validation and quality control (age, collection method, etc.)?
Do you have consent to mail it? If not, stop using it. If you do have consent, are you using a third-party list, partner list, or any list that is NOT your own? If so, again, stop using it.
Often the risk outweighs the benefit of these extra lists. And even if you are legally consented to mail it, that does not detract from the QUALITY of the list and how swiftly it can negatively impact your program.
I went through a recent exercise where the initial list seemed to provide a HUGE benefit to the client, adding a significant number of opens/clicks/conversions. However, it only took a couple of days for the reputation to hit rock bottom. Looking at the performance today, the aggregated result is less than if they stayed at the status quo.
Once you get your data under control, if the system hasn’t recuperated on its own, pull in your ESP and their team of experts to help you navigate the nuance and the remediation.
If you are a self-run program, start by trimming to your most engaged and rebuild reputation by showing that you are mailing wanted mail to a quality set of customers. Then don’t touch it and let the program self-heal.
You can also reach out to some of the postmaster sites and relay your issues and see if remediation can be granted. Do not try to hide what happened. They already know. Instead, be honest and detail out what you have done to remedy it.
I would recommend making changes before you request assistance in directing your program back on course.
Finally, once you are back on your feet, keep the good in and the bad out. Protect your list and your program.
Ask for advice and strategies to explore options, and keep checking out this blog for expert advice! Make decisions that are not only smart for your business but also your sending reputation.
The Emotion Behind Spam Complaints & How To Work With Your ESP
Legitimate email senders usually end up in hot water with their ESP when their email program is mixed up with problematic address collection methods, or has poor list management and targeting.
The common thread between all of these potential missteps is that each one tends to elicit confusion/anger/frustration/annoyance within the recipients receiving those irrelevant or poorly timed emails. And all of those emotions generally lead to a spam complaint.
In some cases, the negative reactions from your email audience show up in the form of a high complaint rate within your sending statistics. Other times, recipients will have actually taken the time to contact your ESP’s abuse desk. Either way, be prepared to add a few items to your to-do list.
Kickbox has already dedicated a lot of content to why deliverability issues occur and how you can resolve them… in fact, they have an entire deliverability video series dedicated to it! 💌
To add to that, here are a few tips for getting yourself back in good graces with your ESP as quickly as possible:
Don’t take it personally! I understand how incredibly stressful it can be to have your email abilities interrupted, particularly when you’re a legitimately good sender who’s trying to do the right thing.
It may feel like you’re getting the 3rd degree, but try to keep in mind that your ESP is intervening because something within your recent sending activity has triggered one of their alarms, or someone contacted their abuse desk about you. And those questions they’re asking are just part of their protocol.
I assure you, Alex in compliance takes no pleasure in holding your account hostage. Alex is there to help you get your email car back on the road and driving safely as quickly as possible.
Take their recommendations (and requirements) seriously. Being stubborn or elusive is unlikely to help. Provide the details your ESP asks for, improve your practices in the ways they require (in keeping with their acceptable use policy), and be forthcoming with information that can help them understand what you’re trying to do, and why it may have gone sideways.
All of this leads to more trust, better understanding, and a quicker resolution of your issue. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck in an infinite(ly frustrating) loop of support conversations and compliance escalations that mean your account remains restricted for longer – in some cases, weeks, months, or indefinitely!
Do your best to play by the rules. Just like with your sender reputation, establishing a track record as a responsible sender goes a long way.
ESPs tend to do a deeper dive into your account when a compliance issue pops up: reviewing things like your sending patterns and statistics, how long you’ve been a customer, how often you’ve appeared on compliance’s radar before and how those scenarios played out (positively or negatively), as well as other dealings with support that tell them if you’re generally easy or difficult to work with.
All of those little data points can come together to help prove you’re one of the good guys… or not.
- Be kind. This recommendation is not specific to dealing with compliance teams or even ESPs. Communicating in a polite and constructive way is always a good idea.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that an ESP’s job is to maintain a high-quality sender reputation for their entire customer base, and part of that mission requires their Compliance team to take action when signals point to a problem.
The Hard Cost of Spam Complaints Beyond Deliverability Issues
When you’re thinking about the cost of spam complaints it is important to understand the progression of non-delivery issues for your brand.
Spam complaints can range in severity from mild to severe, much like a fire.
Some email programs can handle a little heat while others combust and turn to ash. However it’s safe to say that any problem left unresolved, even a minor one, can cause long term damage to your email reputation.
Spam complaints from a mailbox provider (MBP) driven feedback loop (FBL) messages in 1’s and 2’s might not represent a significant issue, but when you start to approach 0.3% (3/1000) of mail expect your mail to have challenges getting to the inbox.
While FBL data is limited to the MBP’s own network it’s important to remember Gmail, Microsoft, and Verizon Media cover many other domains as part of their hosting infrastructure. So don’t ignore these early warning systems for long especially if these are your most important destinations for email.
Imagine if all your mail to Gmail simply stopped delivering tomorrow and the impact that would have on your business. Many report that Gmail and Google Workspaces account for 60+% of the average B2C email deliveries.
Would your business survive long if they couldn’t be reached at all?
Other considerations for the cost of spam traps to a business can fall into the legal realm.
In one of the first cases under Canada’s anti-spam legislation (CASL) the resulting fines, based on 317 messages, were ~$200,000 CDN or ~$630 per violation.
There have also been fines under GDPR for improper use of data to send commercial messages to consumers that resulted in small sum (when considering the potential size it could have been) of £120,000. This shows a hard cost to spam complaints beyond simply being unable to deliver your messages to your subscribers and the importance of good list collection practices and ongoing data hygiene.
We Are Not the Email Police! We Are Your Friend!
This might come as news to email marketers around the world but your email service provider’s (ESP) compliance and trust & safety teams are not the email police. Our #1 priority is protecting the health of the platform for ALL customers.
What many customers do not realize is that as an ESP we profit off of customers sending as many emails as possible, but we also want to survive and thrive, so we must have policies in place that:
- fall in-line with mailbox provider policies
- follow local and international email laws, and
- support email best practices for deliverability
The reality of what we are is a team of individuals dedicated to providing guidance and education when abuse is not detected. We know our customers are busy running their businesses so they may not have the know-how to follow all the best practices.
Or, they may not have the systems in place to identify a problem as quickly as we are able to. More often than not our conversations are the result of identifying a flaw in your email program or a misunderstanding of content policies that are preventing the success of your campaigns.
Unless you are a malicious sender (in which case we will find and terminate you to protect our legitimate customers) you should view your email service provider’s compliance and trust & safety teams as a friend rather than a foe. We have the same goal: get your emails to the inbox. If we request adjustments to your content or contact practices it is genuinely in your best interest.
The advice we provide is based on our in-depth knowledge of the industry and experience. Following our advice can help customers achieve higher open and conversion rates while avoiding serious issues such as blocklist events or AUP/TOS violations that could bring the relationship to an end.
Advice for avoiding the compliance team:
- Read your email service provider’s (ESP) Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policy to ensure your content and practices are a good fit for your business model prior to sending.
- Read your ESPs help documents (especially email delivery and deliverability best practices) to set yourself up for success.
- Monitor your email performance metrics. If you notice high spam complaints, bounces, or low opens it could indicate a problem and when to reach out for assistance.
- If you are not sure if your contact collection methods are permitted – ask! And try not to be upset if the answer isn’t what you were hoping for, because if you continued as planned with the ill-advised practice, you would have likely caused harm to your deliverability and risked the relationship with your provider.
- Engagement is key! Ideally, you want to let go of contacts who have not engaged with your content within the last 6-12 months. This helps prevent spam complaints, bounces, spam trap deliveries, and poor engagement.
- My #1 Recommendation (and mantra): Always, always, always focus on sending to contacts who recently and explicitly opted in, and send content relevant to what they signed up for and at a frequency they are expecting.
While we are providing a service to our customers it is true that if some customers are not following best practices it can do great harm to our ability to provide services to all of our customers.
Should you encounter your ESP’s email compliance or trust & safety teams, try to remember that unless you are a malicious sender, we are your friend. We are not the email police. We can help make your email program stronger and more successful – just give us a chance!
Take Your Time & Hurry Up
When thinking about the conversations we’ve had over the years with legitimate senders running into issues with high spam complaints, I found the majority of cases really boil down into two major and somewhat contradictory themes that recall a favorite “old” Nirvana song – “Take your time, hurry up.”
Take Your Time
These are the ones that hurt the most – cases where the user was rushing to get everything done on deadline and made a simple mistake.
The two most common mistakes I observe? Using the wrong “From:” address and/or sending to the wrong group of contacts. Subscribers either see a sender they’re not familiar with or content that’s not at all relevant to their reason for being on the list.
Abuse teams are a lot more sympathetic in these cases, but an ISP’s feedback loop doesn’t tell us why a user marked as spam.
To remain compliant with anti-spam legislation, we still have to honor all opt-outs generated by these contacts’ action, so senders may potentially lose some very high-value subscribers that could impact their bottom line down the road.
Not taking that extra minute or two to double-check before hitting “send” transforms what is often a well-thought-out campaign into a conversation with your Abuse team and possible issues with list churn or future delivery.
This is the most common one I run into that’s not actually a “mistake” – a sender did a great job using clear opt-in practices, a strong call to action, possibly even validation. So what’s the issue? Generally, an extended period of time elapses between the opt-in and the first send. Quarterly list updates aren’t unheard of.
So why is that a bad thing? Because those contacts are people, and people have short memories! If that first email is 90 days after the original opt-in, will the user remember providing that information? Possibly, if they also had a transaction or some exchange.
But what about all the other great ways to organically build an opted-in list that isn’t based on getting permission at point-of-sale or account creation?
Adding new contacts in real-time and taking advantage of marketing automation is a great way to avoid the risk of elevated spam complaints from legitimate contacts.
Set the subscriber’s expectations immediately with a welcome email and a short drip campaign so that when the first “marketing” email is delivered, you don’t have a high number of people saying “what’s this?!?” and hitting their Spam button.
The drip campaign data can then be used to weed out contacts who never showed interest so that you’re building a healthy list with contacts most likely to engage.
Two opposite principles, but making sure you’re doing both will keep an otherwise healthy email program on the right side of your ESPs Abuse team and keep lists fresh and healthy.