Death, Taxes & Spam Complaints

It was Benjamin Franklin who said "The only things certain in life are death and taxes." If he had worked in our industry, he might have added “spam complaints” to that sentence as well! As Return Path’s recently released Email Intelligence Report highlighted, “This is Spam” has clearly become a shortcut to being removed from an email program.

Spam complaints are reflected in a program’s sender reputation metrics, and impact negatively on Inbox Placement Rates as a result. They also provide an accurate inverse measurement of subscriber engagement levels. High complaints = low engagement, and this manifests – on a straight line basis – in reduced deliverability to the inbox.

Email marketers largely have themselves to blame for this state of affairs, by operating email programs where the unsubscribe link is either not visible, difficult to use, or simply not trusted. Their subscribers are human beings, whose natural inclination is to take the route of least resistance. If it’s easier to complain than opt out, then that’s generally what they will do, and both deliverability and response suffer as a consequence.

So – how to turn the tide? Here are some simple recommendations:

1.     Make the unsubscribe link more visible. If the link is buried in your email footer using a 6-point font, nobody is going to see it. You might think that is a good thing, but the reality is that if it isn’t visible, subscribers who want to opt out will register a spam complaint instead. Take a leaf out of the book of Brazilian daily deals business Peixe Urbano and put the link in your email header instead:

It is entirely possible that unsubscribe rates will increase as a result of doing this – that’s to be expected. But in my professional experience spam complaints will reduce by at least a similar amount, if not more. This approach also establishes trust with subscribers, by effectively saying “we’re confident that you are getting value from our program – if not, we’ll make it really easy for you to opt out instead!”

2.     Make the process friction free. Email subscribers don’t want to go through a multi-step process to opt out. If they are required to login to an account, or update their preferences, then registering a spam complaint is far more attractive. Of course, marketers like these approaches because they might represent a last opportunity to re-engage the subscriber. Best practice email programs offer both options, as with the following example from French retailer Cdiscount:


Subscribers who wish to change frequency and/or mix of message types can do so, but those who want to be completely removed from the program are provided with a one-click alternative. This provision of choice significantly reduces the likelihood of generating a spam complaint instead.

3.     Make it happen immediately. There are no excuses for keeping subscribers on the mailing list once the opt out request has been received. While the law may protect you for between 10 and 28 days, the reality is that if your emails continue to arrive, they will almost certainly generate spam complaints.

In this excellent example from VoucherCodes, the promise to the subscriber is unequivocal – the request will be processed “instantly” which again plays an important role in maintaining subscriber trust.

Of course, these recommendations are simply about persuading subscribers who have already made up their minds to leave your email program to use the unsubscribe link when they do so. There is a far larger conversation to be had about making sure that they don’t reach this point in the first place. I was very pleased to see that the UK actually topped the IPR charts in Return Path’s Email Intelligence Report with 87%. Having worked with email programs across 4 different continents this year, I think that I’m well positioned to comment on what this market place is doing well – and it’s largely about the provision of timely, targeted, and relevant email content.  Engaged email subscribers complain less as a rule, and with engagement metrics now influencing inbox placement and inbox positioning, this is a call to action that every email marketer should heed. Then you can go back to worrying about death and taxes again!