How to Use Complaints to Improve Your Email Program

Nobody likes a complainer – especially when it comes to your email program. The fact is complaints are the #1 reason why your sender reputation can decline and your inbox placement can take a nose dive. Why? Mailbox Providers need to protect and keep their customers happy so they don’t go elsewhere.

When people hit the spam/junk button to complain about an email they are telling their Mailbox Provider they aren’t happy about that message reaching their inbox. As a result, Mailbox Providers subsequently filter the email coming from the IP generating a high complaint rate into the bulk folder or may eventually block it completely. So what equates to a high complaint rate? While it depends on the individual Mailbox Providers’ filtering rules or “secret sauce”, the best practice is to keep your complaint rate below .1%. If you allow your complaint rate to reach .3% you’re at risk for deliverability issues if you aren’t already sitting in the bulk folder. 

This rate should be figured by dividing the number of complaints generated by the total delivered to the inbox for a specific campaign – not total sent. Mailbox Providers generally figure their complaint thresholds using this metric, so you should too. Don’t give yourself a false sense of comfort thinking your rate is lower than it really is. If you don’t have access to your inbox placement rates, then do this calculation using total delivered (delivered equates to both inbox and bulk placement – total sent minus bounces) to get closer to the truth.

So what’s a marketer to do when they have a high complaint rate? Use those complaints to improve your email program!

First things first – Feedback Loops. Ensure you are set up on all available feedback loops so you can get the complaint information back.  A feedback loop is the Mailbox Provider’s way of letting you know who is complaining about your email program.  You send out an email, a subscriber hits the spam/junk button and then the participating Mailbox Provider sends the information back to you so you can suppress the complainer from your program going forward.  Fight the temptation to leave these people on your list and suppress them from future emails immediately.  If they really want your email they’ll sign back up to receive it.

While not all Mailbox Providers offer a feedback loop, Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! do in addition to many others. You can find a list of available feedback loops here. Check the Mailbox Provider's website for their specific requirements for feedback loop set up. 

Too often when I ask clients what they are doing to reduce complaints they respond, “I’m on feedback loops” and think that’s enough.  It’s not.  Once you’re receiving the feedback loop data it’s time to dig in to the data to figure out why people complained.

Verify you are suppressing addresses that complain. Start your research by ensuring your feedback loop suppression process is working. If you find the same address issuing multiple complaints over time, you may have a problem. Ensure you have a master suppression file you check all campaign lists against before you deploy. If your subscribers can sign up to receive mail for multiple programs or brands, you have to make the business decision to only remove them from the program they complained about or everything. While I’m an advocate for a global unsubscribe to keep complaints to a minimum, I understand that doesn’t always make sense for everyone. However, if high complaints are an issue for you, consider testing a global unsubscribe to see the impact.

Identify the data source of complaints. It’s common for marketers to use multiple sources to build their list such as direct website sign-up, registration, point of sale, events, etc. Some sources may perform well, while others may end up being the root cause for your complaints. Ensure each email address in your file includes a flag that denotes the source it came from and the date the address was added. Use your feedback loop data to match the complaint back to the source of the person that complained. Evaluate the source generating the highest percentage of complaints and then take action. It may be the matter of improving the subscription process via that source or ceasing the use of it altogether.

Identify which emails generate high complaints. Chances are you are like most marketers who send a variety of email campaigns often created by multiple teams throughout your organization. Similar to what you did to identify the complaint source, use the feedback loop data to track complaints by email campaign. As a good starting point, focus on emails that exceed a .3% complaint rate and work down from there. While you don’t want to ignore those generating lower complaint rates since they could escalate, addressing your highest risk campaigns will likely give you the biggest initial impact. Stay ahead of potential issues by doing this analysis on a monthly basis to keep tabs on how your email program is doing versus waiting until your deliverability has declined. Ideally you’ll also be monitoring your feedback loop data regularly so you can identify potential issues immediately.

Who, What, When, Where, How to get to Why. Once you figure out the problem emails, you need to get to the root cause of why people are complaining about them. Some key reasons people complain about email is because it’s not relevant or of interest to them, you’re sending them more email than they expected or they didn’t sign up to receive your mail. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Who did you send the email to? Did these people give you permission to send email to them? Were they dormant addresses you haven’t mailed to in a while? It’s possible you mailed to a bunch of old addresses that don’t remember you. Just because they signed up for your program in the past doesn’t mean they are still interested; especially if you haven’t mailed to them in several months or just sent them something they didn’t sign up to receive.
  • What was the content of the email? Do you always send the same thing to everyone? The “one size fits all” mentality doesn’t belong in email. The best email is targeted to the recipient’s interests and needs versus a generic email that isn’t relevant to them. 
  • When in the lifecycle of your overall campaign did they complain? While it’s common to have an email series, you need to identify when you start to see people complaining. It’s possible that particular email needs a little work or you’ve just hit the point of list fatigue and need to make some changes to your email cadence and/or frequency. Consider how often you send email. Is it daily? Once a week? You might be sending too much (or more than your subscribers expected) and need to pull back.
  • Where did they sign up to receive emails from you? Is your sign-up process clear so they know the type of email they will receive from you and how often? Are the addresses all from the same data source? Ensure you set clear expectations at sign-up and that you deliver what you promised. 
  • How easy is it for people to unsubscribe? Ensure you have a clear, easy to find one-click process that allows people unsubscribe from your email. It is much better to allow someone to unsubscribe from your program than to have them complain about it. Unsubscribes don’t negatively impact your reputation – complaints do.

Make adjustments and TEST! Think of complaints as a gift versus a burden. After all, you just armed yourself with a lot of information to help improve your email program! Use that new information to adjust your content, effectively target subscribers with relevant email, update your subscription page and data sources, etc. To learn more about how to use this gift, be sure and sign up for our upcoming webinar