MAAWG Consumer Survey: Deeper in the Data

Posted by J.D. Falk on

by J.D. Falk
Director of Product Strategy, Receiver Services

This week, MAAWG published A Look at Consumers’ Awareness of Email Security and Practices (available from maawg.org.) This research paper is based on a survey of real email users — just like our friends, spouses, grandparents, children — the actual humans who use email and don’t want to have to understand the technical or social underpinnings. It was not a survey of MAAWG members, or conducted by MAAWG members; the intent was to get a true picture. In conversations between senders and ISPs, often with Return Path helping to facilitate, everyone’s always trying to figure out what recipients do or don’t want; finally, this survey gives us some answers.

To read the press and blog response, it sounds like they’ve concluded that spam is a complete success and everyone should start spamming to get rich — but at Return Path we rely on the data, and the data tells a much richer story than a 140-character Twitter paraphrase of the press release ever could.

First, one very humbling realization for all of us who make our livings from (or near) email marketing is that only 9% of respondents to the MAAWG survey considered marketing, even from known companies, to be an important part of their email experience. That’s below “other” at 15%. 30% considered this marketing mail to be the most unimportant. The top four (all above 40%) were: email from friends and family; receipts and shipping details; notifications from their bank; notification of bills owed. Only this last varied substantially by age: most people aged 25 to 44 considered their bills (via email) to be important, while those 65 and older largely did not.

Equally interesting is how people define spam. To 60%, it is simply “email I did not request” — which should finally put an end to the opt-out argument. 41% defined it as email in their spam folder. 35% mentioned porn, 33% phishing, 28% that they were unable to unsubscribe, and less than a quarter knew about CAN-SPAM (it was a survey in the U.S.; they’ll do Europe next year). Only 9% defined spam as jokes or silly messages, so you can tell that annoying co-worker (you know the one) to stop labeling their forwarded cat pictures as “spam” when sending to everyone in the office. Yes, the cat is cute and the email is inappropriate, but it’s not spam.

In answer to the question “when you receive email that you think is spam, what do you usually do?” a whopping 78% delete without opening — the largest point of agreement in the entire survey. 35% move it to their junk folder. Only 9% unsubscribe. 17% (combining three similar categories) report it to their ISP or mail provider, which means the “complaint rate” metric reflects less than a fifth of the people who don’t want your mail any more. So the next time you’re looking at your stats in Reputation Monitor or on senderscore.org, multiply the complaint rate by five — and round up.

Now for the part that’s gotten all the attention. The question the surveyor asked was “if you have ever clicked on a link or replied to an email that you suspected was spam, why did you take this action?” (Not “do you regularly respond to spam?” as most of the coverage has assumed.) 48% said they never have, and 17% said they did it by mistake. 13% were replying to request removal, or to complain. 12% did admit they were interested in the product or service, which seems like a high response rate until you consider that the most common definition for spam is “email I did not request” — so that includes all opt-out marketing, sloppy opt-in lists, and cases where the recipient didn’t realize (or forgot) that they’d requested it. Plus, since there’s no timeframe or frequency specified in the question or the responses, they may have only been interested in one unsolicited email offer ever.

Now compare those responses with another question: “when you receive mail that you suspect to be fraudulent, what actions have you taken?” 66% delete it (76% under 24). 34% mark it as spam, and then delete it. 17% report it to the company whose brand is used in the message, and 16% report it to their ISP.

Those who define spam as porn, phishing, or email they can’t unsubscribe from are more likely to be “cautious” with their email address — avoiding giving it out, or using a separate account for commercial transactions.

The survey didn’t get any deeper into defining spam, or opt-in vs. opt-out, because the data reminds us that the average user doesn’t much care about any of that. They don’t want the email they don’t want, and they do want to get on with their lives, and they have to rely on their own smarts. To accomplish this, 67% use the sender’s name to determine if a message is legitimate — clearly a boon for the fraudsters, unfortunately. 45% look at the subject, and 22% rely on other visual indicators like Google’s new key icon for authenticated mail. 12% open the message to look at it. They were not asked whether they have images on when they load the message, so this won’t end the open rate debate.

For marketers, this survey reinforces that if you’re living entirely in the numbers, relying solely on your delivery and complaint statistics, you really don’t have an accurate picture of what your subscribers think and feel about your attempts to communicate with them. These stats are important — far better than just guessing — but how can you find out more? One easy way is to launch your own survey, but that only works if you have their attention. Ten years ago The Cluetrain Manifesto described markets as conversations, but — like any conversation — your recipients aren’t going to talk to you if you bore or disrespect them. As my colleague Stephanie Miller recently wrote, “The minute you bore me, or abuse my trust or send something irrelevant, you are spamming me.”

What have you learned from this report? Let us know in the comments below.


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