More Research on Why Consumers Complain About Your Email

Posted by George Bilbrey 

George Bilbrey
By George Bilbrey

The ESPC recently released the results of a really great survey of email users and (among other things) how they use the “report spam” button that is available in many email user interfaces. The summary of the survey can be found here. The survey found 20 percent of respondents admit to using the “report spam” button to unsubscribe. I’m hearing a lot of different reaction to the 20% number:

  • From ISPs and many in the anti-spam community the general reaction has been: “It’s only 20 percent – what’s all the noise about.”
  • From many of our clients and a lot of the email marketing press the reaction has been “See, I told you that a lot of folks were using the report spam button as an unsubscribe mechanism – a lot of these reports are false positives.”

As many folks responding to the study have put forward, I agree that having an “safe unsubscribe” button will be an important way to reduce the noise in the system – separating good mailers from bad mailers from an ISP’s point of view. Some ISPs (e.g., Microsoft’s Windows Live Mail) are starting to experiment with this.

But it’s important to note that users aren’t being indiscriminate here. Return Path research, as written about by my colleague Stephanie Miller, shows that consumers are savvy about using “this is spam” versus an unsubscribe button. They the spam button with some email and not with other email. So these complaints still mean something. It means I don’t trust you to unsubscribe me, I tried to use your unsubscribe button and it didn’t work or I don’t ever remember signing up for your email and I think you are a spammer.

Moreover, it’s important to note that when ISPs create their rules for blocking, filtering and rate limiting, that they are really looking at how one mail server ranks on complaints (and a lot of other factors) relative to all other mail servers. So , if you are asserting that your email shouldn’t really be blocked because a good portion of complaints are actually unsubscribes, what the ISPs are really asserting is that your email has a disproportionate number of complaints that are unsubscribes relative to the average mailer. In other words, your email is still problematic: consumers don’t trust your unsubscribe function, your unsubscribe failed or your permission process is lax. Or some bad combination of all of those.

This study does make one thing clear – it is to your extreme benefit to make unsubscribing as easy as possible. Start with these 5 best practices and make that spam button look less and less attractive.

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About George Bilbrey

George Bilbrey is the founder of the industry’s first deliverability service provider, Assurance Systems, which merged with Return Path in 2003. He is a recognized expert on the subjects of email reputation and deliverability and is active in many industry organizations, including the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) and the Online Trust Alliance (OTA). In his role as president of Return Path George is the driving force behind the ongoing innovation of our products and services. Prior to Return Path, George served as Director of Product Management at and as a partner in the telecommunications group at Mercer Management Consulting. He holds a B.A. in economics from Duke University, and an MBA from the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, University of North Carolina.

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