Why People Mark Messages as Spam

Posted by Stephanie Colleton 

As you may know—or are learning—inbox placement is a tricky, always changing mix of factors. One of the most important elements that mailbox providers take into consideration when evaluating email coming from your program is your complaint rate. Your complaint rate is calculated by the number of people who mark your messages as spam or junk divided by the number of people you have mailed to. But why—many of our customers ask—would they mark it as spam? “They signed up for our email program!“  Or…”We’re a legitimate sender with a valuable product or service–we’re not like the real spam you find when you venture into the spam folder.” So why DO subscribers hit the ill-fated spam button?

First, think about your own inbox. Has there ever been a message that appears from a company you’ve never heard of or know of and you don’t interact with? It’s likely that your email has been bought or rented from another company that you have given your email address to. For example, some years ago my son played baseball. I think he played for three seasons before choosing to quit baseball for the more action-packed lacrosse. He has not played baseball for several years, yet I STILL get baseball related emails from baseball camps, baseball equipment companies, and club programs. He played in our town’s recreation baseball program–not a private club. I was pretty surprised that the town was selling residents’ email addresses, but that’s another topic. For a while, I nicely clicked the unsubscribe link on these emails. But I’m tired of receiving completely irrelevant emails (I have enough inbox clutter with all the lacrosse emails!). Now I mark those messages as spam. To me they are spam – I didn’t ask for those messages, they are completely useless to me and I get annoyed by them. By marking the message as spam I’m not only ensuring I will never hear from them again but I’m also sending a message to those marketers that they’d better clean up their list practices. I also found several companies were not processing their unsubscribes and continued to email me. Marking their email as spam was my only option for stopping the email.

But what about subscribers who complain about messages from companies or organizations that they have interacted with? These subscribers fall into two categories. First, there are the people that provided you with their email address but didn’t really opt in to your marketing program. Now, what do I mean by “really?” Here I’m talking about explicit permission. There are many permission levels. The one in the baseball example is zero permission. But if someone buys a product from you or downloads a whitepaper do you then have permission to start emailing that person daily? The answer varies greatly by where you are located in the world and who is on your list. If you fall within GDPR jurisdiction, explicit permission is very clearly defined.  If you have a checkbox in your cart that asks for permission to email the person but you have that box pre-checked, that is a riskier permission level. People who don’t uncheck the box may just not have noticed it and don’t actively want to receive your messages. It’s a tactic many marketers use. It certainly drives list growth, but you do run the risk of having a list composed of people who aren’t interested in your messages. And they definitely don’t want to receive them every day…which leads me to our last complainer category.

Finally, we have the people that have actively, not passively, subscribed to your program. These people are the gold on your list. They like your products or services and they want to hear more. But many marketers end up abusing this segment of their list. I specifically chose the word abuse because it can feel that way to many people. While you are trying to meet your numbers, people may be getting inundated with too many messages or the wrong type of message. Even a past purchaser will tire of receiving messages that are not relevant to them. For example, I recently bought an outdoor rug for our screen porch. I was already on this company’s list. But shortly after my purchase, I got an email featuring outdoor rugs. What they should have sent were items that compliment an outdoor rug purchase – outdoor furniture or pillows or dinnerware. Now, this alone was not worthy of a complaint. But it was a missed opportunity to use targeting in general that can prevent the subscriber fatigue that leads to complaints. Why do these types of subscribers complain as opposed to clicking unsubscribe? Sometimes, it’s just easier to mark as spam.

Here are a few takeaways from these complaint scenarios:

1. Implement sound list acquisition practices. If you have a complaint problem, you need to take a hard look at where you are getting your names from and what the permission levels are. It can be a tough pill to swallow to uncheck that opt-in box but if high complaints are impacting your inbox placement rate you could be sacrificing conversions for list growth. Have you calculated which is more valuable?

2. Practice good list hygiene. Make sure you are using feedback loops to remove complainers from your list and make sure your unsubscribe processing is working and that it removes people as quickly as possible. Aim for faster than anti-spam law requires.

3. Have a suppression policy in place that you regularly test and adjust. Inactive subscribers are absolutely more likely to mark your messages as spam. A fairly quick calculation may show that it is not worth it to keep them on the list with the hopes they may someday re-engage when their potential to mark your message as spam will increase the likelihood that your messages will get directed to the spam folder for ALL of your subscribers.

4. Treat your permissioned and most active subscribers like the gold that they are. Don’t hit them up with so much email or irrelevant messages that you drive them away for good. When they leave with a complaint, you don’t just lose the ability to message them, but it tarnishes your sender reputation.

Looking for more insight on complaints? Check out our guide The Marketers Guide to Subscriber Complaints for more tactics on addressing complaints.

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About Stephanie Colleton

Stephanie began her digital marketing career 20 years ago with AOL followed by BMG Columbia House. She has been with Return Path for 11 years working with clients to optimize their email marketing programs by leveraging custom consulting and innovative AI solutions. Stephanie is based in New Jersey.

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