Complaining About Complaints: Part I

It's a very normal first reaction to defend against complaints. I had a meditation teacher once who told me the measure of a modern man's spiritual evolution was the ability to stand in the face of criticism and listen as openly as if he were being praised. When I complained that this seemed unrealistic, he was nonplussed. So I quit his class.

E-mail marketers know something about the importance of complaints, and the value of keeping their rates down. Higher complaint rates equal progressive loss of e-mail privileges, whether its removal from (or more likely, inability to get on) certain whitelists and other systems for tracking senders that can be trusted--or, at its worst, being blocked entirely from some e-mail recipient domains.

Yet there may be some valid reason for e-mail marketers to complain about complaints, or at least the way they are calculated today and the systems in place for handling them. It turns out that the system of complaining about e-mail is actually quite broken. E-mail marketers have some justifiable complaints.

Trigger-Happy Consumers. When a senator counts how many people in his district have complained about a vote, people who write him in all capitals and boldfaced letters get the same weight (one vote) as people with more adaptive anger management skills. Same in the Nielsen world: a household turns off a TV program that counts as one (1) lost viewer. But in the world of e-mail marketing, if someone gets really ticked off and hits the "Report as Spam" button five or six times, this can generate five or six complaints. Should a marketer be penalized with a dozen complaints because a single person on his list has a jerk for a boss, a car that wouldn't start, and a daughter who joined a cult? Complaints need to be calculated per complainant, not per mouse click.

Some are Afraid. Arguably, this works in the e-mail marketer's favor, but balancing the overly aggressive recipients are those who do not complain at all. These are the ones who have read one too many spam conspiracy theorists, and believe that any attempt to complain or remove oneself from a mailing list will only result in even more spam. This is one of the many breakdowns of trust in the e-mail system.

Dreaming of Denominators. Complaint rates are calculated by taking the total number of complaints--as compiled by participating ISPs--over the total number of e-mails sent, as guesstimated by some third-party services. It turns out that given senders can often have widely varying complaint rates, depending on which reputation service they are looking at--because different reputation services calculate the total number of e-mails sent in different ways.

Talk to the IP Address. In the real world, you complain to the person who ill-served you. Or at least the poor shmo whose job it is to stand and listen to those complaints. But in the e-mail marketing world, complaints aren't really attributed to actual senders, but rather to IP addresses. What does this mean? Well, if your acquisition marketing group uses the same server that you send out shipping confirmations from, then shipping confirmations is going to have as high a complaint rate as acquisition marketing. Doesn't sound fair, does it?

When You've Only Got A Hammer. Another big problem with complaints is that there is no granularity provided. "Report as Spam" can mean anything from "I didn't request e-mail from this sender" to "Please unsubscribe me from this e-mail list" or "I already bought this product from these guys last week." There is no provision in the system for specifying the nature of the complaint, let alone the nature of the requested remedy--block all e-mail from this sender, or only this particular newsletter?

Can This Be Gamed? Complaining turns out to be a pretty insecure thing. While there isn't any data available on how prevalent this is in reality, spoofing complaints is actually a pretty easy thing to do. It is possible to generate false complaints and artificially inflate the complaint rate associated with a given IP address.

Complaint systems today fall down on three major areas: accuracy, granularity, and security. Because of the problems of people who hit the button too much, or too little--as well as the means of calculating the actual number of e-mails sent--there are huge variations in complaint rates, and they can be quite inaccurate. There is inadequate granularity in the system, both in terms of being able to specify which sending entity a complaint is really lodged against--a given e-tailer's marketing versus its transaction messages, for example--as well as with respect to the options for consumers who complain, who have a choice of a single button serving as an all-purpose notice of some kind of dissatisfaction. Finally, existing complaint systems lack fundamental security mechanisms to ensure the system is fair.

In Part Two of this column, we will take a look at what a complaint system that addresses these problems might look like.