Why I Love Spam Complaints (And You Should, Too)

Okay, I don't actually love them. But I have learned to appreciate them for what they are: instruments in the democratization of modern marketing and perhaps the most authentic measurement of customer dissatisfaction we have.

Here's how I see spam complaints:

1. They democratize marketing: one subscriber, one vote.

No other marketing metric says "Get lost!" as clearly as the spam complaint.

Even the unsubscribe can mask a subscriber's other motives, such as changing an address, switching to one of your other lists or simply having a change of heart or situation rather than outright dissatisfaction.

Metrics like click-throughs and open rates don't measure dissatisfaction. If the open rate goes down, is it because subscribers choose not to open your messages? Or, are they reading your content in their clients' preview panes or with blocked images and thus blocking the open from being recorded?

The spam complaint also helps democratize marketing the same way voting works in a democracy: One subscriber, one spam complaint.

Individually, spam complaints measure subscriber dissatisfaction better than any other metric we have. If complaints spiral upwards every time you send a message, you are clearly doing something wrong. You have stepped outside the boundaries of your subscribers' expectations, and they are casting their votes to tell you that.

Viewed as a whole, complaints also become an exit poll revealing your general subscriber base discontent, the same way election-day exit polls can indicate which way the electorate is leaning.

2. They're potentially damaging but ultimately manageable.

Even the best email marketer can expect to generate them. Complaints are also a big negative, because behind each one is a dissatisfied subscriber and possible ex-customer. Also, too many spam complaints will damage your sender reputation, the No. 1 factor ISPs consider when deciding whether to pass your email through to the inbox, block it, or divert it to the junk folder.

You might think you're powerless to stop subscribers from hitting the spam button, but you have the tools to reduce the conditions that give rise to spam complaints. Just do the following:

  • Clarify your opt-in process and subscriber expectations; simplify your opt-out procedure.
  • Brand your messages in the inbox to make them instantly recognizable as permission, requested email.
  • Remove all spam-looking elements from your message copy, such as stuffing the entire message in a single large image.
  • Meet subscriber expectations for content, frequency, format, privacy and trustworthiness.
  • Make sure your unsubscribe link is easy to find, test the link and unsubscribe process to make sure they work, and clean out dead or nonresponding email addresses regularly from your mailing list.
  • Immediately remove spam complaint filers from your list.

    As the representative of a major ISP said during a recent industry conference call, "Don't send something that might get a spam report." Sounds so simple; yet I see marketers produce messages that blatantly ignore even this basic concept.

    The spam complaint is your proxy for your sender reputation with the ISPs. You have access to it through the ISP's feedback loops, and you have the tools to resolve them quickly and reduce them. Use them because the ISP will also use this data to determine whether or not to continue to deliver your messages!

    I learned about this democratic nature of spam complaints firsthand a few years ago, when we sent out a special note to subscribers of our monthly best-practices newsletter. We asked them to vote for our company in an annual "best-of" competition. That mailing generated about a dozen spam complaints, instead of the usual 0, 1 or 2.

    Clearly, we'd stepped outside the boundaries of our subscriber relationship; readers did not have the same relationship to the company as they did with the individual newsletter. And, if we annoyed 12 subscribers to the point of clicking the spam button, there surely were many more whom we irritated but did not act.

    The spam complaints measured that irritation more clearly than any other metric. It was a clear message and reminder to us about the nature of the relationship that our readers, most of whom were not clients, had with us. Although we didn't like hearing the message, we took it to heart.

    So, in turn, should you. Don't fear the spam complaint; instead, learn from it, act on it and use it to improve your email marketing program.



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