Reduce Spam Complaints by Listening to Subscribers
Complaints are powerful indicators of subscriber sentiment. Mailbox providers pay close attention to them as they assess whether their account holders generally want mail from a sender. Marketers can use them, too, to optimize email program performance and prevent deliverability problems — but only if they listen.
Of course, complaints don’t say much on their own. Often referred to as This Is Spam (TIS) reports, these are simply clicks from dissatisfied subscribers alerting their mailbox provider that they don’t want to hear from the sender again. Future messages, if delivered at all, will go directly to the spam folder, where they’re unlikely to ever be read. For a sender, this means that without telling you why, your subscriber is ending your email marketing relationship. Even without explanation, fluctuations in complaints can signal that content, frequency or other elements of your email program aren’t working.
Why Do Subscribers Complain?
For nearly every legitimate marketer, opt-in policies aren’t the problem. The days of sending email to people who never asked for it are more or less over. That doesn’t stop subscribers from forgetting that they gave permission.
Reason No. 1: They don’t remember (or recognize) you
Your subscribers get a lot of email, so it’s important to stand out in the inbox and help them recognize you. Start right away by sending a welcome message to new subscribers to remind them exactly when and how they got on your list, and to establish your email relationship. Continue to reinforce brand recognition from then on. The “From” field should be consistent and always be a name that subscribers recognize and trust. Also, visually reinforce your brand with consistent styling, avoiding drastic changes in appearance between emails that can make them seem unfamiliar. If your email program changes its identity during a rebranding or acquisition, for example, make sure your subscribers know well ahead of time what to expect in their inboxes.
Reason No. 2: Your frequency or cadence
Changes in frequency and cadence, either fluctuations in volume or erratic sending patterns — even shifting the days or times that messages arrive — often contribute to increases in complaints. Frequency-based complaints don’t always stem from subscribers becoming annoyed because they receive too much email, either. When frequency drops and subscribers no longer anticipate regular email from you, finding a message from you can seem unexpected and unwelcome. In addition to setting expectations during the opt-in process, testing frequency and cadence methodically and gradually will reduce the potential for changes to surprise and bother subscribers.
Reason No. 3: You don’t make it easy enough to unsubscribe
In a perfect world, no one would ever want to stop getting email from you. However, letting subscribers discreetly ask to opt out is far better than encouraging them to complain to mailbox providers that you’re a spammer. If your unsubscribe link is hard to find or the process to get off your list is complicated, simply clicking “This Is Spam” is an appealing alternative. You don’t have to give up your email marketing relationship so easily, either. Make it as easy to "opt down" — i.e., choose less frequent messages or only content about specific topics — as it is to opt out entirely. You don’t have to wait until subscribers go looking for an escape, either. Monitor their engagement and proactively offer a different subscription level if they stop reading regularly or begin ignoring more messages.
Whatever the reason why, when complaints surge the most important thing you can do as an email marketer is to review your program to determine what changed — either in your program or in subscribers’ behavior — and begin testing new ways to engage your audience. Uncovering correlations between your email strategy and complaints — or even better, subscriber engagement patterns that predict complaints — is the equivalent of listening to these valuable cues.
Tom Sather is the senior director of research at Return Path, an email marketing solution that helps to improve deliverability and return on investment.