Act! Blog

What is a spam complaint, exactly?

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When you send email to major inbox providers like Gmail, Microsoft, or Yahoo/AOL, your recipients have the option to click the “Spam” or “Junk” button to file a spam complaint – a report back to their inbox provider that the email is unwanted or unexpected. The inbox provider will then add the complaint to a record called your sender reputation, which is a recent history of your email sending behavior that is used to determine if email from you should be accepted and placed in the inbox. Many inbox providers will also send the spam complaint back to you or your email server/provider via a feedback loop (FBL) so that the recipient may be added to your suppression list, which is usually handled automatically by your provider. A side benefit of feedback loops is that you can also keep track of the spam complaints as part of your own record of your sender reputation. Changes in your reputation metrics can serve as useful alerts to problems with your marketing strategy or implementation. 

The 0.1%

At first glance, a single spam complaint may seem to be a very small blemish on your email sending reputation, but inbox providers’ tolerance for complaints is low because not everyone who receives spam will report it: the industry standard limit is one complaint per one thousand emails (1/1000 or 0.1%). Anything over the threshold may impact your sender reputation and, in turn, your inbox placement.  

If you’re sending email marketing in high volumes, it’s normal to have some spam complaints. Over time, the odds are that there will be at least one person that misclicks, thinks the “report spam” button is the same as the unsubscribe button, suffers from cat on keyboard, or is just having a bad day. That’s essentially what the 0.1% rate accounts for: the complaints you truly can’t control. Anything beyond that is indicative of a systemic issue that needs to be addressed on the sending side.

Why Am I Getting Excessive Spam Complaints?

Email marketing provides a one-to-many relationship with your recipients, which means that any marketing practices you engage in can impact the experience of all of your recipients at once, for better or worse, depending on the practice. If you have excessive spam complaints, the first step would be to identify marketing practices that could cause the complaints at scale. The following are some of the common practices that will result in unwanted or unexpected email:

  • Not obtaining explicit permission for marketing
    • Includes permission that is implied/unclear.
  • Not setting or meeting recipient expectations for content, frequency, or identity
      • Recipients may be put off if you don’t meet their expectations for: What content you’ll be sending, when and how often you’ll be sending, and who the email is from (branding, logos, sending address).
  • Sending to old/unengaged contacts
    • Recipients often forget they subscribed.
  • Sending to recipients that should have been suppressed
    • Occurs if your suppression list is missing or your suppression process isn’t working. If you change providers, it’s your responsibility to bring your suppression list with you.
  • Collecting incorrect addresses or bad data
    • Can be either accidental (typo’d email address) or intentional (“I don’t want to be spammed so im giving you a fake address”).

In many cases, more than one of these practices will contribute to the problem, and there are surely other causes out there too.  So instead of working to track down all the potential practices that could cause an email to be unwanted or unexpected, it’s easier to intentionally ensure that an email will be both wanted and expected by engaging in industry standard best practices that are known to produce results: obtaining explicit permission, using email confirmation, and performing regular list hygiene.


About the author

Jake Hoiby is an email deliverability expert that manages email systems, sender reputation and user compliance. He teaches small businesses how to avoid common pitfalls of email marketing and ensure their email reaches the inbox. In his spare time you’ll find him building, automating and tinkering with just about everything.