Consumers Believe Spam Means Unwanted, Not Unsolicited Email

No SpamThe common definition of email spam may be any piece of mail that isn’t opt-in or “solicited.” But the recent “Spam Complainers Survey” conducted by Q Interactive and Marketing Sherpa set out to see what email recipients consider spam, why they report spam and what they expect reporting spam accomplishes.

The findings should make any email marketer nervous:

  • 56% feel email from known senders is spam if it’s “just not interesting to me”

  • 50% believe “too frequent emails from companies I know” is spam
  • 31% are irked by “emails that were once useful but are not relevant anymore”

Opt-in subscription is not enough.

Customer Perceptions on Reporting Spam

ISPs and hosted email services offer “report spam” tools to help customers reduce the unwanted inbox messages. Sometimes customers don’t recognize your sender name or forget they signed up to hear from you. But 48% reported they mark items as spam for reasons other than “did not sign up for email,” including:

  • “The email was not of interest to me” – 41%

  • “I receive too much email from the sender” – 25%
  • “I receive too much email from all senders” – 20%

ISPs use the “report spam” tool to determine email delivery, but customers believe reporting spam either filters email from that sender, unsubscribes them from a mailing list or notifies the sender that the email was irrelevant to the recipient. Even when unsubscribe links were provided, 43% will use the “report spam” link instead, even when they don’t believe the email is spam – they just want to unsubscribe.

Is Spam Reporting Broken?

Q Interactive concludes that the current system of combatting email spam is flawed. Because people misunderstand what the “report spam” link is for, and what spam really is – many emails that are not really spam get flagged, which hurts the sender’s reputation.

A proposed solution is to replace ISP “report spam” links with more descriptive labels that match the email recipient’s real intent like “unsubscribe” and “unwanted.”

Certainly this puts more pressure on email marketers to send highly relevant offers through personalization and list segmentation. Email frequency should also be examined, since 50% don’t want to hear from you too often. But even on one-off emails, you never know who’s going to find your message relevant at any given time.

Gap brand Piper Lime does this well, asking for feedback in the message: “Tell us your birthday. And while you’re at it, tell us which emails you want. That way you’ll get all the good stuff and a special treat on your big day. Talk to us.”

Tell Us Your Birthday

Although the segmentation is more of what departments are you interested in, rather than what type of offers / messages.

What Do You Want?

What do you think? Is a nationwide public service campaign to educate people on how to use their email accounts is in order? Should ISPs change their system? Is there anything email marketers can do?

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5 Responses to “Consumers Believe Spam Means Unwanted, Not Unsolicited Email”

  1. NewSunSEO says:

    Hello, I get tons of spam emails every day from scams and people I have never heard of. I consider spam to be basically unwanted emails. Spam comes from emailing lists and some of them offer an unsubscribe feature which is easy to be removed. On the other hand, some do not leaving you with unwanted messages.

  2. Personally, I’m hesitant to press the “Unsubscribe” link in promotional emails. A lot of legitimate spammers use that link not as an opt-out but as a test to determine whether or not your email account is live; clicking that link tells spammers that you DO check your email which will result in more spam from them.

    Certainly, legit retailers wouldn’t trick subscribers like that. But I have a tough time remembering which newsletters I actually signed up for and which ones are spam.

    This is why I just use Gmail’s “Report Spam” link, even when I’m not 100% sure if I actually signed up for the newsletter.

    In addition to following proper newsletter etiquette, it might be worthwhile for retailers to remind newsletter recipients that they did indeed sign up for the newsletters themselves. How to do this? I’m not sure. Calling them by name (e.g. “Hi Eddie, we have a great sale going on at…”) might not be good enough.

  3. Eddie – In my experience, the only ones who use the opt out link to ‘test’ email addresses are obviously spam. (links are IP addresses, full of spelling mistakes, offering something ridiculous)

    Especially if the email is HTML based, they wouldn’t do this, sad to say, because as soon as you open the email, the sender knows it’s a real email address. (That being said, if they are using a legitimate email service provider, you likely don’t need to worry.)

    Ok, back to what I was really going to say! As much as we’d love to blame consumers for not knowing any better. I think the blame lies on marketers who’ve been shady and/or lazy about their email practices. We’ve had the technology to provide relevant meaningful emails for years, yet few are still adopting a real strategy around it.

    Email marketers should be clear about opt ins, setting expectations for subscribers, while building trust and a mutually beneficial relationship with subscribers (through proper targeting and segmentation).

  4. Dr. Pete says:

    I’ve had this exact problem with clients. Their own customers who needed the update they were sending (i.e. it was communicative, not promotional) would report it as spam, just because they didn’t like the headline or didn’t remember the sender. I’m not sure self-report is a good method at this point.

    I also had many issues with the various self-proclaimed spam police and blacklist managers out there. As bad as spammers are (and I hate spammers as much as the next guy), there are a lot of anti-spam warriors who are more concerned with their own street cred and blacklisting people they don’t like than with actually fighting spam.

  5. My email marketing has been marked as spam before and involved contacting all the blacklisting companies out there simply because users decided that a double opt in and a simple ‘remove me’ link in every email wasn’t sufficient enough.

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