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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