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FBLs, complaints and unsubscribes

On one of my mailing lists there was a long discussion about the Q Interactive survey. Some of the senders on the list were complaining that unless ISPs provide FBLs they should not use complaints to make filtering decisions. The sender perspective is that it isn’t fair for the ISPs to have data and use it without sharing it back so that the senders could remove complainers.
This deeply, deeply misses the point.
The ISPs are in the business of keeping their users happy. Part of that is measuring how users react to mail. This includes providing “report spam” or similar buttons when they control the interface. Some ISPs have chosen to share that data back with senders. Some ISPs have made the choice not to share that information back.
But even the ISPs that share FBL data with senders do not expect that the only thing a sender will do is remove the email address. ISPs expect senders to actually pay attention, to not send mail that their recipients do not want. They expect that ESPs are going to notice that one customer has consistently high complaint rates and actually force their customer to stop sending mail that recipients think is spam.
Senders should keep track of complaint rates. Measure them per send. Do not waste time whining that this ISP or that ISP will not set you up with a FBL. Take the data from those ISPs that do have FBLs and measure it. It is extremely unlikely that a mailing will have grossly different complaint rates between ISPs. You have all the data you need in order to evaluate how your recipients are perceiving your email.
ESPs and senders who think that their only response to FBL complaints should be to remove that email are the ones most likely to have filtering and blocking problems. The ISPs are giving them valuable data that they can use to evaluate how their emails are being received. Instead of being ungrateful, wagging fingers and blaming the ISPs for not giving them the data they want, senders should spend more time focusing on what they can discover from the data that is shared with them.
A FBL email is more than an unsubscribe request, senders should stop focusing on the unsubscribe portion of the FBL process and focus more on the recipient feedback portion of it. What can you learn about your mail from a FBL?

3 comments

  1. DJ Waldow says

    Laura –
    Thanks for the great post. My first reaction was, “Whoa. I totally disagree.” But, as my wife reminds me to do all the time, I tried to not jump to conclusions and forced myself to read on. Your quote (below) is the key:
    “It is extremely unlikely that a mailing will have grossly different complaint rates between ISPs. You have all the data you need in order to evaluate how your recipients are perceiving your email.”
    As ESPs, we can identify “good” senders, “bad” senders and everyone inbetween. Part of our job is to provide complaint feedback to clients (through the UI and in our one-on-one discussions) to help make them better marketers. We also need to be diligent about “firing” bad clients that refuse to follow best practices.
    I think Elie Ashley of Gold Lasso summarizes it best in his Email Experience Council (Voices of Email) post: THE FROM LINE EXTENDED: Email Service Providers’ Dirty Little Secret – http://blog.emailexperience.org/2008/03/the_from_line_extented_email_s.html
    I have this discussion with clients all day long.
    Client: “My open rates are down…click-throughs are decreasing…complaints are up…messages are getting blocked…”
    DJ: “Let’s review your list growth process, ease of unsubscribe, message copy, subject line, etc.”
    Client: “But these are all opt-in. All subscribers have asked to be added to our list.”
    DJ: “If they are complaining, not opening, not clicking through…these are all signs that your emails are not wanted. In other words, go back to my first point above (review list growth process, unsub…).”
    I will push back on one of your points. How can ESPs honor unsubscribe requests from ISPs without FBL programs (read: Yahoo!) if senders are not aware that subscribers are asking to be removed (via “Mark as Spam” links)? Yes, we can tell which clients are “good” and which are “bad,” but will continue to send to that Yahoo! recipient until we know better.
    I look forward to some good conversation around this topic.
    dj at bronto

  2. laura says

    Hi, DJ,
    I think the disconnect here can be boiled down to: is your goal to send mail people do not complain about or is your goal to send mail that actively engages and interests your recipients? If your goal is to send mail that people don’t complain about, and thus get into the inbox at ISPs, then you are going to see problems with ISPs that measure user response and do not provide a FBL to senders. If your goal is to send mail that actively engages and interests your recipients, then you do not need the FBL in order to avoid being blocked.
    I agree it would be nice if ISPs were to provide a FBL to all senders, but realistically, that is not going to happen. So you need to look at the data you have about your mailings (or as an ESP about your customers’ mailings) and make reasonable assessments of how the recipients are responding to the mail.
    If the mail is being received badly, then the sender needs to take a step backwards and look at their overall email marketing program. One of the things I hammer into clients is list hygiene. Keep those lists clean. One way to do that is have a set process for engaging users after some period of time of inactivity. If you are actively only mailing people who are engaged and responsive to your mails, and purge off people who never click or never open a mail, then those Yahoo users that you mention will eventually be removed from your list.
    If your Yahoo complaints are so high that you are getting blocked, you have bigger issues. Again, step back, look at your program and focus on relevancy and engagement.
    Send mail that is relevant, send mail that your users want and, generally, you will not see complaint based blocking.

  3. DJ Waldow says

    Laura –
    Thanks for the prompt reply. I agree 100%. List hygiene is really critical. As you say, “Send mail that is relevant, send mail that your users want and, generally, you will not see complaint based blocking.”
    Stephanie Miller of Return Path does a nice job of highlighting this point in her post, “Worried About Deliverability? Focus on Relevance” – http://www.returnpath.net/blog/2008/03/worried-about-deliverability-f-1.php
    I’m hoping other ESPs as well as others in the email marketing community jump in and comment on this post. Thanks for starting (and continuing) the discussion.
    dj at bronto

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