Report spam button broken

Q Interactive and Marketing Sherpa published a press release today about how fundamentally broken the “report spam” button is. They call for ISPs to make changes to fix the problem. I think the study on recipient perceptions is useful and timely. There is an ongoing fundamental paradigm shift in how ISPs are handling email filters. ISPs are learning how to measure a senders collective reputation with end users, and, more importantly integrate that reputation into the equation used to determine how to filter and deliver incoming email.
Q Interactive and Marketing Sherpa acknowledge this change in the report:

Among the most striking findings of the study is the fact that the definition of spam has effectively changed from the permission-based regulatory definition of “unsolicited commercial email” to a perception-based definition centered on consumer dissatisfaction.

Yes, exactly. ISPs are blocking mail that their users are saying they do not want. From both an end user and an ISP perspective it is exactly what they should be doing. End users want the email they want and do not want the email they do not want. The ISPs have given the end user a way to provide feedback and make mail they do not want stop arriving.
Further, the press release says:

Over half of the participants, 56 percent, consider marketing messages from known senders to be spam if the message is “just not interesting to me”, while 50 percent of respondents consider “too frequent emails from companies I know” to be spam and 31 percent cite “emails that were once useful but aren’t relevant anymore”. (Respondents could select more than one answer for multiple questions in the survey.)

This should be a giant wakeup call to marketers. People who have consented to receive your mail get annoyed if you send to much to them, or send mail they’re not interested in to them, or send mail that is no longer relevant to them. Then they hit the “report spam” button. This hurts a sender’s reputation at an ISP and may result in mail being blocked or deferred by the ISPs.
This is great information for the marketer. You need to know your audience. You need to send them email at the rate they want. You need to send them email that is relevant to them. This is the same thing that myself and other email delivery experts have been hammering at over and over again: send relevant mail that your recipients want to receive. If you do this, then you will not have delivery problems.
The press release, however, comes to a different conclusion.

As an email marketing partner for many Fortune 500 brands, we constantly seek to understand email deliverability and consumers’ perception of online marketing messages,” said Matt Wise, president and chief executive officer of Q Interactive. “What this survey uncovered is a major disconnect in consumers’ understanding and use of the ‘report spam’ button, as well as consumers’ definition of spam from ‘I didn’t sign up for it’ to ‘I don’t like it’ — all of which signal that the current system of email spam filtering is a broken process.”
“Spam complaints are the primary metric that ISPs use to determine email delivery. This study shows that consumers don’t really understand how the complaint system works and that emailers don’t understand how consumers define spam,” commented Stefan Tornquist, research director, MarketingSherpa.
To address this problem, Q Interactive calls for ISPs, marketers, advertisers and publishers to come together with industry associations such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau to agree on a solution that is beneficial to consumers and all interested parties. To begin the dialogue, Q Interactive suggests two points for discussion:
— Replace the broken ‘report spam’ button with buttons that more clearly
indicate consumers’ intentions such as an ‘unsubscribe’ button and an
‘undesired’ button.
— ISPs should categorize email senders based on their practices to
identify and reward senders who follow best practices in transparency
and permission.

Uh… What?
I think this is a demonstration of the disconnect between traditional marketing (telemarketing and direct mail especially) and email marketing. In traditional marketing, annoying 100 people in order to make 1 sale is an acceptable ratio. Print marketers are hard to find, recipients do not have an easy way to send negative feedback, and there are a lot of barriers to giving any feedback other than a purchase. There is no disincentive for marketers not to send so much mail that they annoy recipients. In email marketing, however, the field is not tilted so far in the marketer’s favor. Recipients, at least those at major ISPs, can provide feedback about the email marketing they receive. They have a way to communicate back to the marketer that they do not have in other forms of marketing.
This ability to provide feedback means that annoying 100 people in order to make 1 sale is no longer an effective marketing approach and, more often than not, results in blockage by an ISP. As I see it, there is zero incentive for ISPs to change this. End users like the ability to provide feedback and to make the junk in their inbox stop, even if they cannot effectively make it stop in their mailbox. In fact ISPs are including more and more feedback from the end user in their reputation calculations.
Reputation is not just about your reputation with the people at the ISPs maintaining the filters and filtering mechanisms. More and more your collective reputation with endusers affects your reputation at ISPs. For ISPs this seems to be an effective way to make delivery decisions and I do not expect it to change in the near future.
What does this mean for senders? Send relevant, timely mail that your recipients want to receive. Stop treating your recipients as a monolithic group and gambling that statistically you are going to find someone that will positively respond to an email and and start treating recipients as individuals that you are trying to communicate to directly.


  1. Huey says

    “Spam complaints are the primary metric that ISPs use to determine email delivery. This study shows that consumers don’t really understand how the complaint system works and that emailers don’t understand how consumers define spam,” commented Stefan Tornquist
    For some folks, that’s certainly true. But I think that quote works better with ‘care’ instead of that first ‘understand’. It’s simply not IMPORTANT to the consumer what happens when they click that button, and the marketers had better come to understand that.

  2. Seth says

    I think that users do care what happens when they click the button: they get less of the kind of stuff they clicked it on. That’s important to them; it’s why they bother clicking it in the first place.
    If the label changed to be the more accurate “Deliver less of this crap” and ISPs treated it exactly the same, what difference would there be?

  3. Spam News says

    Links Roundup…
    Enraged AT&T spam filter eats legitimate mail AT&T’s Spam Filter Gets A Bit Too Aggressive Spyware ‘scammer’ sued over PC pop-up invasion Study Finds E-mail Recipients Misunderstand “Report Spam” Buttons Report spam button broken Can Yo…

  4. Jack Hogan says

    I think that this study underscores what a lot of us in the sending community would like to have further dialog on with the ISPs present. If we take the massive disconnect of ISP complaint buttons and the intelligent Spam filters they support as well as the Feedback loops that they feed, this study highlights the need for better, more collaborative and transparent systems. ISPs need to take into consideration that their systems can cause subscriber backlash that is damaging of every senders bottom line and consumer reputation even though that is not their intent.

  5. Spam Complaints - Your Own Focus Group | MailChimp Blog says

    […] There’s an interesting post over at the Word To The Wise blog about the “Report Spam” button. […]


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.