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Why don't users want that mail?

Things are extremely busy here and blogging is going to be light for a few weeks. I’ll be reposting some older blog posts that are still relevant for today’s email senders.
Today’s post is a repost from July 2009. I discuss why recipients complain about mail and how senders can lower the complaint rates. While this addresses complaint rates directly, the same series of questions can be used to investigate almost any change in performance. 

Why do recipients complain about my email?

This question is asked over and over again and there is no one single answer. There are a number of reasons and all of them interact with one another.

What factors contribute to recipient complaints?

  • High frequency – mail that is too frequent can annoy recipients and they’ll hit this is spam
  • Low frequency – mail that is too infrequent may be unfamiliar and unexpected and recipients will report the mail as spam
  • Content – mail that has content that recipients don’t like can annoy recipients into reporting spam
  • Mailing after recipient has unsubscribed – while CAN SPAM provides for 10 days to process an unsubscribe request, recipients often have much shorter expectations
  • Unrequested mail – do you really have permission from the recipient? Do they want and expect your email?
  • Mistake – sometimes recipients select large portions of their mail box and report all the mail as spam. Real mail can get caught in the selection and reported as spam.

The only one of these issues that is outside the control of the sender is the mistaken complaint. All the others are things that senders can affect.
Here at Word to the Wise, I often work with clients who are seeing delivery problems related to high complaint rates and the resultant poor reputation. I work with these kinds of clients to sift through their data to maintain as many good email addresses as possible. At the same time, in order to improve reputation the number of unengaged recpients needs to be as low as possible.  Working closely with clients I help them design and implement a strategy for list hygiene to improve reputation, response and return.

How do I know why recipients are complaining?

This is not one of those things that we can just ask recipients directly. Most recipients just do not want to hear from a sender and get even more resentful when they get mail after a complaint. When I’m working with a client to investigate high complaint rates, I start with a series of questions about the complaints.
I believe if you don’t know what is causing the complaints, then you can’t resolve the underlying problem. I start with a number of questions for my clients.

  • Is this unusual complaint behaviour? If so, what changed recently?
    • Have you added new addresses from a new source?
    • Have you resolved a problem resulting in more emails in the inbox?
    • Did you change our frequency?
    • Did you mail new or unique content?
  • Are complaint rates consistently high?
    • How are you treating our recipients?
    • Are you sending mail they expect and anticipate?
    • Are you actually sending opt-in mail?
    • Are you setting expectations appropriately during the opt-in process?

Working through those questions usually points to an issue with a particular mailing program that can be addressed and resolved.

Can I just remove complainers and not worry about the complaint rates?

In my experience, it is rare that a high complaint rate is the only problem with a mailing program. Usually, I find there are other list performance problems including poor open rates, poor click through rates, all evidence of low recipient engagement.
It can be a challenge to fix a mailing program with high complaints and low recipient engagement. The process takes longer than many senders like. It seems simpler to just deal with today’s delivery problem and hope there isn’t one tomorrow. That’s a short sighted approach. For longer term fixes, senders need to address the systemic issues that are causing the delivery problems.

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