In Praise of Spam Complaints

June 07, 2017
Written by
Will Boyd
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own

In Praise of Spam Complaints

Complainers. Who needs them? Besides, you’re sending email with great offers or valuable information that people should want. And if people really don’t want your email, they should just unsubscribe. Amiright?

If you as an email sender have ever noticed an uptick in spam complaints after your campaigns, you’ve probably had similar thoughts as above. It’s very easy for anyone to hear or read the word “complaint” and immediately think, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

The phrase “spam complaint” can feel like an even bigger slap in the face. After all, the email you are sending is nothing like the malicious scams you see in your spam folder.

However, as an email marketer, these complaints aren’t really an insult to your brand. Rather, they are an effective instrument that enables you to improve and maximize your email program.

Learning to listen to, rather than fight against, spam complaints is a key skill of advanced email marketers.

Think of this skill like email judo where, instead of opposing the force coming at you, you take in the momentum of your opponent and use it to your advantage. To do this, you first need to know what these complaints are telling you.

What your spam complaints mean

The most important factor contributing to email marketing success is whether or not you are sending wanted email. When recipients open or click links in your messages, those are signals that, for the most part, indicate someone likes what you’re sending. Spam complaints, on the other hand, are telling you and the inbox providers that your email is unwanted. Understanding that signal is one thing. Determining why your email is unwanted is another (and quite a bit harder).

Typically speaking, recipients report a message as spam based on only a few criteria such as:

  • Whether or not they recognize the brand as one they’ve signed up to hear from
  • How easy or hard it is to unsubscribe from the messages
  • How relevant/irrelevant they feel the content, subject line, or both are

For more background on why recipients report messages as spam, email expert Chad White at Litmus has posted a nice report on the subject.

Email address collection methods

Whenever I assist a sender with spam complaint issues, the first thing I look at is how the email addresses were collected. Examining the sign-up process quite often gives you the most valuable insights into why recipients might report your messages as spam. When evaluating your sign-up process, ask yourself:

  • Does this process clearly and accurately set the subscriber's expectations as to what type of content they are signing up to receive?
  • Is it clear to the subscriber "who" they are signing up to hear from?
  • Does the sign-up process clearly set proper expectations as to how often subscribers will receive email from you?
  • Is the sign-up process properly secured to prevent abuse from bots or automated sign-up attacks?

If there are any points that can be tweaked to be more clear to the subscriber or more accurately set their expectations, those improvements will help mitigate instances of your subscribers feeling like your email is spam.

Content review

Once the sign-up process has been evaluated and optimized, the next thing I encourage senders to examine is their content. When evaluating your content in relation to spam complaints, I suggest asking:

  1. Is the opt-out mechanism hard to find for subscribers? Could it be more prominent or accessible? (an opt-out is always better for you, as a sender, than a spam complaint)
  2. Does the content being sent accurately match what the subscriber was requesting when they signed up to hear from you?
  3. Do you send a welcome email to subscribers as soon as they sign up? Do you ask recipients to confirm their subscription?
  4. Are you sending email at a frequency that could be overwhelming subscribers? Does your frequency match the expectations your sign-up process sets?
  5. Are you utilizing personalization in your subject lines? If not, can you?
  6. Are you using ALL CAPS in your subject lines or lots of exclamation points!!!!!?
  7. Is the content you are sending, or the subject lines you use, repetitive?
  8. Is your content optimized for mobile?

For more information, advice, and specific strategies on how to grow your email list the right way, check out our interactive How To Grow Your Email Marketing List guide.


Ultimately, inbox providers are striving to only allow wanted email to the inbox. When they see your campaigns generating too many spam complaints (in general, inbox providers expect to see a rate of spam complaints no more than 0.08%.), they will begin filtering your messages directly to the spam folder.

You, as a sender, are not able to control how recipients react to your messages. However, you are able to control the manner in which subscribers sign up to hear from you and how you communicate with those subscribers.

When someone signs up for your email program, they are not giving you a blank check to do with their email address as you wish. Rather, they are entering into a relationship with you. Examining those pieces you control to make sure that you are fulfilling, and not abusing, the subscribers’ expectations is key to building a strong relationship with your subscribers and mitigating spam complaint issues.


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