Time for marketers to fix the 'report spam' button?

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on April 3, 2008

Time for marketers to fix the 'report spam' button?

The online marketing firm Q Interactive has published the results of its 'Spam Complainers' survey, jointly conducted with MarketingSherpa, having found some serious problems with the way in which e-mail spam complaints are handled by ISPs and marketers alike.

The aim of the survey was to better understand consumers' perceptions of what they consider to be 'spam', why they report certain e-mails as spam, and what they think actually happens when they click a 'Report Spam' button.

From unsolicited to unwanted Among the most important findings of the study was the fact that the definition of spam has effectively changed from the permission-based regulatory definition of "unsolicited commercial e-mail" to a more perception-based definition centred on consumer dissatisfaction.

More than half of the survey's respondents (56%) said they consider marketing messages from known senders to be spam if the message "is just not interesting to me", while 50% cited "too-frequent e-mails from companies I know" and 31% cited "e-mails that were once useful but aren't relevant anymore".

What makes consumers report spam? When it came to using the 'Report Spam' button that many ISPs and e-mail  services provide, 48% cited reasons other than "I did not sign up for this e-mail". In fact, respondents cited a variety of non-permission-based reasons for clicking the button, including "the e-mail was not of interest to me" (41%), "I receive too much e-mail from the sender" (25%), and "I receive too much e-mail from all senders" (20%).

There is also a pervasive confusion among consumers regarding what they believe will happen as a result of clicking the 'Report Spam' button, which suggests that ISPs need to make their anti-spam actions clearer, more definite, and better communicated. More than half of respondents (56%) thought that it would filter out all e-mail from that sender, while 21% believed it would notify the sender that the recipient did not find their e-mail useful. Worryingly, 47% believed that they would somehow be unsubscribed from an e-mail list by clicking the button.

The survey also found that a large number of consumers (43%) simply ignore advertiser-supplied unsubscribe links in e-mails and rather selfishly use the ISP's 'Report Spam' button, regardless of whether or not the e-mail fits any definition of spam. Moreover, 21% reported consciously using the button to try to unsubscribe from e-mail lists that they specifically did not consider to be spam.

A call to action As an e-mail marketing provider, Q Interactive is worried about the serious disconnect between consumers' understanding and use of 'Report Spam' buttons, as well as their definitions of 'spam'. Spam complaints are the primary metric that ISPs use to determine e-mail delivery, and the study showed that consumers don't really understand how the complaint system works and that e-mailers don't really understand how consumers define spam.

To address this problem, Q Interactive has called for ISPs, marketers, advertisers and publishers to come together with industry associations such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) 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:

  1. Replace the 'Report Spam' button with buttons that more clearly indicate consumers intentions (such as an "unsubscribe" button and an "undesired" button).  
  2. ISPs should categorise e-mail senders based on their practices to identify and reward senders who follow best practices in terms of both transparency and permission.

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