Whenever you get email marketing that you weren't expecting, or that you never even requested, what do you do (after cursing the name of the person who sent it)? You click that "this is spam" button in your email program. Heck, according to some studies, 30% of recipients click "this is spam" for email marketing campaigns, even if they specifically requested it from the sender!

In this article:

What's the big deal?

Some really scary stuff happens behind the scenes whenever someone clicks that spam button. First, a message is sent to their ISP (like AOL, MSN, Hotmail, Earthlink, Yahoo, Comcast etc.). That message says "I think these guys are spamming me." Then their ISP starts watching you, because you've aroused their suspicions. If enough people on their network report your email as spam to them, they'll block all future emails from you. How many abuse reports are enough to get you "blacklisted"? ISPs all have different thresholds, but 0.01% is the number that's most often discussed by people in the email deliverability business.

It's even worse than you think. Some ISPs don't even require a human to report your email to them. Some of them will block your emails if automatic spam filters think your messages are "spammy" for whatever reason (like using red fonts, or the phrase, "click here!"). Some ISPs use firewalls that can read reported spam, and blacklist URLs that are in the content (so not only will your company's email server get blocked, but so could ALL emails that have ANY links related to your company). And ISPs and anti-spam services often share their records with each other. Finally, once you get blacklisted, it almost takes a miracle to get de-listed. That's because most blacklists are run in secrecy. If you want to contact the owners, you usually have to post messages on public anti-spam forums, and hope they're lurking. Then, pray they take you off the list (after a thorough verbal-flogging by the other members of the forum, of course). Send one bad campaign, and your email marketing efforts could be compromised for a very, very long time. Yikes.

What to do instead

If even a handful of spam complaints can cause serious deliverability issues for your company, what can you do to avoid them?

  • Never, under any circumstances, send email marketing to anyone that hasn't requested newsletters from you. Got a list of prospects (customers, friends, family who've done business with you)? Send them a one to one (that's through your own email, not a bulk service) invitation to join your email marketing list. Don't just start sending them email newsletters or promotions.
  • Never, ever, ever send email marketing to a purchased list, to emails you "scraped" from websites, or to a list of people you just assume would want to hear from you (even if they're in your industry, or co-members of some trade association). You might not piss them all off, but a tiny handful is all it takes to get yourself blacklisted. At MailChimp, we've had to shut down the accounts of countless real estate agents, trade show vendors, photographers, and one Alpaca farmer for violating this rule.
  • When people sign up for your email list, use the double opt-in method. Basically, when they submit your opt-in form, they'll receive an email with a "Please click to confirm that you want to receive emails from me" link in it. Using this method, people will only be added to your list if they truly want to hear from you. People are used to this, so don't worry that they might think it's too hard to sign up.
  • All throughout your opt-in confirmation process, ask subscribers to add your email address to their contacts list or address book. This will "whitelist" your emails, so they won't get accidentally blocked (or reported as spam) in the future.
  • If you have an old list, you should ask for permission again. If you haven't been in contact with them within the last 6 months or so, chances are extremely high that they've forgotten who you are, let alone signing up for your list. Instead of sending them a full blown email promotion or newsletter, send a very brief, "Hey, remember us? Still want emails from us?" reminder email.

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