You don't have to be a spammer to be reported for spamming

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You don't have to be a spammer to get reported for spamming. If you're a legitimate marketer, and you send email newsletters and promotions long enough, you're going to get reported. It's just a matter of time. In fact, we've found that totally clean lists that are 100% double opt-in will get one or two abuse reports per 50,000 recipients. Sometimes it's just a simple mistake, such as an inexperienced user clicking on their "report abuse" button as a convenient way to "unsubscribe" from an email or "file away" what they consider "junk mail."

But even if it's a simple mistake, getting reported for abuse is pretty serious. If a major ISP (such as AOL) receives even a small handful of complaints about your emails, they'll start blocking all email from your server. And if you use MailChimp (or any email marketing service, for that matter) that means your emails can affect the deliverability of thousands of other legitimate marketers on our system. One bad apple can truly spoil the whole bunch.

And since it's virtually inevitable to receive spam complaints every now and then, email service providers like us are constantly monitoring abuse reports from ISPs, blackhole lists, and anti-spam networks so that we can immediately pinpoint any problems as they arise, and re-distribute email delivery to different servers and IP addresses while we investigate the account in question. You never knew email delivery was so complicated, did you?

When you receive an abuse report, you're kind of "guilty until proven innocent." All that the major ISPs care about is reducing unwanted email for its customers. There's no negotiating with them, and they don't have time to listen to excuses or long-winded explanations. And who can blame them? They're too busy trying to handle the bajillions of other spam complaints coming in.

But as long as you collected your email list legitimately, and you can prove without a doubt that any complaint you received is a simple mistake, you're in the clear. But if there's any question about your list collection practices, it's likely your account will have to be shut down. Incidentally, that's why our list management system uses double opt-in, and why our terms of use prohibit purchased and rented lists or opt-out lists. That kinda stuff generates too many complaints, even when they're technically or legally legit.

Okay, so now you know that even legitimate email marketers can receive spam complaints. And that it's almost inevitable. And when it happens, it's drop-dead serious. So let's talk about how abuse reports work, and how you can prevent them...

How Abuse Reports Work

When people receive what they think is "spam" or "junk mail," it's really easy to just click a button in their email program and label it as spam. When they do that, an "abuse report" is often created, and sent to their ISP. Lots of users don't even know this stuff is happening behind the scenes. And lots of users think the "spam" button is just a convenient way to unsubscribe from your list! If their ISP receives enough of these reports, they fire off an automated warning message to the sender. If you're using MailChimp to deliver your emails, that "sender" is "MailChimp.com." So it's our Abuse Desk staff who receive these warning messages. Usually, the report is very terse. It hides the identity of the person who is complaining. It usually includes a copy of the email you sent, plus something to the effect of "Our customers are complaining about your emails. You need to address this issue ASAP, or we'll start blocking all email from your servers."

If the complaints continue within a certain timeframe, that's it. All emails from that particular IP address of the sending server is blocked. Most of the time, it's a temporary block. For some ISPs, the block is permanent. Scary, huh? That's why we're constantly monitoring all incoming complaints. It's why we have human reviewers to approve all new accounts before they're allowed to send campaigns. It's why we monitor our outgoing mail queue all the time, and why sometimes, you'll hear from one of our reviewers with some tips on how you can make your email seem "less spammy".

Reasons for False Abuse Reports

So why do legitimate email marketers get falsely accused of sending spam? Sometimes, it's a simple mistake. But more often than not, it's the marketers' own fault. Yeah, that's pretty harsh. But it's true. Here are some common reasons marketers get accused of sending spam:

  • The marketer collected emails legitimately (through an opt-in form on their site), but took too long to contact his list. People receive full-blown email newsletters "out of the blue" and they don't remember opting in 2 years ago.
  • The marketer runs an online store. They've got thousands of email addresses of its customers who have purchased products from them in the past. Now, they want to start emailing them. Instead of asking people to join the email marketing list, they just start blasting offers out.
  • The marketer is exhibiting at a trade show. The trade show organization has provided the marketer with a list of attendee email addresses. Instead of emailing those people an invitation to join their list (along with a little explanation about how they got their emails from the tradeshow), the marketer just assumes they have permission, and start emailing full-blown newsletters and promos.
  • Fish bowls and business cards. Yep, we've all dropped our business cards into a fish bowl somewhere to win some free lunch, or a t-shirt, or a door prize of some sort. To marketers, it's common sense that the fish bowl is a list collection technique. To prospects, it's just a free lunch.
  • Purchasing or renting members' email addresses from an organization, then just adding them to their list without getting permission first.

There's a common theme here. In all of the above cases, the missing element is PERMISSION. The marketers are caught up in legal rules and definitions. But it's not enough to be legal. You've got to have permission, too.

Ways to Prevent Abuse Reports

Hopefully, by now you understand that permission is extremely important, and that without permission, you're going to be reported for abuse (whether the email is legit or not). So here are some ways to prevent spam complaints:

  • Use the double opt-in method. This is standard in MailChimp's list management feature. If you use double opt-in, you have proof that each and every recipient gave you permission to send them emails. Period.
  • Even if they're your customers, don't send promotions without permission first. Setup a separate "marketing list" for customers to join. Tell them you're about to start up a great email newsletter, or promotions program, and give them reasons (or free prizes) for signing up. Don't just send them promotions "out of the blue."
  • Don't use purchased lists. They're a waste of money, and they're just plain wrong. Even if you acquired them legally, they're against our terms of use.
  • Don't hide your opt-out link. Make it very prominent. People who no longer wish to receive your emails are going to click your "Unsubscribe" link, or their "This is spam" button. Which would you prefer? Some marketers are placing the "Unsubscribe" link at the top of their emails, so they're easy to find. We think this is a best practice, and we highly recommend it.
  • Make sure your email looks reputable. If you're not a designer, hire one. Your email needs to look like it came from your company, not some scammer who is phishing for information. If your email looks unprofessional, who would trust your unsubscribe link?
  • Set expectations when people opt-in to your list. If people sign up for monthly newsletters, but you also send them weekly promotions, they're going to report you for spamming. Set expectations. Tell them what you'll be sending, and how often. Setup different lists (one for newsletters, one for special offers and promotions). Understand that there's a difference between soft-sell newsletters and hard-sell promotions. Don't mix them up.

More information

We hope you found this useful. If you're interested in how all the different "abuse reporting" systems work, and what email service providers like us have to do to "stay off the blacklists," here are some resources for you:

  • Guidelines for proper list management from MAPS, a major anti-spam blacklist service.
  • AOL's Feedback Loop - The automated system that lets you know when your emails are generating spam reports.
  • SpamCop Abuse Reports - If you get on the SpamCop blackhole list, email servers all over the world block your emails. One of the leading anti-spam organizations around. One of the few organizations that will listen to reason.
  • Abuse.net - Sort of a "411" for abuse complaints. If you send email that someone thinks is spam, this is where they (of their ISP) look for contact information. If you're not listed here, you look kinda fishy.
  • ESPC - Email Senders and Providers Coalition - Organization for ESPs, ISPs, and email marketers in general. Best practices and legal issues are discussed here. We're a member. If you send (or receive) lots of email, you should consider joining.
  • NANAE - Where email server admins and anti-spammers meet and talk online. You'll understand all the headaches they go through, and why you don't want to be forced into explaining yourself to these people.

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