eMail marketing complaints cost you money! by Chris Wheeler @ChrisAWheeler


As originally posted on the Bronto Blog

By now, most email marketers have probably come to understand that sending email is not without risk.  As with any marketing, knowing your audience and serving up something that will entice them to convert is key.  Two methods email recipients have to let you, as a marketer, know they don’t like what you’ve sent them is by either unsubscribing or lodging a complaint with their ISP (largest still is Yahoo! with 106MM unique US inboxes according to the latest report).

Note, these are not representative of recipients (your potential or existing customers) telling you they don’t care or are indifferent to what you’ve sent them.  But, rather, they’ve gone out of their way to deliberately tell someone they don’t appreciate the email (either you, directly via the unsubscribe or the ISP via a complaint).

Let’s dive into the complaints a bit more, though.  These little bits of data a recipient fires off to their ISP or 3rd party service (like SpamCop) have two effects:

  1. It signifies to the ISP that a subscriber of theirs has identified what she considers to be spam.  When these are added up over time and the recipient base, that ISP domain can begin blocking the sender.
  2. It is compiled in the email platform you’re using and usually, like with Bronto’s Sender Rating, can impact your ability to send email out.  Also, that recipient is unsubscribed from future mailings until they re-optin.

At its core, a spam complaint is a person raising their hand and saying “Yuck.”

How do you measure complaints? Based on the above effects, there’s real money being left on the table after every complaint is lodged.  It not only affects the LTV (define) but also shows the value of your program as determined by the aggregate of the recipients’ reactions.

Start Simple. If you don’t yet have a way to assign a monetary value to a complaint, take it slow.  Look at your marketing spreadsheets or your data warehouse (or wherever you keep the incremental value listed per customer/prospect, even if it’s on a legal pad somewhere) and ask yourself “How much will it cost me when one person tells me they don’t want any more email?”  Is it $10?  $5?  If you have really high incremental revenue per item, it may be more.  If you’re about providing a more informational email, it will be much lower.  But at some point, you need to define how many net dollars will come out of your budget each time a new recipient tells you “No!”

Stay consistent. Once you’ve got the value down, be sure to apply it to all recipients across the board fairly.  You can break down the values per mailing segment, but in my experience, it’s more effective to have the opportunity cost assigned multilaterally.  Makes it much easier to compare one campaign to the next within your campaign.

Be true to yourself. The whole point of email marketing in the first place is to spread the word about your company, service or product, right?  Pay attention to complaints coming in (of which any good email platform should expose) and act on this information.  Turning a blind eye or accepting the complaints as collateral damage for emailing will result in potentially alienating your recipients.  And, with that individual, you’ll lose their willingness in the future to even get your email.

Don’t be afraid of complaints; embrace them.  The spam complaint isn’t going anywhere soon.  Many ISPs still use it at as the glue tying senders to email performance, recipients are being trained more and more to just “spam it” from their own web or thick clients, and successful marketers know exactly how much a complaint drives out of their potential success in dollars.  Take action when receiving them and use your marketing savvy to avoid more in the future.

I’ll leave you with this thought…

39% of all respondents said they used the “report spam” button often or very often. – MarketingSherpa “Email Marketing Benchmark Guide 2008”

Take action when receiving complaints and use your marketing savvy to avoid more in the future.

Meet the author:

Chris Wheeler

Chris Wheeler

Chris Wheeler is leading the charge to ensure his ESP's customers and staff are well-informed about email marketing practices and technology as well as being the face of deliverability externally. Previously, he created the internal deliverability program at alongside program managing the operations of the email team and was at an ESP leading a team of deliverability consultants. Besides being a frequent contributor on, Chris is a part of many email industry forums, both business and technical.

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