Email Marketers in Trouble as ‘Spam’ Definition Evolves to Mean ‘Unwanted’

March 25, 2008

This article is included in these additional categories:

Email | Retail & E-Commerce

The definition of spam has effectively changed from “unsolicited commercial email,” an idea based on permission, to a perception-based definition – i.e., it’s unwanted – according to the “Spam Complainers Survey” by Q Interactive and MarketingSherpa.

The survey sought to determine consumers’ perceptions of what spam is, why they report emails as spam and what they think happens when the “report spam” button is clicked.

Below, some of the survey findings.

From Unsolicited to Unwanted

Most consumers don’t accurately comprehend the term “spam”:

  • Over half of survey participants – 56% – consider marketing messages from known senders to be spam if the message is “just not interesting to me.”
  • 50% of respondents consider “too frequent emails from companies I know” to be spam.
  • 31% cite “emails that were once useful but aren’t relevant anymore.”

Regarding the use of the “report spam” button – the primary tool that internet service providers (ISPs) provide consumers to counter spam – nearly half of respondents (48%) provided a reason other than “did not sign up for email” for reporting an email as spam.

Respondents cited various non-permission-based reasons for hitting the spam button:

  • “The email was not of interest to me” (41%).
  • “I receive too much email from the sender” (25%).
  • “I receive too much email from all senders” (20%).

Consequences of Reporting Spam Unclear

Confusion is pervasive among consumers regarding what they believe will happen as a result of clicking the “report spam” button:

  • Over half of respondents, 56%, reported that it will “filter all email from that sender.”
  • 21% said it will notify the sender that the recipient did not find that specific email useful so the sender will “do a better job of mailing me” in the future.
  • 47% said they would be unsubscribed from the list by clicking “report spam,” whereas 53% do not think that’s the case.

Not surprisingly, accompanying such confusion is the frequent misuse of the “report spam” button:

  • A large number of consumers, 43%, forgo advertiser-supplied unsubscribe links in email and simply use the ISP’s “report spam” button to unsubscribe from an advertiser’s list – regardless of whether the email fits the consumer’s definition of spam.
  • A full one in five consumers (21%) use the “report spam” button to unsubscribe from email that they specifically do not consider spam.

Broken System

“What this survey uncovered is a major disconnect in consumers’ understanding and use of the ‘report spam’ button, as well as consumers’ definition of spam from ‘I didn’t sign up for it’ to ‘I don’t like it’–all of which signal that the current system of email spam filtering is a broken process,” said Matt Wise, president and chief executive officer of Q Interactive.

“Spam complaints are the primary metric that ISPs use to determine email delivery. This study shows that consumers don’t really understand how the complaint system works and that emailers don’t understand how consumers define spam,” said Stefan Tornquist, research director, MarketingSherpa.

Q Interactive suggests that ISPs’ “report spam” button be replaced with those that more clearly indicate consumers’ intentions, such as an “unsubscribe” button and an “undesired” button.


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