Prelude to a Mystery

We received notice that the email address we use to send our daily emails ([email protected]) had been suspended due to spamming. (?!)

You understand that this is a bad thing, of course. But in case the gravity of this problem isn’t abundantly clear, let’s make it so: an email-first publisher is up S**t Creek without a paddle if their, ahem, EMAIL doesn’t work.

Monday morning felt kinda like the moment in The Social Network when Mark is mega-pissed at Eduardo for threatening Facebook’s core systems:

email suspension image

So, perhaps needless to say, we have a powerful incentive to pinpoint the root of this problem and make sure it never happens again. No prisoners.

And yet, despite our motivated efforts, the culprit has eluded us. This has become one of those no body, no crime* situations where clearly something went wrong, but there isn’t (yet) evidence to prove a damn thing.

We’ve kept looking for clues, but at a certain point we (like the police) have to move on. If the waters stay calm, the truth will stay buried in the cold gray depths forever.

But (ahem) let’s not get carried away.

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Having explained all of the above, the rest of the overview in three parts:

1️⃣ Thus far, all of the evidence is circumstantial. This means, for starters, that there’s no smoking gun or anything close to one; we genuinely can’t point the finger at any of our suspects. This also means, more broadly, that the current evidence can’t prove very much.

2️⃣ We have three vague “suspects,” none especially compelling yet. So, really, they’re more like “persons of interest” in terms of the current levels of sketch and skepticism.

Still, it’s worth noting the extra possibility that the suspension was caused by some combination of the suspects, even if none of the suspects could have caused the suspension alone.

Not gonna name ’em just yet… but we’ll start tomorrow. 😉

3️⃣ This investigation has borne fruit whether or not we determine the official root cause(s) of the suspension. Don’t get us wrong: we would definitely prefer to know how this happened. Still, even if that’s not in the cards for us, we will have identified some weaknesses and patched some holes and learned some new stuff (which we will share, of course).

More details to follow next time!

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The Math of Spam Complaints

IMPORTANT PREFACE: Our investigation here is ongoing, so the direction of this series could shift without warning. We don’t expect a sudden shift in what we’re discussing, but this series is one of the few times that’s even been possible.

Our first “suspect” is one of the most obvious: spam complaints. In other words, our hypothesis is that Google suspended us for “spamming” because too many people complained to that effect.

We’re starting with this theory not because it’s stronger (you’ll see), but because it’s a good clean starting point.

To keep things tidy, we’ll examine this hypothesis from two different angles: Math and Psychology. We’ll cover Math first because it’s usefully concrete and probably one of the easiest things to nail down for yourself.

The Math of Spam Complaints

Two essential questions here:

1️⃣ What’s the industry threshold for spam complaint rates? In other words, how many is too many? Where’s the line between Acceptable and Not?

2️⃣ How many spam complaints do YOU have? Having defined the line(s) between Acceptable and Not, which side are you on?

The latter is straightforward, but the former is surprisingly slippery…
#️⃣ HOW to CALCULATE SPAM COMPLAINT RATE

It’s just C ➗ D where…

C = Number of spam complaints proactively submitted by recipients
D = Number of messages delivered to recipients

So if you sent an email campaign to 10K people (D) and 5 of them submitted spam complaints (C), you’d have a complaint rate of 0.05%. Note that the recipient has to proactively mark you as spam (using the Mark as Spam button or the “it’s spam” option/reason for unsubscribing), so this figure doesn’t include instances where you’re automatically sent to the Spam folder.

It’s the same formula whether you’re trying to find a single campaign’s complaint rate OR the sender’s aggregate complaint rate over a period of time. You’ll just want to be aware of the distinction there.

⚠️ BEWARE COCKY BLOGGERS

Go searching on this subject and you’ll quickly realize that the details are NOT consistent from source to source.

This doesn’t necessarily mean people are just making stuff up. There’s a ton of ambiguity here because (A) specific expectations and rules can vary from one service provider to another, (B) amid the variations there’s very little true consensus, much less a set of ironclad universal standards, and (C) people are often lazy and don’t define their terms or context or sources clearly, even when those details are imperative for keeping things functioning downstream.

Here’s a working reminder not to trust the first thing you read. Of the dozen-or-so pieces we scanned for information, this one stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only does it claim that open rate affects your complaint rate—which is flat f**king false—but the author then has the nerve to close by saying: “If this doesn’t make perfect sense, ask questions until the math sinks in.”

Translation: It makes perfect sense to ME, so I’m right and I don’t need to explain (or check) myself and you need to ask questions until you catch up.

Stay far, far away from bulls**t like that. Arrogance aside, it’s just bad content.

What’s an Appropriate Spam-Complaint Threshold?

PLEASE remember to take this with a grain of salt, but the ballpark figure we’re comfortable repeating (using the above calculation) is 0.1%. Broadly speaking, if your spam complaint rate is below that, you’re good.

That might not be the absolute tip-top perfection of list health or deliverability, but metaphorically speaking, a doctor would still give you a clean bill of health.

Here’s a handy little graphic for putting that 0.1% figure in a bit more context:

likelihood complaint rate

There are more nuances, but… some other time. This thing’s already long. You can read ahead here if you want.

What’s theCLIKK’s Spam Complaint Rate?

We did the back-of-envelope math for 16 mails (four weeks’ worth) and our spam complaint rate was 0.011% for that period—which is deep in the green.

Long story short: it’s highly unlikely to be the source of our problem. Even so, it’s worth considering the reader’s perspective and how you can get marked as Spam more often than you’d think.

The Psychology of Spam Complaints

Real talk: spam complaints are kinda scary to think about. In the past, we’ve mentioned how it’s sad and uncomfortable to ponder your unsubscribers; they’re upsetting enough that we were compelled to share some advice on re-calibrating your thinking there.

But now, when we compare them to spam complaints, unsubs seem joyous and delightful. We love it when people leave peacefully and don’t wreck our s**t on the way out! Thank you, kind unsubscriber!

Granted, we’re doubly sensitive about our email stats because we’re an email-first publisher, but spam complaints constitute a potential business threat to most anyone in digital marketing. If that sounds like hyperbole, we’d counter that it’s math: your email list and deliverability have measurable dollar value (wherein the ROI is often ridonkulously high), and that’s the channel you erode or lose outright if enough spam complaints and/or other issues pile up.

You know spam complaints can cause problems… but how do they happen in the first place? Why might your readers submit spam complaints when (like us) you’re trying to be the complete opposite of spam?

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Here’s a list of nine reasons email readers might submit spam complaints about you. Some of these reasons make good sense and others are frickin’ stupid, but they’re all part of this shared reality:

1️⃣ You’re an actual spammer sending actual spam. Doesn’t describe you? Didn’t think so, but just checking.

If you were an actual spammer, your readers would have excellent reason to… you get it.

2️⃣ They hit “Mark as Spam” by accident. People accidentally click stuff in their email all the time (especially on mobile, where more and more email browsing happens). It just so happens that the Mark as Spam button is the single most unfortunate thing that someone could click by accident.

There’s actually an assumed rate for false positives (accidental clicks) on the Mark as Spam button. According to this source, it’s 3 spam complaints per 10,000 messages delivered, or 0.03% — which isn’t huge, but it’s something (just FYI).

3️⃣ They hate you with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Everyone still awake here? 😆

Still, since some of y’all had this one in the back of your minds, let’s address it real quick (if only because it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from accidents). Sure, this has happened before; perhaps you’ve even done it yourself. But (A) it’s not like people can hit “Mark as Spam” over and over again, and (B) 99.999% of people don’t have the energy, free time, or malice to do any worse.

As much as this one would suck… well, it’s not awful for a worst-case scenario.

4️⃣ They think “Mark as Spam” is synonymous with “Unsubscribe.” Which is an infuriating thought to entertain as marketers, but let’s acknowledge: we know more about email than 99% of other people, and we can’t escape the curse of knowledge.

Another infuriating thought: hitting “Mark as Spam” does technically accomplish the unsubscribing they set out to do, which means some people develop a habit of unsubscribing from things in that way. 😠

You might still assume some degree of email competence from the average person, enough to know the difference between “Mark as Spam” and “Unsubscribe.” But in cynical moments when we need to guesstimate “average intelligence,” we always return to George Carlin’s framing: think of how stupid the average person is, then realize that half of ‘em are stupider than that!

Don’t feel bad. You’re in the smart group. You read things. 🤓

5️⃣ They hit “Unsubscribe,” then choose the Spam reason when prompted. This is the secondary way of submitting spam complaints, after Mark as Spam and any equivalents thereof.

We’d be curious to know more about the thought process here, and how this group differs from the people who click “Mark as Spam” in the first place. But that’s getting into the weeds.

6️⃣ They’re having a really bad day and your message struck the wrong nerve. Kinda like the “passion of a thousand suns” thing, but less personally about you. Like, they probably would have unsubbed anyway, but you caught them on a glass-box-of-emotion kind of day and they did the Hulk-smashiest thing anyone can do in an email inbox.

We’re splitting hairs with this one because we needed a ninth reason. 🤷🏼‍♂️

7️⃣ They’re receiving too many messages from you. This is where the word “spam” gets blurry, and in a way that’s totally legitimate and fair to everyone.

Marketers define “spam” pretty narrowly; you have to be a scammer or hacker (or the unwitting victim of one) to spam anybody. You have to break very specific rules. The rest of the public agrees with us, but adds more; recall that the general public also uses the word “spam” to describe excessive messaging, not just scammy or deceptive messaging.

This is far and away the top reason people unsubscribe from email lists—and when you think of spam as “excess” instead of “fraud,” it’s a lot easier to see how some of those unsubscribes would wind up becoming spam complaints (especially given #4 and #5 above).

8️⃣ They’re not getting what they expected. This is a broad phrasing by design; expectations are half of success in a customer-facing business, so a lot of things can go wrong there.

Many of these situations are innocent misunderstandings, but it can easily feel like “spamming” when the emails you receive don’t match your expectations—because then the emails feel intrusive (and they keep coming). In the worst cases, the reader feels they’ve been bait-and-switched deliberately, at which point it just feels like spamming with foreplay (not better). In the mildest cases, the reader just doesn’t have a clear expectation for your mails, which makes them less likely to engage and more likely to eventually cause problems in other ways.

9️⃣ They can’t find the Unsubscribe button. This is the other big, serious, legitimate reason where you gotta try to see the reader’s point of view.

As we mentioned in this piece about email clipping, it is a BIG no-no to hide the unsubscribe button in any way, for any reason (even if it’s completely by accident because your mail clipped and that “cut off” the Unsubscribe button at the bottom). If you put yourself in their shoes, and imagine that you want to unsubscribe from something and couldn’t find the button, you’d probably get pissed and frustrated too. And if they really were hiding the button, we couldn’t blame you for hitting Mark as Spam.

One of the suggestions we found (which we very well might implement soon!) is adding a second Unsubscribe button/link near the top of the mail, or moving it up there permanently. If this idea makes you cringe—like we’re almost asking more people to unsubscribe—try to realize that (A) people already know it’s an option with every mail, (B) people don’t click who don’t already want to, and (C) the few people who do click it accidentally won’t actually unsubscribe, assuming your unsub prompt requires confirmation.

 

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