Moan, Moan, Moan – All You Ever Do Is Complain! Part 1

The complaint activity generated by email programs represents a key performance indicator. Program owners are, usually, more focused on opens, clicks, and conversions but complaint rates are equally important because:

  • Mailbox providers use it when making inbox placement decisions.
  • It provides senders with a strong signal of negative engagement with their programs.
  • Complaint levels determine compliance with Return Path’s Certification program.

Senders often react with surprise when confronted with high complaint rates – “but my emails aren’t spam – everyone on my list opted-in to receive them!” In reality, complaints are generated for a variety of reasons.

This blog is the first in a series of four in which we’ll look at some of the most common complaint drivers. If any of them apply to your email program, we’ll also provide some practical ideas for how to deal with them.

Part 1: Starting Out

Many complaints are generated right at the start of a new subscriber relationship. Complaining soon after signing up for an email program may seem counter-intuitive – why sign-up to an email program, only to immediately hit the spam button?  These subscriber complaints are often about consent –subscribers may not believe they are part of your email program in the first place! Here are some examples:

  1. I didn’t sign-up with your email program (part 1): If recipients didn’t consent to receive your emails then you’re asking for complaints – and possibly breaching governing legislation too. Marketers, then, should proceed with caution when using 3rd-party opt-in data. Many of these mailbox owners never intended that your program would use their email addresses. Research shows 3rd-party data produces complaint rates much greater than for 1st-party.Recommendations:
    • Carry out due diligence into how any 3rd-party email address data has been sourced.
    • Review the opt-in process for any co-registration partner.
    • If possible, separate it from your 1st-party data, so to not impact reputation metrics.
    • Operate a more aggressive recency strategy for this data.
  2. I didn’t sign-up with your email program (part 2): Sometimes this is truly the case. Typos, finger fumbles, or subscribers who don’t know their “.com” from their “” mean it’s entirely possible that incorrect addresses are supplied to your program, which are valid nonetheless. When the real owners of these addresses receive these emails, they’re going to complain. Another implication is some of the most common mis-spellings are spam traps, and you’ll be viewed as a bad sender if you broadcast to these addresses.Recommendations:
    • Insist on double-entry of the email addresses at point of sign-up.
    • Use a confirmed/validated opt-in process.
    • Regularly screen your list for malformed domains (e.g.
    • Use a real-time address verification service.
  3. I didn’t think I signed up with your email program: Forgetting about signing up often happens when using passive opt-in process. New subscribers are either presented with a pre-checked consent box or they must check an empty box if they don’t want to receive emails. Either approach may result in subscribers opting-in without being aware that have provided consent. In the UK, a recent court case involving the retailer John Lewis ruled that passive opt-in did not constitute adequate consent.Recommendations:
    • Senders should use a positive opt-in mechanism, where new subscribers provide an active indication of consent.
  1. I only signed up with your email program: Subscribers will complain if they believe they signed up to receive emails from brand A, and subsequently receive them from brands B, C, and D as well! There are two ways this can happen: 1) where several brands operate within a parent company, or; 2) permission is given for personal details to be shared with “trusted partners” (or similar wording!).Recommendations:
    • Explicitly name all brands that emails will be received from.
  2. I only gave consent so I could create an account with you: When subscribers create a new account with a brand, they are often asked to provide an email address. This is sometimes provided grudgingly – the new member doesn’t actually want to receive marketing emails, but providing an email address is mandatory. When the first email is received the spam button is used to ensure that it will also be the last!Recommendations:
    • Don’t automatically opt-in new account holders to receive emails.
    • Clearly articulate the benefits of being a program member.
    • Use a progressive registration approach to offer promotional emails at a later stage.

In this first blog, the common theme has been one of “unwillingness” – complaints that have been generated by recipients who never wanted the emails in the first place. In additional Installments we will discuss how lack of recognition, reduced relivence and the unsubscribe process can contribute to subscriber complaints

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