New MAAWG Consumer Survey: Half of Global Email Users Willingly Click on Spam

Stephanie Miller, email marketing expert
By Stephanie Miller
VP, Global Market Development

Have you ever wondered who in the world clicks on a spam email? Someone must be clicking, the thinking goes, or else spammers would have no economic incentive to keep blasting.

Turns out that we have seen the clickers, and they are us. Well, maybe not readers of this blog or employees of Return Path, but they are people like the consumers and business professionals on our marketing files and subscribed to our online services.

Nearly half (43%) of email users in North America and Western Europe say they have knowingly opened or accessed spam – including clicking on links or opening unknown and potentially dangerous attachments, according to a new global consumer survey from the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG). Of those who open spam, about half (46%) did so intentionally – to unsubscribe, out of curiosity or out of genuine interest in the products being offered. This is consistent with findings from the same study’s 2009, but is not an increase in such behavior.

The 2010 MAAWG “Email Security Awareness and Usage Report” was released last week (March 24, 2010). Consumers were surveyed in North America and across Western Europe with a variety of questions on protection, reaction to spam, computer expertise and preferences of email.

Several of the findings are both shocking and disturbing. Consumers seem generally unaware of the consequences of their actions, and a painful percentage continue to click on spam knowingly, instead of deleting it immediately. Such actions help explain the gargantuan increase in botnet presence on the internet and how personal computers can become zombies and steal millions of bits of personal and confidential business information as a result.

Clearly, we as an industry have an opportunity to do more education for end users of email. Return Path will continue to be involved at MAAWG and through other industry associations to develop programs that we hope can be embraced by marketers as well as mailbox providers and anti-spam professionals. We hope that you will join us – and we’ll keep you posted on opportunities to participate.

We think the buck stops here, with all of us together. Consumers agree! The study found that less than half of users around the world think that stopping the spread of viruses and spam is their own responsibility. They put this job back on us – mailbox providers, anti-virus software companies and, to a lesser degree, senders of email messages.

Consider these findings in context with our shared goals: To ensure that valued messages reach the inbox, and unwelcome messages do not – especially dangerous ones. We think marketers, email service and technology providers, mailbox providers and security vendors can all get behind this vision.

Consistent with other reports we’ve seen and with the MAAWG survey of 2009, four out of ten users responding to the survey do click the report spam button (39%) or move spam to their junk folder (44%). One in five say they report the message to the sender, if it’s recognized as a legitimate company. These findings are pretty consistent between North America and Western Europe. Younger users both consider themselves more experienced in terms of email security, but also more likely to engage in risky behavior like clicking on spam.

Marketers know full well the pressure on response rates from the excess clutter in the inbox. However, users who responded to the survey say that they use the senders’ name (73%) and the subject line (67%) to identify spam in the inbox. Respondents also say that unusual language, the content of the email, the “from” name or address, and spelling mistakes and poor grammar are signs that an email may be spam. This is true in all six countries included in the survey, although respondents in Spain and France are less likely to rely on these factors.

Email marketing is still a great opportunity and users surveyed do find marketing messages valuable. They are just not as welcome as other kinds of personal email. When asked about what various types of email they prefer, one-to-one communications still rule the roost. Messages from friends and family were ranked as “extremely or very important” to 82% of respondents, but marketing email was only rated similarly by 15% of those surveyed. Another 32% did view marketing mail as “somewhat important.”

There is one simple thing we can all do now. Help users find information that helps them protect themselves and be smarter about spam. Some consumer-oriented resources that can be linked from message footers, welcome messages, preference centers and other website resources include:

Take a look at the survey and let us know your thoughts – how does this relate to your view of the email ecosystem? How will this data help you make email safer for end users – and more valuable to marketers and mailbox providers?

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