Home Resources Blog

I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret. There’s a difference between how an email sender sees their inbox and how an email recipient sees theirs. It’s only a subtle difference. If you blink you’ll miss it. But, it has far reaching implications on how all of us should be approaching email marketing. Here’s a screenshot of it in all its glory.

What you see

Gmail - what you see

What your recipients see

Gmail - what your recipients see

It’s time we all realized just how important this difference is. Getting your subscriber’s permission is only half the battle. If you’re not relevant, you might as well be a spammer. It’s hard for some to swallow, but it’s really that simple.

Whenever someone marks your email spam in most of the popular email clients, they let us know about it. If the number of complaints exceeds a certain benchmark, your account with us might even be closed. Inevitably, this can lead to frustration because you’ve done almost everything right. It doesn’t matter if you had double opt-in permission and your email has an obvious unsubscribe link. If you’re not relevant, you might as well be a spammer.

From the horse’s mouth…

Still need convincing? All of the major ISP’s have reinforced this position in the last few weeks. They’re giving more filtering control back to their users and the “Mark as Spam” button is the glue holding it all together.

Yahoo! MailMiles Libbey: Anti-spam product manager

Operationally, we define spam as whatever consumers don’t want in their inbox.

AOLCharles Stiles: AOL Postmaster

“I don’t care if they’ve triple opted-in and gave you their credit card number,” said Stiles, drawing chuckles, but making his point loud and clear: Relevance rules, and catering to end user preferences is his top priority.

Microsoft/HotmailCraig Spiezle: Online safety evangelist

We need to think really a step beyond opt-in and focus on the consumer’s expectations, relevancy, and frequency.

GmailBrad Taylor: Google Engineer

Sometimes people are afraid to report a message because they aren’t sure if it is “really” spam or not. Our opinion is that if you didn’t ask for it and you don’t want it, it’s spam to you, and it should be reported.

Do they really want this email?

Like most things, this ultimately comes down to common sense. Put yourself in the shoes of your subscribers and think about what they actually need. If it’s a useful article on something that interests them, send away, but if it’s the latest press release from marketing, I’d think again. Perhaps then you’ll start to see the “Mark as Spam” button for what it really is.

  • Kel

    Maybe a few pointers to how we might add “updated” language to our templates. Something to the effect of…

    “Not interested in this anymore? Don’t mark this as spam – Just simply, unsubscribe and we’ll take you off the list immediately”

    Making sure this info is prominent is more important now. In the past, I’d almost hidden the unsubscribe link info – not anymore.

  • Dave Greiner

    Kel, I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m worried you might be missing the point of the post. If you focus on providing relevant and interesting content in every email you send, these things become much less important. Of course, they still have a place in your email “design”, but it’s the “content” that’s the root of this problem.

    One thing I also wanted to mention was that we (and ISP’s) realize false positives do happen and many people use the “Report Spam” button as an unsubscribe link. But when you think about it, it really still works the same way. If loads of people are suddenly unsubscribing from your email, it’s clear something is not right anyway. Get the content right and you won’t have to worry about this.

  • riki

    Personally I think there’s only so much you can do. We get permission through a double opt in system, we include unsubscribe information on each message, we only send relevant and quality information to people that have asked for it, we send multi-part html and plain text versions, we pay for a quality service like Campaign Monitor, we do our best to design a standards compliant newsletter (which probably fails to some degree in every email client). But hell, unless you want to spend the rest of your life becoming the zen master of email newsletters, at some point you have to draw the line, between what is a reasonable attempt to get an email out at a reasonable cost to your clients. Let’s face it, in the microsecond that it takes a recipient to access your email and mark it as spam, their not going to click on an unsubscribe link and jump through hoops, they’ve got their finger on the spam button. I know I do when I read my mail in the morning. I never use the trash button, 95% of all mail I get is trashed with the spam button.

  • hks

    I don’t think Kel’s point should be dismissed so quickly. It isn’t just about content – frequency, and timing are also key. Getting recipients to rate your communications by placing feed back links at the top of the email encourages them to give that info to you rather than their email provider. It doesn’t have to be as black and white as a single unsubscribe – you could get them to rate whether the frequency is appropriate for them or whether they content is what they were expecting from you.

    Email has allowed us to tailor our communications to individuals in a way we previously couldn’t, but without individual feedback info the value of that tailoring is quickly diluted. Using rating buttons on email could allow us to use refine email communication in the way Amazon tailors its product suggestions.

  • Jason

    What are the implications of being identified as spam? My clients are always asking this, and I never have a clear and convincing message for them.

  • Mathew Patterson

    Further to Kel & Mark’s comments, it is important to remember that sometimes people needed or wanted particular information when they signed up, but then their needs change over time.

    You want those people to be able to easily say ‘just not interested anymore’ instead of hitting that spam button. So it is still important to have that unsubscribe someone visible and easily accessible.

    Frustrating people who want to get off your list is pointless and risky.

  • riki

    Spammers also exploit and misuse unsubscribe links. I’ve seen advice on other sites warning people not to use unsubscribe links, as this can flag your address as being a real account. Combined with the convenience of just hitting the Junk button, means that invariable some of our mail will be marked as spam. Always good to try and raise our standards though.

  • Carlos

    Wow, this is crazy! I have to say, it’s pretty ridiculous classifying double-opted in email as spam. I mean at some point readers need to take some responsibility for what they receive in their inbox. I understand that this is not an easy problem to solve, but this is getting a little out of hand. Part of the problem is that it is so much easier to click 15 emails and mark them as spam than it is to individually unsubscribe from each newsletter. However, if the subscriber signed up for the list AND responded to an email and confirming that they really want to receive the mailings, then why should the sender suffer because of the reader’s laziness?

  • Sheldon Kotyk

    I find it very interesting that AOL’s postmaster used the quote that he did.

    “I don’t care if they’ve triple opted-in and gave you their credit card number,”

    I triple unsubscribed from getting their CDs and never gave them my credit card number but good luck getting off their list.

    Is it just laziness on the part of the postmasters that I am seeing. It seems to me that changing the definition of SPAM from being unsolicited email to irrelevant is going to cause even bigger problems.

    Company A hires “Spammers” to sign up for a competitors email list to mark as spam knowing that eventually Company B will get blacklisted.

    Is this not the next step in poisoning the spam trap?

  • Dave Greiner

    Sheldon and Carlos, I competely understand where you’re coming from here. I think it’s important to point out that ISP’s aren’t stupid either. They’re very aware of the fact that many of their customers use the “Mark as Spam” button as an unsubscribe mechanism or just to plain old make stuff go away.

    There are very reasonable benchmarks in place. If you send an newsletter to 10,000 subscribers and get 10-20 spam complaints, you almost certainly won’t be filtered. If you get a couple of hundred complaints in a short space of time though, you’re probably in trouble. We’re all human and there’s only so much you can do to avoid the ocassional false positive. But, if you gather permission correctly and send relevant, interesting content, there should rarely be a reason lots of your recipients ever click the “Mark as Spam” button.

    Is it just laziness on the part of the postmasters that I am seeing.

    This certainly isn’t a laziness thing. In fact, after reading how Google’s spam filtering actually wortks, I can tell you it’s a great deal more complex (and accurate) than just deciding what to deliver on behalf of their customers. By giving more filtering control back to their own customers, they can tailor what is and isn’t filtered at an individual level, which is much better than a system-wide spam system that blocks everything.

    I’ve seen advice on other sites warning people not to use unsubscribe links, as this can flag your address as being a real account.

    You’ll be pleased to know there are some promising initiatives on the way to rectify this, including an Unsubscribe button being built into the interface of the email client (the new Hotmail already supports this – more on that here soon). Hopefully this is a direction other ISP’s will start taking too.

  • Bri

    It’s all about respect! Respect for time, availability, content- meeting the needs of your clients.

    When I started working for my current non-profit, they lagged in customer service due to timing issues and content- stuff was too late, stuff didn’t matter, members were overwhelmed and bothered.

    Now we use an email newsletter- however, the email list is used ONLY for the newsletter OR absolutely time-sensitive, urgent communication.

    Repeatedly I have had members comment about how much stuff they don’t read or that they “junk” but that they do NOT junk my stuff because they know that it is timely, valuable and that I respect their inbox.

  • Marnix Bras

    Sharp vision, maybe the mark-as-irrelevant button needs to be introduced in the interfaces of all the email apps.

    You can ask people to mark it as irrellevant more easy than ask people to judge whether is is spam or not.

    as mentioned earlier: double-optin, with very easy opt-out: it is not fair to classify it as spam. If you think it is irrelevant, you are free to. I have lots of irrelevant mails in my in boxes, which i do appreciate to scan vertically, or only read the subjectline.

    the problem is: if you mark it as irrelevant: and hundreds of others do so too: what will the email app do? you can not filter irrelevant mails away. may be color-code future mails as irrelevant ? or filter to the folder irrelevant:-)

  • Cathy

    I was at a conference in May where Yahoo sat and said that any email the customer does not want is Spam. AOL and MSN were both there and agreed. An audience member tried to challenge them with customer responsibility (if they have double opted-in, they have no right to mark as spam) and the general consensus of the ISPs was a shrug. They just don’t care what the marketers perspective is. If their customer says it is spam then it is spam. I believe that AOL also said that opt-in is irrelevant, but I don’t have my notes on hand to confirm. The only solution is relevance and setting appreciate customer expectations.

  • Dave Greiner

    Thanks for the comment Cathy, nice to get it confirmed from someone who got it straight from the ISP’s.

  • Sheldon Kotyk

    Cathy, have you ever tried to unsubscribe or mark as spam an email from Microsoft within hotmail?

    They disable the option.

    I still say they have changed the definition because they are too lazy to come up with a better solution or maybe they have given up.

  • colin dunn

    “in the microsecond that it takes a recipient to access your email and mark it as spam, their not going to click on”

    Riki, I’m afraid that anyone who uses ‘their’ when they should have used ‘they’re’ gets marked instantly as spam in my mailbox ;)

  • Daniel Sroka

    Dave said: “If you focus on providing relevant and interesting content in every email you send, these things become much less important.”

    True. But it is nearly impossible to predict what any one person will consider relevant. The same message delivered to the same person on two different days may be thought of as relevant and interesting one day, and an annoyance on the other. In the end, you do you best, try to “do no evil” (as Google says) and hope you catch people on good days.

  • John

    I’m inclined to agree with the “Mark as Irrelevant” perspective. Unless I specifically remember signing up for something, including the exact sequence of events that led me to do so, I’m inclined to assume that any “unsubscribe” links are nothing more than tricks to get me to confirm that someone’s reading mail at my address.

    For example, if I failed to notice that when I signed up for some company’s security alerts and patches list I also agreed to get “new product information,” that “new product information” email truly is no better than spam to me. I’ll mark it without a blink, and probably be predisposed to block any further communications from that company including web-based ads using Adblock.

    *Anything* unwelcome should be distrusted on the internet; I’m afraid there’s no good solution to it. People aren’t going to read whatever “unsubscribe” copy you offer them. I’ve even see people reply to all on huge listhosts asking for unsubscribes despite the text at the bottom of the message and monthly subscription reminders.

    I think the answer is that mass mailing is not a viable promotional tool; the best use of listhosts is for (opt in, of course) community organization and updating, and the moment a commercial message seeps in you’ve got to accept the risk that the message will (rightly, to some people) be viewed as nothing more than spam.

  • Dale

    It’s too bad these spam filters can’t “filter for good” as well. Nice if there was a way to demostrate an email came from an opt-in or double opt-in source and remove the option to be marked as spam, replacing it with an “unsubsribe button” instead of “mark as spam”.

  • iamitcorp

    When are the ESPs going to take a stand against MSN/Hotmail and AOLs spam reporting “toys”!

    Dave Greiner asked me to sound off with my feedback on this issue so here is what I have to say like it or not.

    We just had to remove a legitimate email marketing client due to spam complaints. Normally I would cheer that a spammer had been shut down and sing the praise of opt-in marketing… but not this time.

    One of our clients provides award winning Movie marketing that has made headlines with their viral trailer campaigns from films such as “The Passion of Christ” and “The Polar Express”. They’re marketing efforts include and go beyond online subscriber forms in a place called the “real world” where “real people” collect email consent from “real subscribers” at movie screening events who are interested in movie content and promotions.

    They’ve been sending campaigns using MailBuild since August of 2007. They have a team of people managing more than 80 lists containing nearly 300,000 subscribers of which they have sent 7 large list campaigns (each containing approximately 90,000 subscribers) over the last 2 months. These large list campaigns resulted in less than 0.09% spam complaints on average per campaign which unfortunately landed Campaign Monitor temporarialy on “a Prominent ISPs” blacklist. Now I know that may sound really bad to some of you but here’s the real bad news,


    I understand the value in targeting subscribers with relevant and consentual content but seriously, how do you get any more specific than “I would like to receive movie updates and promotions” unless our client can predict which films will be released in the future? It just doesn’t make sense to me why a subscriber can report an email as spam even after previously receiving several other related campaigns where they did not previously opt-out or report the email as spam? Or why can a clients account still be cancelled even after the subscriber’s opt-in source information in question has been verified with the ISP? We are not the spammers everyone hates (including me and I’m sure you too). Honestly I can’t even get rid of the real spam problem in my own inbox and neither can the ISPs. The spam button is now the new delete tool. The definition of SPAM has become so watered down it has reduced our efforts as legitimate email marketers down to wasted time and effort.

    If our ESPs don’t stand up for our rights (were not even close to violating CAN-SPAM laws) and respect our efforts to comply with progressive sending policy, who will? Wait until it’s one of your clients you’ve bent over backwards to provide exceptional service and support, then you might wish your ESP would have been a little more on your side when they yank your business out from under you unfairly. Don’t forget, over 90% of our clients reported spam complaints came from MSN/Hotmail.

    I love Campaign Monitor because it was designed and built for designers so please don’t forget to include a little backbone in that order.

  • poker rules

    I signed up for some company’s security alerts and patches list I also agreed to get “new product information,” that “new product information” email truly is no better than spam to me

  • Gwara

    Recently established website:
    Dialect page is devoted to the Polish people, you can find a friend from the past, who left in search of better jobs. I invite all.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
Straight to your inbox

Get the best email and digital marketing content delivered.

Join 250,000 in-the-know marketers and get the latest marketing tips, tactics, and news right in your inbox.


See why 200,000 companies worldwide love Campaign Monitor.

From Australia to Zimbabwe, and everywhere in between, companies count on Campaign Monitor for email campaigns that boost the bottom line.

Get started for free