Spam Buttons and Complaints

Ever gotten a spam complaint?

At AWeber, email deliverability is serious business. We and our customers take great care to manage their lists well so they can enjoy the best possible deliverability.

Even so, occasionally subscribers lodge spam complaints.

When your subscriber does this, you feel indicted. After all, you’re not spamming. Your subscribers come to you and sign up. Nameless, faceless guys hawking drugs and penny stocks are sending spam. You’ve gotten enough of it in your life to know the difference between it and what you send.

So why did your subscriber cry “SPAM?”

“Spam” Buttons from the Subscriber’s Point of View

Whenever someone gets an email in their inbox, several buttons can be used to take action with the message, such as:

In most, if not all, email programs, there’s also a button labeled “Spam” (or “Junk”). If the subscriber clicks on it, the message is deleted. The subscriber is also telling the ISP that he/she doesn’t want to get email from this sender. Whatever else happens behind-the-scenes doesn’t concern Susie Subscriber, at least not in her mind.

This is the button that generates a spam complaint against the sender. It’s located high on the screen in front of the user, and it’s easy to click (prominent as it is, for some people it’s hard not to click it). For example, here’s where it is in…

AOL Webmail Hotmail Yahoo

AOL Spam Button

Hotmail Spam Button

Current Yahoo Spam Button

Yahoo’s New Mail Beta GMail
New Yahoo Spam Button Gmail Spam Button

Even zooming out as we do here, it’s easy to see that in each email program it appears at the top of the page, near the center and is easy to find and click on.

So I DIDN’T Spam…but am I still in trouble?

One spam complaint won’t ruin your day. Getting a lot of them can cause problems for you. One possible effect of a high complaint rate may be an ISP content filtering your messages (not delivering messages with your website URL in them, for example).

What do I do?

ISPs know that their customers use the “Spam” button to unsubscribe.

Since your subscribers are coming to you and asking for your information, you shouldn’t be getting many complaints. If you are getting more than you’d like, however, there are steps you can take to minimize your complaint rate.

Confirm Your Subscribers. Prompt your subscribers to confirm their subscribe request (via a link in a confirmation email) prior to making them active on your list. This helps to qualify your subscribers, which helps to minimize your complaint rate.

Include Subscription Details in Your Messages. Place a section at the beginning of your messages that details why the subscriber is receiving them, along with instructions for unsubscribing. This can reduce your complaint rate and possibly your unsubscribe rate, by jogging your subscribers’ memory of why they’re getting email from you.

Stay On-Topic. Your subscribers are signing up to get a specific set of information from you. If you send something that’s not consistent or relevant to what they signed up to receive, it’s likely that you’ll get more complaints.

Following these guidelines will help you to keep your complaints to a minimum and free your time and mind up to focus on other areas of your mailings and business.

Justin Premick is the former Director of Educational Products at AWeber.

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  1. I fully agree with you and I think that’s been happening to me, when a person with an AOL email unsubscribed, despite of the fact that they willingly signed up by themselves, they click on a certain button and a "rebounding" email comes "bouncing" into my hands saying that there is a complaint from an AOL user for sending a spam email, it sounds unfair, isn’t?

    However, I think you are right that we have to stay on the topic why people signed up, other wise they are right to a certain extent for complaining about spam.

    12/14/2006 2:48 pm
  2. You put it so well. I wrote a brief article on the topic a while ago after seeing my friend use the Spam button to delete his own friend’s email.

    My friend received a typical fwd from another friend. He viewed it and called me over to see a cartoon included in the email. He then clicked Spam. I realized he only clicked it to delete the email so I explained the difference and how it effects the sender (in this case his friend didn’t have a business that would be effected but there’s no reason for spam flags being created).

    12/14/2006 3:51 pm
  3. I’ve often wondered if the management at AOL, Yahoo, etc. understands that many people use that button when they shouldn’t, and if they take that into account when there are complaints.

    In Yahoo mail, it’s right next to the delete button, easy to press by mistake.

    I think they should have an "Are you sure?" message when the button is pressed… they often do when you delete something, so why not make the person confirm they really do want to report it as spam?

    12/14/2006 4:56 pm
  4. Chris,

    ISP management are well aware that there is a certain amount of "noise" when it comes to complaint ratios (# of complaints / # emails sent). That’s entirely factored into their overall algorithms for filtering messages.

    It’s also factored into our systems as well. We watch complaint ratios extensively at the individual customer level as an early warning sign of something amiss. Even using opt-in only methods of getting subscribers if you’re not meeting your subscribers expectations they’ll complain.

    Spam is in the eye of the beholder.

    They may have requested information from you, but if they request weekly golf tips and you start sending them daily promotions for golf resorts around the country they are very likely going to call it spam.

    Watch your subscriber expectations when it comes to:

    * Content
    * Frequency

    Meet those expectations and you shouldn’t have any problems.

    12/14/2006 5:06 pm | Follow me on Twitter
  5. I send a free copy of my $39 ebook to my subscribers and it’s quite upsetting to see them hit that "spam" button on the second email with the attachment, after they’ve double-opted in and asked for it.

    I get very few unsubscribes but do get some of these false reports now and then from aol, msn, and excite addresses.

    A couple questions:

    1) Is it true that it will only happen once per subscriber? i.e. they are marked as non-deliverable after they hit "spam" from an aweber delivered email?

    2) How else can us legit newsletter senders prevent this from happening? Put a warning about hitting the wrong buttons in that first verify-your-email we send?

    12/14/2006 5:27 pm
  6. Peter,

    When someone marks a message from your AWeber account as spam, they are automatically unsubscribed.

    If they have multiple messages from you sitting in their inbox and they decide to go through and mark them all as spam, then they could lodge multiple complaints against you. However, as Tom noted above, ISPs are well aware of the ways that spam button may be used and so one person cleaning out their inbox isn’t going to cause you problems.

    As for avoiding spam complaints, I think Tom said it best. A lot of whether people click that button has to do with whether or not what you’re sending them is what they expect.

    Warnings may seem like a good idea, but:

    * they have a “me vs. you and your spam button” feel to them – not a good first step to the relationship
    * is the subscriber really going to remember that warning a week/month/year after seeing it?

    Since you’re confirming your subscribers, you have proof that they did want to receive your messages. Combine that with what Tom said about expectations and you’ll do fine.

    12/14/2006 5:45 pm | Follow me on Twitter
  7. I am so glad to see this article. I know this subject has been addressed in other blog posts and articles but… I got a new view today.

    Looking at this from subscriber point of view, easy to click me away when they are tired of me. Much easier than going to the email and finding the unsubsribe link…and that is if they even know what and where the unsubscribe link is for.

    I was had a frantic back and forth with your support last month over this very issue and they calmed my nearves.. but still had unsettled moments when I see a complaint report. I was assured that I was doing everything correctly and the percentages were low…but still I had my doubts.

    Now…looking at this from another perspective, I feel relief. It’s all a matter of keeping myself in my visitors shoes, which I need to remember to do more often.

    Thanks for all your help.

    12/15/2006 3:54 am
  8. In reality there is only so much a legitimate list owner can, and there will always be some complaints against you.

    The problem with email marketing currently exists because unlike all things truly democratic, list owners are considered guilty unless they can prove otherwise, which in all fairness is due to an evolutionary flaw in email communications and the rapid growth of spam.

    That said we can spend all day venting and theorising, ultimately if you run a good clean list the best way you can, and you still receive complaints, take it on the check and move on…

    At times like this I am always reminded of the term (PEBKAC – problem exists between keyboard and chair) – ultimately you can’t be all things to all people – not even if they give you a digitally signed declaration of intent :)

    12/15/2006 9:38 am
  9. What exactly constitutes too many complaints?
    Exactly what ratio of complaints vs. email sent is acceptable?
    What number of complaints carries the most weight: daily, weekly, total?

    12/15/2006 2:41 pm
  10. what i’d liek to know, is once someone has spammed you, and you get put on a blacklist, even though they opt in, what are our rights… I have a list of 3000 names, however, everyone of my qwest, and most of my aol and yahoo email address bounce back with a 550 error message…
    what can we do about it? every person on my list opted in, yet,i can;t send emails ti anyone on that server… seems backwards to me when i get 50 viagra emails a day!

    12/16/2006 1:57 am
  11. I have a related question that maybe someone here can answer.

    I subscribe to some lists using a Yahoo address. Sometimes a message from one of them goes in the Bulk (spam) folder by mistake. I always mark those as "not spam". That usually directs future messages from that list to my inbox.

    When I do that, does it help that list owner’s "reputation" with Yahoo, or does it just affect how his messages sent to me are handled?

    12/16/2006 12:54 pm
  12. I have been reading about "whitelisting". Is it necessary and/or beneficial to do this?

    A bit i’m thinking if they recognize that a certain number of false spam reports is normal, perhaps I don’t need to be concerned about it.

    When my autoresponder account was just days old, a friend of mine hit the spam button by accident after receiving my email. I was pretty freaked out as it was the first one I’d even sent.

    I still get it occasionally from people and I’ve been wondering about it but it sounds like probably it is okay.

    12/16/2006 8:54 pm
  13. Chris,

    Whitelisting or marking messages as "not spam" individually primarily affects mail to your own address. Since ISP’s systems are all proprietary it’s impossible to give a definitive answer on how that affects the list owners reputation, but logic would indicate that it likely would help.

    12/18/2006 10:56 am | Follow me on Twitter
  14. i use the spam button but don’t when i know i subscribed to the email.
    i recently received an unsolicited email and before i spam buttoned it i ask the sender to show me some proof that i requested their news letter. their response was to send me an abusive email in which thery were very defensive towards me…so much for me giving them a chance, they actually tried to lecture me on what consituted spam and what didn’t.
    insulted at not being given a thank you and being abused instead i promptly reported them.
    a lesson for you all, if a customer requests info give it to them if you don’t or can’t you show that your guilty of spamming

    12/19/2006 11:22 pm
  15. This whole SPAM issue is big deal these days. People tend to be very quick at labeling something as SPAM… even if, they signed up for it. It’s kind of crazy!

    I’ve actually found that making a game out of it has helped. It’s a fun way to approach and talk about the topic (which I think you should do) that isn’t overbearing and/or put off your subscribers.

    Of course, quality content always rules the day…

    12/21/2006 8:45 am
  16. I’ve definitely gotten spooked by spam complaints, and the unfair spam complaints have made me gun-shy about sending out my newsletter. I always put a lot of thought into each newsletter and include the best researched content that I can relative to my customers’ interests. But I cringe whenever I go to check the stats and see that here and there someone filed a spam complaint. Although the percentage is very small, it has definitely affected my approach toward my newsletter. I used to enjoy working on my newsletters and tried to put one out every month or so. A few spam complaints later, I find I am putting my newsletter out less and less frequently, and have considered not doing it at all.

    The odd thing is, before I joined aweber I did a few newsletters to loyal customers and never got any complaints! Of course that wasn’t the best way to grow my business or follow the anti-spam rules. This is not to knock aweber in any way – it’s an excellent service. But ironic, isn’t it!

    12/21/2006 9:31 am
  17. Barb,

    Don’t let a few complaints affect your newsletter plans. As long as you are following proper opt-in procedures you should have nothing to worry about.

    Remember that most of the "complaints" we hear about are things like someone pressing a Spam button instead of just unsubscribing, or pressing the button accidentally (easy to do). They’re not real complaints in my mind as if someone had written a letter or actively contacted someone to complain.

    I’m sure you got complaints when you used another provider, but they didn’t let you know about them like aweber does.

    12/21/2006 10:38 am
  18. One of the things that I find does help from time to time depending on the list and the audience is to place your unsubscribe link right at the very top of your newsletter. Naturally this goes along with letting the person know when and how they arrived on your list.

    Yes it does increase your unsubscribe rate, but it also reduces complaints and the tedious task of manually removing prospects who are too lazy or ignorant to scroll to the end of a message to hit the unsubscribe link.

    It really comes down to the kind of list, relationship and the nature of your mailings.

    12/22/2006 2:28 am
  19. Hello to All,

    I recently imported almost 3,000 of my existing subscribers and received a "Complaint Report" from AWeber saying there were seven people who filed a spam complaint against me (in spite of my list being entirtely Opt-In and them having access to an unsubscribe link on every email they’ve ever received from me). My question is, is there any way for me to discover the email addresses of these seven people? Not to contact them again – just the opposite. I maintain other lists (paper newsletter subscribers, customers, etc.) that also include some or all of these seven people. I want to remove them from EVERY list I have.

    Thanks for your help.

    12/23/2006 7:37 pm
  20. Len,

    When someone lodges a spam complaint against you, they are automatically unsubscribed from your list.

    You can view and export a list of the people who are unsubscribed at the "Leads" tab of your account.

    1/2/2007 9:26 am | Follow me on Twitter
  21. does outlook express have a spam complaint button if so where?

    1/3/2007 2:30 pm
  22. Danny,

    I don’t use Outlook Express and am not very familiar with their interface; however, Microsoft offers the following page on their site:

    Which discusses setting up mail filtering in Outlook Express.

    Based on what they say there, it looks like those users have to manually create rules to filter mail, and no mention is made of any Spam button.

    1/4/2007 9:48 am | Follow me on Twitter
  23. I don’t see how Outlook or Outlook Express (or any other email program that installs on your PC) could have a spam button, because what would it do? Who would it report spam to? All it can really do is filter or delete your mail based on rules you set up.

    All of the places like AOL, Yahoo, etc. I know of that have spam buttons are email service providers, not just email programs.

    1/4/2007 10:48 am
  24. I think one point not addressed here is lists "going stale". If you don’t connect with people very frequently (but not too frequently), then they forget about u and that increases the complaints.

    I very much liked the idea of putting ‘unsubscribe’ at the top.

    1/6/2007 12:50 pm
  25. Just had my first spam complaint and I’m rather surprised that someone would cry SPAM, on the FIRST message sent to them, following them verifying their request for information. They requested a brochure, verified that they wanted the brochure, then complained when they were sent it – some people hey. At least, it’s my first spam complaint.. though I do hope it’s not the start of lots more.

    Not sure what I can do to avoid them reporting the brochure as spam, especially as they double-opted-in to request it. Could it be something to do with it being an attachment?

    1/10/2007 1:48 pm
  26. I’m with Steve. I don’t send to my list that often and I know people forget about me in between. I would love to place ‘unsubscribe’ at the top, as well.

    1/16/2007 7:13 am
  27. Just about every autoresponder I’ve ever seen puts the unsubscribe link or removal instructions at the bottom of the message, so people should know to look there.

    I don’t see a need to put it in more than one place in a message.

    1/17/2007 4:31 pm
  28. You can place a unsubscribe link anywhere within a message sent out via the Aweber system.

    The code for a Remove link can be found in Help | Personalize Messages
    when you are logged in to your account.

    Not sure Tom and the Aweber crew want the code to be public or not, so thought it best to tell you how to find it, once logged in to your Aweber account.

    Hope that helps.

    1/18/2007 2:01 pm
  29. I get some people subscribing from free email domains and also domains like "temporaryinbox".

    It seems that most of the "spam" complaints are coming from free domains, so I’d like to not allow subscribes from those. I’d also like to not give out my $39 ebook to people who are clearly not interested in exchanging a legit email address for my newsletter.

    At least I’d like to test this.

    Is there a way to not allow people to subscribe if their email comes from certain domains? Does Aweber have a "ban" or "filter out" list feature?


    2/9/2007 12:26 pm
  30. Peter,

    Yes you can block specific domains from adding to your list:

    It’s worth noting, however, that as you are using Confirmed Opt-In, you have proof that subscribers are indeed requesting your information.

    2/9/2007 1:25 pm | Follow me on Twitter
  31. There are a few things I recommend to keep the amount of spam complaints you receive down to a bare minimum. You must realize though there are always going to be those people who are just out to make your life difficult – don’t stress about them!

    Here are some of my tips -

    1. Talk to your list one-on-one:

    From the very first email you send you should always introduce yourself as an actual person and continue to build on this relationship over the following emails. Would you rather receive an email every few days from CompanyABC or from an actual individual with a real name? Which would you be more likely to report as spam?

    You’ll notice that Awebers emails all come from Tom – the CEO. They could easily come from just AWEBER but which do you think is more effective? Which are you able to connect with on a more personal level?

    When emails come on behalf of a company, even though they are not always trying to push a product to that user, it will always seem that way to them. Be personal, it makes it look less like you are selling and more like you are just a friend helping them out.

    2. Be Consistent:

    The format you use for the very first email to your list should be the same for every other email you ever send them. The greeting you use, the length of the lines, the layout, the salutation you use at the end – everything should be consistent. This helps customers more easily distinguish your emails from spam.

    3. 80/20 rule:

    As with everything in life, the 80/20 rule applies here. Too many people get excited by the thought of having a list and rush out trying to sell them every product under the sun. You need to build a relationship with the user before you start asking him for things.

    You should always try to keep the balance of 80% information, 20% selling when writing your email series. This will make a big difference to your end results. Not only will you gain trust, integrity and credibility from your list, but when you do occasionally send them details about a new product they should try, they are going to be far more responsive to your recommendations.

    Remember, most people subscribe to your list in order to get some kind of information they want or need – they certainly don’t sign up to receive sales pitch after sales pitch. Keep this in mind when writing your emails.

    4. Subject – Important:

    As we know, the first thing people see from your email is the subject line. If they are going to flag your email as spam, more than likely they are going to do this without even opening the email at all. They will make up their mind based on the subject line alone. With this in mind, there are a few methods I recommend for the subject lines:

    a) Using the persons name in the subject line. If they see their name in the subject line they will be far more likely to open that email. “Bob, your free report as promised…” as opposed to “Your free report as promised….”. Which email would Bob be more likely to open?

    b) Don’t use any sort of sales jargon in your subject line. Nothing like, "Hey Bob, check out this product…" or "Bob, get 50% off today.." etc. People don’t like being sold to. Instead give them a little teaser to get them to open the email. Even once in your email, you shouldn’t start selling to them right away. Remember, 80% information, 20% max sales pitch.

    c) Use a list name in the subject line. Imagine if you signed up for my free report/newsletter called ‘Golf Mania’ and every subsequent email you received from me had that name at the start of the subject line. ie/ "[Golf Mania] Bob, is your golf swing…"
    That way, in your inbox, you will instantly recognize my emails as ones you can trust and hopefully can’t wait to open.

    5. Don’t send attachments!:

    With so many idiots on the internet today, the average consumer has a hard time trusting anyone online. We always hear stories about these viruses that spread via email in the form of attachments. Remember: on first contact, your users don’t know you from a bar of soap. How many do you think are going to trust an email attachment coming from someone they don’t know? Sure your company may look legit, but if they have any doubt in their mind whatsoever then they will send your email straight to their deleted items or spam folder.

    If you offer your users a free report, as easy as it may be to send it to them as an attachment (I know Aweber offers this function) I would strongly recommend against it. Instead send them to a page on your site where they can download the report. Sure it is a bit more work and will eat into more of your bandwidth, but the results will be worth it.

    Anyhoot, these are just a few things I thought were worth a mention.

    4/17/2007 5:56 am
  32. Reading this is encouraging. I’ve never had spam complaints until this week. With any luck they’ll calm down for next week.

    6/19/2009 6:36 am
  33. Thanks everyone the advice is much appreciated!

    3/29/2010 11:22 pm
  34. Im having a major issue with my email list. I built it up in joomla and now aweber cant use them because they were on my server.

    Just a tip, if you are not using aweber, you better use a 3rd party email provider to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

    Best thing to do is just start with aweber and continue using it. It Rocks!

    9/10/2010 3:50 pm
  35. Paul

    Having clicked the ‘spam’ button on an email “I requested” only today, I thought I’d share the reason.

    A few weeks ago, I bought a product from The site forced me to register and set up a password to buy – which I hate in any case. It was a one-off purchase, so of course I promptly forgot the user name and password.

    Although I’m pretty sure I’d have ticked any ‘no emails’ box offered, I started getting nag mail to review the product (No. I’m not here to do your marketing!), and other product news.

    Having deleted a couple, I dug deeper and found the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email. Did it unsubscribe me? Nope. It dumped me at a login page, where I’d need to remember my user name and password (remember I mentioned them?) in order to change my mail preferences. Brick wall.

    I closed that page, and dropped an email to the support team, asking them to remove me from their database, and also mentioning it is bad practice to put obstacles in the way of people who want to subscribe.

    So today, when I got another junk email from them – spam button.

    The moral – make it easy for people to get off your list!

    7/4/2011 5:02 pm
  36. Thank you for this thread. I’m still fairly new at working online and when saw a “complaint” I was worried. Now I can relax. Even though ISP’s take into account how people may use the “spam” button to unsubscribe, it wouldn’t hurt if they educated their customers a little better and didn’t display the spam button so prominently in their email programs. Thanks again every body =)

    7/28/2011 6:57 am
  37. Allen

    Unless I missed it, nobody from the Aweber team addressed the question about what is an acceptable SPAM complaint rate with your company. Also, are there any stats or knowledge whether most SPAM complaints are lodged prior to the message actually being opened. Meaning, should we place the MOST weight on the FROM & SUBJECT line?

    8/3/2011 7:34 pm
  38. Like Allen mentioned above, it would be nice if aWeber told it’s paying customers what an acceptable SPAM complaint rate is. Why is this such a secret? I sent out a message to my list(s) and had a complaint rate of 1. I don’t know, is this excessive? I of course don’t want any spam complaints, but it happens.

    How about letting us know aWeber with actual numbers vs the generic information you provide on this topic.

    6/3/2012 2:28 pm
  39. Helpful answer, especially with the screenshots showing how “helpful” aol, yahoo etc are in this matter. I checked on a complaint I received today and yes, it was from a yahoo address.

    The one-click complaint also explains to me why a “complaint” might be more a matter of mental laziness, forgetfulness, or “fat finger” hitting the wrong button. And why there is no explanatory test with the complaint.

    I must say though, you big yellow compaint sign is not a pretty sight to behold. :)

    7/22/2013 5:55 am