Why Did That Email Get Marked As Spam?

In the comments of our recent post on email whitelisting, John asked about how to deal with spam complaints and shared what his experience with them has been. After looking back through other posts on spam complaints, I didn’t see one that fully addressed his comment the way I wanted to. And I’ve heard similar comments and questions from other people. So let’s talk about it.

In the comments of our recent post on email whitelisting, John asked about how to deal with spam complaints and shared what his experience with them has been.

After looking back through other posts on spam complaints, I didn’t see one that fully addressed his comment the way I wanted to. And I’ve heard similar comments and questions from other people.

So let’s talk about it.

Problem: Getting Spam Complaints When You’re Not a Spammer

Here’s what I took away from John’s comment, along with quotes from his comment:

  • He’s getting a higher complaint rate than he’d like. 1
  • His emails are not promotional. (“We are still in start up mode and not [even] selling anything. Our emails are short two-paragraphers linking to a high-content blog post.”)
  • His subscriber base is “entirely web-based sign ups” so these should be people who want his emails.
  • He emails weekly (“so it’s hardly too much or too little that they forgot who we were”).

In short, it sounds like John’s trying to do the right things.

So what’s going on here?

Spam Complaints Happen For Many Reasons

Not all spam complaints occur because the email is “spam” as it is traditionally defined.

Here are a few scenarios where complaints might occur (and what John – or anyone else – might do to avoid them):

  1. It’s easy to click “spam” – and not as easy to find the unsubscribe link.

    Solution: make it easy to unsubscribe – consider putting an unsubscribe link near the top of your email.

  2. Some recipients don’t trust unsubscribe links and/or have heard they shouldn’t click them unless they remember subscribing.

    Solution: remind people when/where they signed up and why they’re getting your email (you can use personalization fields to include information like the date/time/URL that a subscriber signed up on.

  3. The email was requested but not relevant.

    Solution: make sure that your emails closely address your subscribers’ needs and wants. Track what subscribers are responding to in order to create more relevant campaigns as you go.

  4. Similarly, the content or timing of the email was not what the subscriber expected (perhaps because expectations about the specific email content and frequency were not explicitly set when the subscriber opted in).

    Solution: set expectations clearly when subscribers opt in. Tell them what they’re going to get, when they’re going to get it and who it’ll be coming from.

  5. The subscriber didn’t like something about the email – or something else about the company sending it (“I had a bad experience on Company X’s website/in Company X’s store, so now I’m marking their email as spam.”).

    Solution: request feedback from prospects and customers. Find out what they do and don’t like about your emails – and your business as a whole. Customer service, product selection, pricing, policies, everything… they can all affect subscriber perception of your company. Then take that feedback and improve.

There are certainly other possible reasons for spam complaints, and other courses of action that you might take, but by addressing these areas of your email marketing, you can reduce your exposure to spam complaints and maximize your email deliverability.

What Have You Done To Reduce Spam Complaints?

Have you addressed these causes of complaints? Other ones? What have you found to be effective?

Share your thoughts below!

1. For the record, part of John’s complaint rate is due to the low volume of email he’s sending. One or two complaints raises his rate significantly. I think it’s reasonable to expect that as he connects with more subscribers, he should see lower complaint rates – if he follows the advice here, of course! 🙂


  1. steven

    2/25/2009 10:48 am


    Yesterday I had sent a broadcast to a 91 people. Now I see more than 2 % has made a complaint.

    In my confirmation message I clearly write: (…) `Afterwards you`ll receive more useful tips and ideas about how to use your Mediation Kit and mandalas. You can unsubscribe anytime you want`.

    Now I have added an additional warning right under the optin box (see: http://www.mandalacoloringmeditation.com), and I also restated it on the download page, in clear red letters.

    Now, suddenly, I get an idea: I will mention it in my first follow up message, at the top, with clear words, something like this: `You will receive during the next coming days and weeks, several other mails with mandala coloring meditation advice. You can unsubscribe anytime you want`.

    Any more ideas, tips?
    This blog post already has lots of interesting tips, thanks.

  2. Marc David

    2/25/2009 12:01 pm

    This has plagued me for some time. Nearly all my mailings are are around a .19% complaint rate. At first.. it bugged me.

    But I’ve since stopped worrying. I do the suggestions above and all my mailings are targeted towards the list. I don’t send out how to get rich or make money items when clearly I’m a fitness niche.

    In Google, and for that matter, most e-mail clients, it’s far easier to hit Mark as Spam than try and figure out how to get off the list. Usually the unsubscribe is way at the bottom and considering 12second.tv is popular along with Twitter…

    My point is.. who has the time to scroll in this attention deficit world when it’s easy to hit SPAM and never see it again.

    If I was spamming, I’d at least get 1 person out of the thousands to write me a nasty gram.

    They never do.

    The only thing I’ve seen that you might try is adding a blub that email is sent to confirmed subscribers only and at the very top, include the unsubscribe link!

    The bottom as well but at the top.

    At least in the TXT version. The HTML is usually pretty standard to include it at the bottom.

  3. Niche

    2/25/2009 12:51 pm

    I think the double opt in should weed out the majority of doubtful subscribers
    It’s a case of ‘do you want to subscribe?’ ‘Do you really want to subscribe?’

  4. Maria

    2/25/2009 1:35 pm

    So, how do you put an unsubscribe link near the top of the email? I know it automatically gets put in the bottom, but how do you make it appear near the top?

  5. Alex Sysoef

    2/25/2009 1:38 pm

    I generally get less than 0.01% complains but when I do – I try to figure out why…

    What I have found is that no matter how much quality content I might provide to subscriber – if I attempt to send an info on a topic not directly related to what they have subscribed to receive – complains go up!

    I think it is a simple answer – relevance!

    People don’t mind affiliate marketing alone with quality content, as long as it is on topic. I know I like to get reviews from people I get to trust and hence remain on their list on new product.

    Personal recommendation from trusted source helps me by saving me time on research or what is even worth – buying crap I don’t need!

    So, my answer is:

    Relevance, relevance, relevance!

  6. N

    2/25/2009 5:52 pm

    I don’t think you need to put an unsubscribe link near the top of the email. But you could always put a message saying ‘to unsubscribe please scroll to the bottom and click the unsubscribe link’

    Agree with the relevance thing. If you stay on topic, then again there is less risk of being labelled as spam

  7. Jeff

    2/25/2009 8:23 pm

    I’ve found that sometimes the issue is with web hosting services used by spammers and your shared IP address is tagged as spam sources. Woreth paying $30 or so annually for a unique address. Good luck all.

  8. Phil

    2/25/2009 8:43 pm

    and are these spam complaints coming from yahoo emails?

    their spam button is right next to the delete button

    And where you wrote
    "One or two complaints raises his rate significantly."

    That’s just wrong. One or two complaints and you raise rates.

    That’s unfair.

  9. Joshua U

    2/26/2009 2:26 am

    I just made a fascinating – though very annoying – discovery. I split tested two emails.

    The only difference was one instantly began with a sentence of what the email was about (what the article I linked to was about.) The sentence was before the greeting and anything else.

    The one with the sentence had .03% complaints. The one without the sentence had .12% complaints, which is high for me. Stupid because the minor difference is frustrating, but insightful.

  10. Alan

    2/26/2009 5:55 pm

    Is it not possible to we track back to the complaints so we can remove them from our lists? I have an opt-in only daily bulletin and after a year of virtually zero complaints, this week someone (I presume its the same person) has decided to complain each day! I’d happily let them go if only I knew who they were . .

  11. Vanessa

    3/2/2009 10:26 am

    Interesting comments here. I have received only 1 spam complaint so far (and some snotty comments from the subscriber involved, so thankfully knew who it was). Curiously – she marked my email as spam because she is based in a country where a particular part of my content wasn’t relevant. My ezine has an international audience, so it’s a real pity she took exception.
    Just a comment to Alan (above) – I was / am under the impression that if someone marks your email as spam Aweber automatically remove them from your list…(?)

  12. Adam

    3/2/2009 10:59 am

    I have to admit, I am one for checking my junk mail filter (gmail) maybe once a month. In a month there is from 300 – 400 emails.

    About 2-5% of this is email I actually wanted. But after going through a couple hundred emails, saving a handful into the whitelist it is easy to check a couple that I subscribed for and hitting the good ole spam button.

    To get to my point, you need a ‘marker’ that is clear, and reciprocated throughout EVERY email you send. Usually in the subject line you would want this constant, but always make sure that during the opt-in process you inform the subscriber that you do this, and always suggest whitelisting your email (with instructions/link to instructions on doing just that).

    eg: Subject: [WaW] March 2009 newsletter

    Where "[WaW]" is the marker/constant (I use [WaW] as it is an acronym of my site)

  13. Willee D

    3/4/2009 6:07 am

    I was at the Warrior Forum a few months back and I remember some guy being shot down as he aditted that he just hits the spam button when he does not like the email!

    You just have to educate people starting from your Thank You For Subscribing Page.

    That said it is not really something to lose sleep over.


  14. Kevin

    3/4/2009 1:27 pm

    It is definitely imperative to keep a managed subscriber list that tracks your opt-in statistics: IE, you need to be able to prove that your subscribers signed up to avoid being marked as SPAM… unfortunately (as indicated) it is always easier to mark it as spam than to simply opt-out.
    As the article indicated, try to add their sign-in statistics (date/time) which can help jog their memory and reduce likelihood of being marked as spam.
    The opener of your message is also important; let your reader know that they did sign up at some point (include the URL) and that opt-out requests are honored at the link provided (include the link at the bottom is usually ok, just point out that it is in fact, at the bottom).
    Great read!

  15. Scott

    3/5/2009 4:39 pm


    That is a very good idea to include a reminder statement at the top of each email.

    Another good idea would be to add that as a global field just like signature and contact address.

    This way we could just fill in the statement, and add it with one click to each email instead of copy/pasting it in each one ourselves.

    It would make it a lot easier for your customers, and they would do this more often, resulting in a better experience for all of us.


  16. David

    3/8/2009 5:43 pm

    I also would like to know how to put an unsubscribe link at the top of the letter. I have not found a personalization field that contains the user’s unsubscribe or subscription options link.

  17. Justin Premick

    3/9/2009 12:56 pm


    You can put the unsubscribe link at the top of your emails (or anywhere else you like) using the {!remove_web} variable.

  18. Scott

    3/9/2009 1:43 pm

    Hi David,

    This is what I ended up doing. I used this statement which will create click-able links on the HTML emails only.

    {!firstname_fix} – You are receiving this email because you signed up for my newsletter Free tips,
    videos, and advice on how to get your ex back fast at: Where Did I Sign Up For This?
    on {!signdate abb}. If you don’t remember doing this, or would like to end your subscription
    please visit here: Please Unsubscribe Me ~ I’ll be sorry to see you go – S. Williams ~
    You would make the phrases :

    Where Did I Sign Up For This? point to this field {!add_url}

    Please Unsubscribe Me point to this field {!remove_web}

    They will then be active links in the HTML emails.

    Now, for the plain text emails I used this method:

    {!firstname_fix} – You are receiving this email because you signed
    up for my newsletter Free tips, videos, and advice on how to get
    your ex back fast at the address below:
    on {!signdate abb}. If you don’t remember doing this, or would like
    to end your subscription please go to the very bottom of this email
    I’ll be sorry to see you go – S. Williams
    This has been working great for me, although if aweber just added another global field like signature, and contact address.

    We could put this statement in there, and if we wanted to update the statement we could simultaneously on every email.

    I hope this helped.

  19. todd

    3/9/2009 2:53 pm

    I’m convinced part of the problem is that some people are just plain idiots.

    Here’s an email I sent the other day that has so far received 0.15% complaints and only 25% opened so far.

    The people on my list have signed up for a free 100 page marketing course that has received rave reviews. My email is directing them to a page where I explain to them how they can participate in a weekly poll that will ultimately help me create the free content and help they need most in their business.

    There’s no sales pitch anywhere. I’m simply asking them to tell me what they need and I’ll then create it for free.

    I suspect the real problem is that people don’t understand the difference between hitting the spam complaint button and a simple voting mechanism. Casting a vote a and calling something you asked for a spam is entirely different and only an idiot can get this wrong (in my books).



    Hey jack,

    How’s your marketing going? Need more help?

    Well I’m working on it and to that end I want to tell you about a new feature I’ve added to the ***** blog that will ultimately help me help you become more successful with your marketing business.

    And NO it’s not a sales pitch or anything like that.

    It will only take 30 seconds and you’ll immediately be able to learn something about your fellow ***** course members. I promise!

    Most importantly, it will help me figure out the best way to help you.

    Isn’t that what I’m here for???

    Check it out here http://*******.***

    Your participation will be very much appreciated.


  20. David

    3/10/2009 4:41 pm

    Hi Scott,

    I tried using the {!remove_web} field in a test e-mail and it just pointed back to the e-mail and generated an error message. Have you tested this?


  21. Justin Premick

    3/11/2009 8:37 am

    Hi David,

    The {!remove_web} variable should work in your message fine.

    In a test email the unsubscribe page won’t work (since it’s just a test email and there’s nobody to unsubscribe). It doesn’t necessarily mean the link is incorrect.

    If you’re having trouble adding that unsubscribe link, or want to confirm it’s working properly, get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to have a look.

  22. Scott

    3/11/2009 9:25 am

    Hi David,

    The test link doesn’t work because it is a test.

    Just join your own list, and when you get your first email you’ll see it works.

    I always join my list to check my emails for any errors.

    It is funny how somethings can get changed without you knowing about it.

    I hope this helped.

  23. Scott

    3/19/2009 11:52 am


    Just wanted to drop back in and give the results of my latest email broadcast, since I incorporated a reminder statement at the top of my messages.

    I was averaging .3-.6% on every broadcast I sent (which was one every month).

    On my last email with the reminder message I did not get one spam complaint.

    I had quite a few unsubscribes (which tells me people didn’t know how to do it before).

    After about two weeks things have settled down and I do not get many unsubscribes at all.

    I think it is very important to include a subscription reminder at the top of every message you send to your list.

    I put an example of the reminder statement I use a few replies up on this post.

    This has solved my problems, and I hope it will solve yours as well.

  24. Jerry

    3/20/2009 7:06 am

    I second Alan’s suggestion (2/26/09). I’d love a way to unsubscribe anyone that marked my messages as spam.

  25. Justin Premick

    3/20/2009 7:56 am


    We automatically unsubscribe people who mark your emails as spam.

  26. Kevin

    3/24/2009 11:08 am


    Wow, I had no idea that you unsubscribed the people that marked our emails as spam. That is fantastic news as I always thought it was the same people complaining and didn’t know how to get rid of them.

    Just a quick question. Is this service automatic or do we have to do something in our profile (options) to unsubscribe these spam reporters?

  27. Will

    3/31/2009 1:02 pm

    Some individuals (like me) don’t like it when an html e-mail references a graphic stored remotely on the server (and some e-mail clients provide an option to strip those out).

    Aweber started automatically inserting such a graphic in the HTML messages we send out — I don’t remember being notified of the change, and I wish we had the option to turn it off. (I’ve asked about that a couple of times, but support just tells me it isn’t a problem, they haven’t directly answered my question about whether you can turn it off, so I suspect that is a "No".)

    Sure, counting "opens" can be nice, but it still should be an option, not something I’m forced to use.

  28. David

    4/6/2009 11:37 am

    I have an email list (270 listings) — it seems I have problems with Comcast email accounts. My ISP have filed necessary papers with them — it worked for a day or two. Almost all complaints I got from my members have Comcast email account.

    It looks like anyone who hit Spam button, Comcast will block all future incoming emails from my group. Is that legal?

  29. Prince Samuels

    4/6/2009 4:39 pm

    Wow! this was a wonderful educational comments and feedback. The inputs and feedbacks on this blog will prevent lot angry subscribers and confusions. Keep up the good work guys.

  30. Justin Premick

    4/7/2009 10:15 am


    I’m not sure what papers you’re referring to (guessing you mean you’ve applied for their feedback loop?) but it’s certainly possible for an ISP to refuse email if they believe that to be the desires and best interests of their users. Comcast in particular has been sued unsuccessfully before over this.

    It’s highly unlikely that an ISP will ever be legally *forced* to accept incoming email. They are accountable to their users, and part of what their users expect them to do is to deliver wanted email and keep out what their users believe to be spam.

    The best advice I have for you if you are having delivery issues at an ISP:

    – Read up on that ISP’s policies. (You can do that for Comcast here)

    – If you’re getting spam complaints, ask yourself *why* those are occurring, and what you can do to adjust your campaign to reduce your complaint rate.

    Hope this helps!

  31. Avril Harper

    4/11/2009 1:13 am

    I can’t help feeling it is very strange that I am getting an unacceptable level of spam complaints, from aweber’s point of view that is, when all of my list is double opt in and the complaints come only when I offer free gifts and advice. Surely people can’t really be viewing non-promotional emails, which they have asked to receive, as SPAM? The main problem is this only happens with my aweber account, it does not happen with other services I use. My main email provider has had just one complaint in about six months and the person even admitted that was a mistake when she was no longer receiving my emails.

    Does anyone have any ideas as to why my aweber account which uses the exact emails as my other two email accounts, should register such high spam rates and the other almost none.

    I would be very grateful for help please?

  32. Avril Harper

    5/22/2009 1:10 am

    I am afraid I also get spam complaints now and then even for free gifts and newsletters which people signed up to receive. These emails rarely have promotions linked to them. I do find it hard to accept that people will mark a free gift as spam. But this only happens in my aweber account, not in the other two services I have used for some time. I have tried everything, from adding a ‘you subscribed on’ mention at the top of every email, which actually brought more spam complaints than usual, to asking people if they want to receive less email from me.

    I can’t give up worrying about it unfortunately and my biggest worry is that aweber will look at my account and think I really am a spammer when in fact I have been in the publishing business for more than 20 years and only recently have I encountered problems such as this.

  33. Don Parkhurst

    11/8/2009 11:52 am

    I have been sending out newletters for a year or more now. I used my earthlink mail provider to send them. About six months ago I go username and password not available. I went on and after a couple hours of there online help I got it working again. They never gave any reason of why this happened.

    Well now it happened again. I was a bit annoyed but I figured, ok I guess I’ll have to go through this again. Well this time they told me that my account is inactive and cannot be reactivated due to spam being send from my address. I have now lost all of my contacts from students of mine plus friends and other contacts that I have had for years!

    I was again on with them for hours explaining that I have sent out newletters to students of mine in addition to others that said they would like to receive it. I don’t sell anything in them. I just write up articles and lessons in them.

    I kept trying to get to the bottom of this but they had no interest in figuring out what has happened. With every question I had they would simply respond " I understand your concern but we cannot reactive your e-mail address"

    In the end I lost my address and all of my contacts. Does anybody here have any clue of what may have happened here?

  34. Andrew

    7/20/2010 12:57 pm

    This is a GREAT post and I love all the comments. i am not in the internet marketing business per say, my wife and I have a wedding photography business. With that said, I still need clients to open my emails and I always want to post relevant info that is going to be eye-catching. Great advice and I appreciate everyone’s experiences!

  35. Milton

    6/9/2011 10:03 pm

    Woww..looks like email marketing is not that simple. With so many things to worry about, I wonder what the best way to get started will be. It is good to read everyone’s comments at least it gives you a reality check.

    I’ve been aweber customer for a while but we haven’t utilized it to the max. Email is considered something very personal; you just have to do it right to the right folks.

  36. RJG

    3/2/2012 9:05 am

    Here is one looking for the law if there is one to present to our hosting company- we are not spammers every email from our domain name was addressed to a opt in list. However our hosting company spam filter blacklisted us and didn’t tell us. When we called they said it was the spam filter as a domain name was reported as spam. Since we had no warning and no idea we continued to use our emails and they never got through. Communication via email is a major portion of the time our business spends and tossing out emails costs our company time and money and hurts our bottom line. We were told that we used content within our emails containing a link of the domain name that was considered spam and that blocked our emails as well. So if someone else send out our domain name on an email and they did not follow the rules even though We were not aware then we were punished. How can this be possible? Here are two major concerns, no one told us and it was by accident we found this out so important mail was discarded and important responses we were waiting for were not received and secondly we were not even provided with an email stating the situation nor were there any kickback similar to mail delivery notices. If someone takes your mail its a felony yet spam companies can block you without your knowledge and discard your mail without any warning even if your didn’t do anything wrong or had no knowledge of it — isn’t it time for the spam act to be revisited and those private spam who filter be mandatedZ to advise the sender who have legitimate IP addresses of warning at minimum let them know. Or is there a law already and my hosting company is the one not following it?

  37. Rebekah Henson

    3/2/2012 9:27 am

    RJG – That is definitely something you should talk to your hosting company about. You should also look into using an email service provider for your email campaign. An ESP will take care of those deliverability issues for you.