Good transactional emails should not generate Spam Complaints

When we launched Postmark, a key part of it’s infrastructure was building tools to help us combat spam. After years of running our email marketing service, Newsberry, we knew that the spammers were going to come, so protecting our customers and our IP reputations was important. One part of the suit of armor that we built was keeping track of spam complaints.

Many have commented that our threshold at Postmark is low compared to other providers. We allow up to 10 complaints for every 10,000 sent emails, or 0.10%. That’s right, 1/10th of a percent. Why is it so low?

Because we strongly believe that true, honest transactional email should generate 0 complaints.

Before you dismiss the boldness of our statement and shout, “That’s unattainable!”, let us explain our stance.

What is a transactional email? #

With few exceptions, a transactional email is a system-generated email in response to some action: a signup, an comment notification, an invoice, etc. Because the message is tied to a user action, transactional emails should be delivered with 100% expectation from the user about to receive that email, and further, provide action or value for the recipient.

Spam complaints are generated when a recipient is NOT expecting an email, so considering our definition of a well designed transactional email, there should be no complaints.

Putting our Theory to the Test #

Our philosophy needed to be tested in a real application before we sent tons of customers away for excessive complaints. Luckily, we’ve been running Beanstalk for quite some time so we had a perfect opportunity to test our theory in a production application and look for real-world results.

Before Postmark, we sent Beanstalk’s transactional emails through it’s own mail servers and did little with bounces and complaints. At Beanstalk we send about 15,000 transactional emails a day, or about 450,000 emails a month, and in our preliminary tests we found that we generated a total of 0 spam complaints! How cool is that? We validated our theory and everyone was excited.

Grey Areas #

Then we opened out of Beta and other types of webapps started to send mail through our systems. We quickly discovered that it’s not all as clear as we’d thought. There are other types of emails which would be considered transactional that catch people by surprise. Some examples were:

  • Invitation emails
  • Send to friend emails
  • Forum posts
  • Support responses

The first two didn’t surprise us. If you allow someone to invite their entire address book, chances are people are not going to be expecting it. Limit the number of referral entries your customers can send to avoid sending spam.

We recommend limiting the number of entries, or better yet making the person hand-type each friend they want to invite to keep your spam complaints low.

The forum postings and the support responses did confuse us at first. What I saw was people subscribing to notices but either not realizing what they were in for, or getting annoyed at too many posts, and were clicking spam.

The worst case was when someone does Select+All + Click Spam. Say hello to 100 complaints at once, and serious damage to your sender reputation!

We recommend making sure that comment notifications are an option email preference. Also, be sure to provide a clear link to email settings AND 1-click unsubscribe link somewhere VERY prominently. For an example, Basecamp does a really nice job of this.

This is how Basecamp provides options for comment notifications in each email.

If someone sees a proper unsubscribe link in an email notification they weren’t expecting, they have an easy way to quickly opt-out before rushing to the spam button.

The Takeaway #

We still believe that transactional email should not generate complaints, as happens with most of our large and small volume senders. We’ve found that when complaints become a problem, there are almost always very clear reasons that a transactional email is causing those complaints, and we work hard to provide tools and share best practices to help our customers improve their deliverability.

One things stays constant in all our testing: expectation is key. Making sure that you are super clear on what will happen when that “subscribe” check box gets marked goes a long way! We also recommend staying away from opt-out email preferences. Let people opt-in so they know exactly what is going on, and your reputation will stay clear!

By following some of our simple guidelines and using some of the tools provided by Postmark, we’re certain that is possible to have less than 10 complaints in 10,000 and keep your customers happy!