How to Reduce Spam Complaints in Your Transactional Emails

Seeing your legitimate transactional email messages getting marked as spam is frustrating. You spend hours creating a message for your business, and it's painful to watch people mark it as spam for some reason. This can be maddening because there’s no scientific approach that shows how you to avoid this fate.

Here’s the thing. The question of 'what is spam' is determined by the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t matter if your email “isn’t breaking any laws” or “technically isn’t spam.” Recipients get to determine if a message is spammy and the way they voice their displeasure is by clicking the “mark as spam” button.

Making sure your messages don’t get marked as spam is an art with one guiding principle: put yourself in the shoes of the message recipient. Don’t just send emails because you can, but provide value to your customer. Ask yourself, “What’s in it for them?”

For this post, I’m going to assume your messages are hitting the inbox and will instead focus on different ways you can reduce spam complaints generated by your messages. If your messages are being delivered straight to the spam folder, then you should check out our guide on troubleshooting email delivery first.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the reasons people mark emails as spam.

Set frequency expectations and let recipients control how often #

One thing you can do to immediately build trust with your customers is to explain when they can expect messages from you. Let them know up front if you’re going to be sending messages every day for a week or two, or that you plan on sending daily activity emails. Setting these expectations up front, and allowing people to manage these settings, will help prevent unwanted messages and spam complaints.

Another small way to empower your recipients is to make it easy for people to unsubscribe from your messages. Here’s why this is important. If I get a message and don’t see an easy way to unsubscribe I mark it as spam. After I do this a few times, messages from this sender get moved to my spam folder automatically. I’m not the only person who uses this technique. Making it easy to opt-out will prevent this from happening to your messages.

Make it clear who’s sending the message and why #

People don’t trust email from people or sources they don’t know.

Your best defense against a quick ‘Mark as Spam’ click is to make sure your subject and metadata are accurate and descriptive. When you send an email from your business you should use a clear From name and Reply-to address to make sure your customers can quickly identify you or your business as the sender. Use your brand name as part of your From name and make sure to use your pre-header as an enlightening window into your messages content. If you have questions about how to manage this type of data, our guide on transactional email best practices goes really in-depth on this topic.

If you send messages on behalf of your customers, then you should make it clear who generated the message. Whether it’s an invoice or invitation, these messages should tell the recipient who generated this message for them.

Another big key for clarity is to make sure the content in your message matches the expectation you’ve set with your subject line and other information. Not too long ago someone at Wildbit got an email from a server hosting company with a subject that said “Important Security Update” and they opened the message. It was a sales email! They marked the message as spam.

I don’t want to blast this company for what may have been an honest mistake. This instance may have been accidental, but don’t pull a bait and switch. It’s a really bad call and a quick way to get your message flagged as spam.

Deliver value. Always. #

Our inboxes can become a never ending stream of newsletters promoting the latest and greatest thing, demanding our time. For many people, the solution to this barrage is to become unsparing and begin to mercilessly delete messages we don’t find valuable. Value can be hard to define, but we get a good sense of what our recipients find valuable with engagement stats. Are your messages getting opened? Are people clicking on links? Looking at this data tells us if people are finding our messages valuable.

Even armed with this information it is still possible to find ways to add value to your messages.

One example that comes to mind that we’ve talked about on the blog in the past is notification emails. Rapidly sending a series of emails detailing activity over a short time span can clutter inboxes. There are times when this activity is something I want to know immediately, like if my credit card has been compromised. Then there are times when I’d rather get one email that batches updates together, like when I’m working on a blog post or email announcement.

Test, test, test #

Once you’ve got your content and design squared away, you should test all of your messages before they start going to your customers. Spend time manually going over the message and make sure to look for typos and broken links. Sending someone to the wrong URL is a good way to have your message marked as spam. You should send the message to yourself, grab the original message with headers and content, and use a tool like Postmark’s Spamcheck to make sure you fix signals that might cause your messages to be quarantined.

Once you’ve squared away your copy and verified your message is avoiding major spam signals use a service like Litmus to test across multiple email clients and services. This will help catch any oddities caused by email client rendering and make sure your recipients are all getting the same experience with your messages. Those tiny rendering errors can turn folks off, and catching them before they happen helps build your reputation with your recipients.

Monitor the spam rate for your domain #

Your ESP will keep track of your spam complaints. We do this for our customers, but if you’re sending enough mail and using multiple providers for transactional, marketing, and nurturing emails then you might want to monitor all of your messages together. Chris covered how you can set up Google Postmaster and Word to the Wise has a great round up of resources for other mailbox providers.

Quick recap #

Getting marked as spam stinks. Hopefully, these tips will help you if you’re seeing this problem. I’ve distilled the things we mentioned here into a short checklist, so if you’re encountering this issue you can copy and paste these out to work through these tips on your own time.

  • Make sure your infrastructure is setup right (Or use an ESP with established track record).
  • Set expectations for how often you’ll email on your site or in your app.
  • Clearly identify who’s sending the email with From and Reply-to address.
  • Make sure the subject and content agree. Don’t oversell to get someone to open your email.
  • Make sure your formatting is right. Include a text version for every HTML email.
  • Check your message for typos.
  • Double-check the links in your message.
  • Test your messages for spam and design problems before you start sending.
  • Set up postmaster tools with ISPs to monitor spam complaints across your entire domain