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Reputation is a function of permission

So Mr/Ms Marketeer, you have everything in order.  You have a 400k address list, you’ve hired an ESP to make sure all the basics are in order, you’re authenticated and CAN-SPAM’d up to the eyeballs, and it’s time to market but … WHAM! your messages end up hitting the spam folder.

Sound familiar?


I’m not.   I didn’t say the list contained recent customers who love you enough to entrust your employer with their name, postal address, email address, date of birth, credit card number, inside leg measurement and gave your company their explicit permission did I?  I’d also go as far as to suggest that permission in one form or another is actually the root cause of most deliverability issues.

Since spam reports or complaints are a hugely important part of the reputation equation for every mailbox provider these days, I’ve some advice about some of the most common issues we’ve seen and learned from over the years.  These are the sort of problems  that are guaranteed to upset your email recipients and trip you at the first hurdle.

Before we start, I would like you to keep in mind, that for many email recipients, a “spam report” is a psychological pacifier, used when they want to resolve a situation in their inbox, a situation they genuinely believe the sender is contributing to.


The key to creating the very cleanest mailing list is only ever using genuine self sourced, confirmed permission recipients.   Even the big senders get this wrong and it really is the simplest thing to get right. Why? Well it’s generally <Insert some excuse about 3rd parties here> reasons, so let’s set the record straight right now:  Editing your privacy policy is not an opt-in, no matter how legal it is. It’s a spirit vs letter of legality issue and is tantamount to tricking permission.  The same goes for co-registration, opt-in list leasing, marketing data partnerships and appending. So;

What sort of permission does your company really have?

How accurate is your data?

How current is your data?

How does the recipient actually know you?

My acid-test of permission is ” Did I give permission to this Company ” and  if the answer is anything but a simple “Yes” then I can’t say I blame anyone for hitting the report spam button and casting an email to the spam folder.  Your job is to ensure your customers make that familiarity connection when they read every single email.   If you chose make your opt-in blatantly clear and actually an obvious conscious decision during the customer sign-up experience your recipients are more likely to remember opting in.  To this end your recipient data should include data on exactly how the recipient opted in, be it a purchase option, website subscription request, an affiliate referral or entering a competition. If you’re not doing this then you’ll have problems back-tracking issues and segregating channel segments that cause an abnormal volume of complaints.

Mailing old lists:

Your recipients are likely to be a little forgetful, so despite your amazing data to the contrary, recipients will often just forgot they subscribed if you haven’t been mailing them recently. If your brand has slipped over their familiarity event-horizon they will reach for the “Report Spam” button. I’m surprised more legitimate marketers don’t remind users how and when they subscribed if they have a direct relationship.

Speaking of old lists…

List Sourcing:

millions_ eBayThe Ultimate E-Mail List!
Contains more then 1320+ Million all World E-mail Addresses
 This is a combination of all the lists on eBay into one.

↖ This is how you shouldn’t do it ↗

If you care about your companies virtual  “sleaze rating”,  Never ever buy,  rent, borrow, swap, steal, scrape or otherwise acquire lists to supplement your marketing.  There are lots of brokers about offering permission granted lists and the recipients are besieged with spam, so is it any surprise they are probably a little more belligerent than most and complain a lot?  This is all because the lists are simply sold to anyone and everyone.

Don’t think this won’t happen to you either.  Part of the inspiration of this post is that I recently spoke to some great guys from an absolute powerhouse in the email space about an over-enthusiastic sender of theirs.  The reason readers should not to be complacent is that this victim weren’t an ESP, they were a retail giant who happen to send a modicum of marketing on behalf of others and somehow a bad list found it’s way onto their platform, and, well, a “WHAM!” happened.  My team had them back on the path of goodness by return, but it took non-trivial auditing time to investigate.


You can use some basic psychology to avoid some complaints by always addressing a recipient directly and properly. Addressing in this context is more than gender or name.  Here are some pretty poor examples:

  • Dear shopper or Hi Subscriber, – You may as well say “Please report this as spam.”.
  • YOUR EMAIL ID.HAS WON – Again, very generic greetings, but this time with a “too good to be true” hook.
  • To: “” <> –  You don’t have a real name? How can you personalise?
  • Sir, Will you / <Politician surname> Supporters!  We need … – Nothing says “report me” if you get the recipients gender or facts like political allegiance incorrect.

Just take a look how the “big guns” address their mail.  “Hi Dave,”, “David”, “Mr Smith,”.  Using personalization appropriately is much more appealing to the recipient and endears the sender to them somewhat.  Here endeth today’s psychology lesson.

The emergency exits are…                           [Report Spam]

The cognitive aspect of a spam complaint is an interesting beast.  When a recipient makes the decision to report spam they are trying to alleviate a situation in their inbox that they completely believe is being caused by your mail. It doesn’t matter if they bought from you last week, or if they opened a mail from you and rendered the images 59 days ago, they genuinely want you to stop.  So please, for the love of the inbox, process every reply, every feedback loop and always put an unsubscribe button above the fold.  You don’t want unhappy subscribers on your list so by helping them to help themselves you will reduce complaints. So ask yourself before you send again, where is your emergency exit sign?

Another quick true story:  I spoke to an “ESP” this morning that was re-selling a “technology partners” services (those of another ESP) to a 3rd party organization and had a pretty poor feedback situation going on with some recipients complaining very frequently over a continued period and their persistent sending to spam traps was borderline harassment.   After a lengthy discussion this “ESP” (and I use the term only because they did)  blamed their lack of feedback loop data on their technology provider.  They are clearly demonstrating neglectful list husbandry and this was obviously reflected in the feedback we see from the Cloudmark community.   Who’s to blame for the reputation of a poor sender in this scenario? Well it certainly isn’t us.  Where did their explicit permission come from?

Pick your ESP with care:

There are 3 rules of thumb with ESPs :

  1. ESP’s vary in quality.
  2. ESP’s are great at self marketing.  
  3. Goto 1.

ESP’s are run by the successful marketeers, so choose one that’s going to work hard to help you the most no matter how much it hurts is the key.  Yes, they should audit your best practices thoroughly, if they don’t you probably chose the wrong ESP.  Yes, if you have sufficient data on your clientele they will probably advise you as part of their stewardship process to remove 20%, 30% or even 50+% of your list before you send.  Is that so bad? If you think about it they are trying to save your money and reputation.  One final thing to remember is that the term “blast” has never in my experience been a good sign.

Quality not Quantity:

Everybody knows (hopefully by now) that over-mailing a list is hugely damaging and that the key to engagement is quality not quantity.  The overall mantra to this tale is that high quality mail in general does not generate anywhere near the amount of poor feedback.  I’m not just talking about quality content, I’m talking about recipients and senders too.  If you can create a little desire or passion in your creative and your permission is in good order, you’re almost certainly on the right path.

TL;DR; Cheating on permission is “campaign suicide”.


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