Email Blog

There Are Consequences to Spam Complaints — Really!

By Samantha McGuin

You've worked hard crafting your message, selecting your recipient list, and sending your message. The work is done, and you sit back to watch — what are surely going to be awesome — stats roll in on your email dashboard. Life is good. But wait…what's that number showing SPAM complaints?

SPAM complaints are reports Blackbaud gets from mailbox providers when recipients mark your messages as SPAM.

People use the "This is Spam" button for a variety of reasons:

  • A spam complaint is the quickest way to no longer see your emails in their inbox.

  • You've caught them in a bad mood and your message, along with the other 50 showing up in their inbox have sent them over the edge.

  • They don't have the time to hunt for the itty bitty unsubscribe link hidden somewhere in the abyss of your email message so they hit the VERY easy to find “report SPAM” button from the mailbox provider instead.

  • They received 4 messages from you in the last two days and they want to send YOU a message that you’re acting like a spammer.

SPAM complaints truly are at the whim of the email recipient; however, they pose a very real problem for you and your email program and have ACTUAL consequences for you, the sender.

What's an acceptable spam complaint rate?

Industry best practices tell us that a SPAM rate of at or below .1% (one tenth of one percent) is acceptable. If we put that into real numbers, out of a list of 100,000 recipients, 100 or fewer of them can mark the message as SPAM. Although 100 SPAM complaints doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s enough opportunity for folks who are having a bad day to impact your sender reputation.

What's acceptable?

Blackbaud calculates your SPAM complaint rate across all the messages you send. However, mailbox providers like Gmail, don’t have the whole story like we do. They can only base their rate on how many messages you send to them. Let’s say you send a message to 80,000 recipients and only 80 mark it as SPAM. You think you’re doing good because your overall rate is .1%, but if 20,000 of those messages and 50 of the complaints are to Gmail, then your SPAM compliant rate with Gmail is a whopping 2.5%!

Newton's Law

As Issac Newton told us, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This holds true with SPAM complaints. SPAM complaints have consequences, and they vary by mailbox provider and email service provider (ESP).

  • Mailbox providers like Gmail make decisions on behalf of their customers — your recipients — to stop potentially unwanted messages from ever making it to inboxes. While they don't share their exact algorithms, given the recent focus on user engagement, we can assume that a high SPAM compliant rate will likely result in providers like Gmail delivering ALL of your messages directly to the junk folder.

  • Email service providers like Blackbaud may or may not change the way they deliver your message based on SPAM complaint rates. To protect overall deliverability, Blackbaud's system assigns your organization a grade — based on your SPAM complaint rate — to determine which IP addresses to use for your mailings. To calculate the rate, the system counts how many complaints it received about your messages over the past 30 days and divides the number by how many emails you sent. The system updates the rate each night and uses the current average to assign your grade whenever you send a message.

Two ways to avoid SPAM complaints

Since a high number of complaints can impact your future email campaigns and whether they get delivered into inboxes, do your best to engage users so they are less apt to click the "report SPAM" button.

  1. Only send to engaged recipients. Engaged recipients are people who want your emails and demonstrate their interest by signing up to receive them. They’ve also opened your messages within the last six months and possibly clicked links within them.

  2. Make unsubscribing easy. Mailbox providers don't punish you when someone unsubscribes from your messages — they typically don't even know when it happens. So, instead of placing your unsubscribe link at the bottom of your message in tiny print, put it at the top. Don't make people hunt for it because it’s there as a service to them. Remember, it’s really easy for users to click the "report SPAM" button. If it’s easier for someone to report SPAM than it is to unsubscribe, then they’ll cause an unnecessary complaint. When mailbox providers receive excessive numbers of complaints about your messages, they punish you by placing future messages — even for people who want to receive them — in recipient junk folders. To avoid decreased deliverability, make it just as easy for recipients to unsubscribe or manage their preferences as it is for them to mark your email as SPAM.

Finally, remember…SPAM complaints can happen to good senders. Your end goal should be to have zero SPAM complaints. Build your email program around your engaged recipients and get the benefits of increased deliverability.

Deliverability Danger — Watch Out for SPAM Traps!

By Samantha McGuin

SPAM traps

When’s the last time you drove by a speed trap on your local interstate? Did you get that sinking feeling because you were worried you might get a ticket? Well mailbox providers like Gmail, Microsoft, and Yahoo set similar snares — known as SPAM traps — to catch email spammers in the act.

SPAM traps are email addresses that don't belong to actual people. Instead, they exist to “trap” or identify email senders who demonstrate spammy behavior. They’re used as a fraud management tool by mailbox providers and blacklist services to identify and block emails from spammers.

There are 3 types of SPAM traps:

  • Recycled SPAM Traps (RST) — Recycled SPAM traps include email addresses that are abandoned by recipients or retired by email providers. These addresses are then re-purposed to identify senders who continue to send to them.

    Mailbox providers can convert abandoned or retired addresses into RSTs after just six months. After their pre-defined period of inactivity, providers turn accounts off and return hard bounce errors to senders. This process is known as gravestoning, and it typically occurs for 30-90 days. Some of the addresses are then reactivated to serve as RSTs. When you send messages to RSTs, it indicates to mailbox providers that you’re not removing inactive or unengaged recipients from your list.

  • Pristine SPAM Traps (PST) — Pristine SPAM traps include email addresses that mailbox providers and blacklist services create to identify poor or malicious senders. Since the addresses aren’t associated with people, mailbox providers know that you didn’t add them to your list naturally (such as through email signups or donations). Therefore, when you send to a PST, they consider it a worse offense than sending to a RST. Getting caught in a PST indicates to the mailbox provider that you purchase lists. It also indicates that you send to unengaged users since no one owns the addresses to take actions from the messages you send.

  • Role Account (or Function Email Account) Traps — Role account SPAM traps include email addresses with webmaster@, hostmaster@, sales@, support@, postmaster@, etc. Since these accounts are usually aliases for multiple recipients, people don’t normally use them to sign up for email communications. Rather, they’re included when you purchase lists. You should routinely look for these addresses and send individual (rather than bulk) messages to request different personal addresses.

Depending on the type of trap and the mailbox provider, the penalty for getting caught varies. At a minimum, you damage your sender reputation which can cause your overall deliverability to suffer. Sometimes, providers simply place messages from trapped senders in SPAM or junk folders. Other times, they’ll block all messages from the sending domain or IP address. Typically, Role Account (or Functional Email Account) traps result in the highest penalties, followed by PSTs and then RSTs.

How to avoid SPAM traps

The most effective way to avoid SPAM traps is to properly build and segment your list.

  1. Only send to people who opt-in to receive your messages and touch base at least every 6-9 months to ensure they STILL want them. Better yet, have those messages require an action to opt recipients into your list again.

  2. Don't purchase lists of email addresses to import into your database since they typically contain pristine SPAM trap addresses. Also, using purchased lists is against our Acceptable Use Policy.

  3. Establish a communication plan that ensures you send email to each of your recipients at least once every 3 months. Regular contact helps you catch email addresses which hard bounce before they’re switched to recycled SPAM traps. Since our system automatically suppresses those addresses from future mailings, you can protect yourself from traps when you email regularly. This doesn’t give you carte blanche to email your house-file daily; just ensure you email all your engaged users every 90 days to verify their email addresses haven’t started hard bouncing.

Avoid traps

FAQs

If sending to SPAM traps is so harmful, why doesn't Blackbaud automatically suppress these addresses?

The answer is simple. We don't know which addresses are SPAM traps either because — returning to the previous analogy — there’s no radar detector for them. Mailbox providers are purposefully secretive about traps because they’re a tool to help catch spammers and keep unwanted email out of recipient inboxes.

How does Blackbaud know if I'm sending to SPAM traps?

Blackbaud, through various partners who create and maintain SPAM traps, analyzes email deliverability across all organizations sending through our systems. While not every mailing is monitored, we do use tools which randomly select messages to check for overall deliverability and identify problems like SPAM traps.

How can I tell if I'm sending to SPAM traps?

If you haven’t removed inactive or unengaged recipients from your list in the past, you’re probably sending to SPAM traps. Blackbaud may also contact you to alert you of a problem with traps within your segmentation and provide guidance and oversight to identify and correct the problem.

If you regularly remove inactive and unengaged recipients and actively segment your engaged users, you shouldn’t have deliverability problems related to SPAM traps. If you’d like to have Blackbaud work with you on increasing your deliverability, contact your account representative or customer success manager about our email deliverability consulting package!

Authentication is essential to email deliverability

By Ryan O'Keefe

Authentication? Are you seriously going to write about the benefits of making sure you have proper authentication before sending an email? Why yes I am — and I’ll give you reasons why doing this will not only help your deliverability (getting into those inboxes) but it will also help with building a better reputation with your supporters.

What Is Email Authentication?

Authentication lets you verify who you are as a sender so that the mailbox providers you are sending to can approve your message as trustworthy and not spam. Common methods of email authentication include SPF (Sender Policy Framework) and DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail). A newer authentication tool that’s available to senders is DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance), which provides a standard way for senders to establish policies for mailbox providers to use when email from them doesn’t pass SPF and DKIM.

Another way of thinking about it is to imagine you are heading out to a special VIP party that’s invitation only. Once you reach your destination, the doorman asks to see your tickets or ID before they let you in. If you know the person throwing the party, sometimes it’s as simple as a handshake to greet each other, but other times it’s a more formal ID check. Verifying you have a DMARC policy in place might be akin to telling the doorman what to do when someone doesn’t have ID — like turn them away or let them in and give them a warning for next time.

DMARC

If DKIM and SPF are your door locks, DMARC is your alarm system.

Where did DMARC come from and what is it specifically? Let’s travel back in time to 2012 when “Gangnam Style” was atop the pop charts and Disney bought Lucasfilm for some strange reason, oh yeah — Star Wars. There was a group collaborating on a standard for combating fraudulent email at Internet-scale which they developed based on their experiences with SPF and DKIM.

Email authentication

The result of their efforts is DMARC. This new standard allows a sender to indicate that their messages are protected by SPF and/or DKIM, and then tells the receiving mailbox provider what to do if either one or both of those authentication methods fails authentication — such as deliver anyway, quarantine, or outright reject the message. It also provides instructions around what percentage of mail to apply the policy to and where to send reports about policy violations.

DMARC removes guesswork from the mailbox provider’s handling of these failed messages, limiting or eliminating the user’s exposure to potentially fraudulent & harmful messages. DMARC also provides a way for the mailbox provider to report back to the sender about messages that pass and/or fail DMARC evaluation. DMARC is especially helpful for organizations who send email through multiple email service providers and need to know which authenticate properly.

Email Authentication Best Practices

What can you do to ensure that your email authentication setup is configured for optimum deliverability? You can configure SPF and DKIM. The big thing is to take the extra time and properly set this up so that you can walk into that VIP party feeling like you belong and everyone knows who you are.

Gmail Propels Us into a New Age of Email Deliverability

By Sally Heaven

Go to Gmail and check your spam folder, right now.

Did you find any emails that you opted into, but haven’t been opening?

I did, and wow. I know for a fact I never marked those emails as spam, but they’ve ended up in the spam folder anyway. Some are from school fundraisers for my kids’ school. Some are from magazines and shopping websites. Some are from nonprofits who have missions that I care deeply about.

I opted into these emails, but haven’t been opening them, reading them or clicking on the links.

Hey, I’m busy. Everybody is busy, these days, and we’re all getting more and more email. It’s hard to keep up with. The morning email review sometime turns into something like triage in an ER — I archive or delete the emails that I know I’m not going to have time to read. I just click a checkbox and click “Archive” — it’s easy.

Mailbox Providers Start Anticipating Our Desires

Some mailbox providers have decided to pay attention to their users’ behavior. Some, like Gmail, have started to base email delivery (to the inbox, the bulk folder, the promotions tab or the spam folder) on how people interact with their emails. Or, more to the point — how people don’t interact with their emails.

Email behaviors

This is a change. And for nonprofits who depend on “inbox placement” to raise money, it can impact the bottom line. The key to email delivery used to be status as a trusted sender. You sent your email from “whitelisted” IP address that had a “good reputation” — i.e. it wasn’t an IP address that was used by known spammers — and your email had a good chance of landing in your supporters’ inboxes.

This is still important, but it’s not the be-all, end-all anymore. Now, it’s based on engagement.

Do people open your emails? Do they click on links? If they consistently don’t do this for a long enough period of time, then Gmail will start sending them directly to the spam folder. No amount of whitelisting can overcome that. And as goes Gmail, so goes the rest of the email world.

What’s the period of time? That’s a little opaque right now, since Gmail doesn’t publish their inbox / spam box placement criteria. If they did, then spammers could adjust their practices to compensate.

Time to Shift the Way We Look at our Email House File

It’s time for a mindset shift. The old wisdom used to be that every single email on the list was valuable. You never know when someone might suddenly decide to make a gift. Maybe the first 50 emails they got from you didn’t motivate them, but the 51st will make the difference! Never let them go.

Not anymore! Not every email on your list is valuable – in fact, the non-responders might be doing you actual harm.

So what can you do? Here are four things you can do right now.

  1. Validate emails. Make extra sure that any data your volunteers or staff have data-entered is correct and free of typos. Mailbox providers keep track of “Email address does not exist” errors and if your send contains too many invalid or incorrect emails, they might flag you as a suspected spammer. Proofread anything that is handwritten, and try to validate email addresses that are ambiguously written before entering them into your email system. You can also use a commercial email validation service for this task.

  2. Segment more. Don’t send everything to everyone, and get even more ruthless in your segmentation.

    • Pay attention to past actions. Try to base your audience not only on what people have told you they’re interested in (because interests change, and sometimes people say they’re interested in certain issues with the best of intentions, but then they get busy), but based on what they have responded to in the past via advocacy or donations.

    • Bonus segmentation: Generate interest. You can use social listening to further figure out what your list members are interested in, even if they haven’t told you, and then you can email them specifically about that issue. You’ll probably get a much bigger engagement rate on that email, and you’ll improve not only your inbox delivery, but your constituents’ satisfaction with your stewardship of the issues. Check out this blog post for an example. Spam

  3. Use additional channels. Not everything needs to be an email. Are you communicating via your social media channels? Does your organization have a blog or a news feed? Do you have a large following? Make it easy for people to follow you as a way of consuming your organization’s news, actions, and engagement, especially if they don’t want to receive email.

  4. Let go! Stop emailing people who haven’t responded. Create a suppression group of people who haven’t responded in more than 6 months – no email opens, no link clicks. Just stop emailing them. Monitor the reports of your spam complaints over the course of a month, and see if your stats improve. Then narrow it down to 5 months, 4 months – do you continue to see improvement?

What’s next?

If there’s one lesson we’ve learned over the years, it’s that email delivery is a moving target. As email continues to evolve in how it’s used and how people respond to it, the algorithms will likely change. Maybe in a couple of years there will be another blog post like this one telling you that engagement is out the window, and now inbox delivery is all based on how Gmail can actually read your mind via a Vulcan mind-meld. (Kidding – kind of.) We’ll continue to stay abreast of what’s happening and give you news you can use.

Canadian Anti-Spam Law Comes Into Full Effect July 1 - Are You Ready?

By Kathryn Hall

In July 2014, Canada enacted The Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) — strict new regulations for bulk email. The phase-in period for CASL stretched over 3 years to allow organizations to adjust their emailing practices to align with CASL's rigorous opt-in policies and rules for suppression of unwanted email.

The grace period for CASL ends July 1, 2017, and along with full enforcement come substantial administrative penalties for email law violations of up to $10 million for businesses. While there was an 11th hour stay on the right of private legal action (against spammers) announced yesterday, the reality of potential fines make it worth the effort to study up. In a recent blog post, Heather McLean explains how to ensure you're prepared for CASL to take full effect.

By the way, U.S. nonprofits are not exempt. CASL rules apply both to Canadian organization as well as any nonprofit that sends email to Canadian addresses!