70% of Spam Complaints Caused by Email Marketers

A quick scan of the spam folder’s contents indicate that the spam filter is doing exactly what it was designed to do: filter out the crap and put it exactly where it belongs. But what about the much-ballyhooed raft of spam email that comes from ‘legitimate’ marketers? Most would argue that the spam folder is exactly where that cross-section of spam belongs, and they’d be right. In fact, a recent report from the email intelligence firm Return Path reveals that we may just be winning the battle on businesses that want you to buy their endless glut of Tchotchkes, trinkets, baubles and knickknacks, whether you need them or not. Yes, the same firms that send you the emails whether you ask for them or not.

Just Say No: The 70 Percent

The Email Intelligence Report, published on November 27, offers some hopes of a Christmas miracle, reporting two significant findings in the war on retail spam. First, 70% of all “this is spam” complaints by users are aimed directly at marketers (i.e., the semi-legitimate branch of the spam tree). States George Bilbrey, Return Path co-founder and president:

“oftentimes marketers may feel the return on investment is strong enough that a ‘large blast’ with some bounce backs isn’t a big deal, but what may seem like a nominal problem could in fact be a much larger issue if recipients begin associating their brand with spam and ultimately make decisions based on that perception.”

Amen. Users do feel the weight of so many ill-conceived and oppressively frequent blasts, and while we all enter the season for giving, retailers are ruthless in their focus on the backside of that noble human quality (i.e., the taking). Return Path notes that the 70% figure is far higher than other sources of spam, such as botnets, which only constitute three percent of spam complaints and 11% of spam trap hits, or when the email gets filtered into the junk folder. Compared to the same time last year, Return Path notes:

“U.S. marketers’ inbox placement rates decreased roughly five percent and spotlights the larger trend of stagnant inbox placement rates over the past 10 years.”

According to CorpComms Magazine, the findings of Return Path’s study are “based on the inbox, blocking and filtering rates for more than 315,000 campaigns using data from both actual subscriber panel and seed list technology. For each campaign, Return Path recorded whether the email was missing, received in the inbox, or filtered to the junk/spam folder.”

When Traps Work, They’re Great

I recently had a minor rodent problem and spent two weeks trying to find the right traps to catch the little buggers. I started with the humane catch-and-release traps, but they were virtually useless, and I had no choice but to resort to a somewhat humane trap that quickly electrocuted the things. Problem solved, but it was a frustrating two weeks. There’s an analogue in there for email and spam filters, where administrators and users are often faced with a trial-and-error, on-the-job training process, as it were; but the endless fight to keep our inboxes clean seems to be working somewhat: Return Path’s uncovered another interesting statistic, this one about spam filters. 60% of spam trap hits are marketing messages, causing real problems for email marketers, but offering a much-needed reprieve for consumers who often don’t get the chance to opt-in, and where opting-out can be a dangerous practice when one doesn’t fully trust the source of the message.

That’s a significant number. If six out of every ten messages are being dumped for spam, then there is hope for us, and a distinct and effective message is being sent to retailers, many of which don’t care whether you want the email or not. In the past, I’ve used the term “feeding frenzy” to describe the endless waves of greed that grip retailers, especially this time of year. And we’ve seen instances where penalties have been levied, against companies you might not expect, like Vodafone, Papa John’s, and Virgin Blue, to name a few. With any luck, there’s more to come.

Written by Malcolm James


  1. Maria Ortiz · December 4, 2012

    This really debunks the myth that spam comes from bots. It comes from real people in legitimate jobs, though their means are hardly legitimate. This gives me hope – once marketers realize these spam blasts hurt their brand, they will spam less. Or maybe I am just dreaming?

  2. Malcolm James · December 7, 2012

    Like you, Maria, I share the wish this holiday season that email marketers get that they’re hurting, not helping, their cause by ticking off consumers. Alas, that would take a Christmas miracle, and that already happened when Justin Bieber was snubbed by the Grammys.

  3. Ken · December 10, 2012

    I wonder if it’s possible that marketers provide a disclaimer in their mailing lists, letting their future subscribers know how often they’re going to receive letters from them. Honestly, since I’m a subscriber to a couple of things myself, I deserve to know so I don’t end up getting so surprised when barraged with a flood of e-mails. Besides, I already come across sites that are like that. For example, the Happiness Project sends mail only once a month, and so far, it stays true to its promise. Despite being less often, the content is incredible, and people still continue to subscribe and buy the blogger’s stuff.

  4. Abigael Robson · December 11, 2012

    I also have the same idea, Ken, but I guess it’s really the nature of marketers to withhold certain tactics and information for a variety of reasons. First they want to increase the mystery so you’ll be curious enough to sign up. Second, they will never reveal all their cards so that you’ll not be scared to sign up. Seriously, if you learn that they’re going to send a mail every day, would you still be willing to include yourself in the mailing list? At the very least, you’ll have second thoughts. And before you know it, you don’t want to sign up at all.

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