Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About SPAM And More

As a small business owner you’ve been on both sides of the spam issue. You’ve received it in your inbox, and you’ve likely had some of your email marketing messages marked as spam by others.
But what IS spam, really? Most people would define spam as every bit of annoying or unrecognized email that lands in their inbox. While that answer may seem intuitive, it’s not necessarily true. So what’s the actual definition of spam?
Spamhaus says:

An electronic message is spam if (A) the recipient’s personal identity and context are irrelevant because the message is equally applicable to many other potential recipients; AND (B) the recipient has not verifiably granted deliberate, explicit, and still-revocable permission for it to be sent.

With so much conflicting information out there, it’s understandable how people can be confused by spam and how to handle it. The following should help clear things up for both email marketers and recipients alike.


Even if you’re a completely legit email marketer boasting a 100% opted-in mailing list and doing everything by the book, complaints are inevitable.
Here are some ways you can diminish the chances of having your messages marked as spam.

Double Checking

We use a double opt-in for new subscribers. This means that even though someone submitted their name and email into our signup form requesting to be added to our list as a subscriber, they must still give their consent and approval using the confirmation email we auto-send upon receiving their request. Not only is this the law in some states, it’s a good way to reduce spam complaints because you’re only sending emails to those who truly want to receive them. If someone opts not to confirm, then they can simply delete the email, and they will not be added to the list. Simple as that.

Segment your lists

You have the option of maintaining several lists with your email service provider (ESP). You can have a general mailing list for those interested in everything you’re sending, and then other, custom lists for those who asked to only hear about particular topics. For example, if someone requested information on branding, you can add them to that list, and that list only. That way, they’re only receiving the messages you’re sending that relate to branding. You can do this by having them choose the topics they’re interested in on your opt-in form.

Who Can I Add To My List?

At The Mogul Mom, we like to think of our email marketing not as our business, but as an extension of the customer experience. It helps us hone and deepen the relationships we have with our fellow entrepreneurs who look to us for business information and advice. The emails themselves are our delivery vehicle to get information into the hands of those who are interested in hearing what we’ve got to share.
We set up a dedicated page on the site to let new subscribers know what they can expect when they sign up. This is our promise and is an implied agreement between ourselves and a subscriber. Our list is 100% opt-in meaning every single person on our list signed up on their own at one time or another. This is called permission based marketing, and it’s really the only way to go.
The only people who should be on your list are those who gave you their express consent to be added. Plumping your list with names for the sake of quantity is never a good idea. Don’t add friends, family, colleagues, vendors, or even email addresses from business cards you’ve collected at networking events. All of these are considered violations, and can cost you.
Even if someone made a purchase, received an assessment, proposal, or another offer from you in the past, you are unable to add them to your list unless they explicitly gave consent to receive future commercial mailings from you.

You can reduce spam complaints by:


  • using a double opt-in

  • having a strong privacy policy

  • sending only relevant information and offerings

  • not sending more often that you promised

  • keeping your word

As noted above, it’s against FTC rules to add email addresses to your subscriber list without permission. In fact, whenever you add a name to your database, the email service provider will likely specifically ask you if you obtained permission to add the name(s).
It’s also against FTC rules to breach promises outlined in the original agreement. For example, if you sign up for a newsletter that promises to send weekly, but is sending daily emails, this would be considered outside the original expectations you agreed to, and thus, would be considered spammy.
We work hard to align our emails with our mission at The Mogul Mom, which is “to provide timely, relevant, actionable content that our subscribers can really use”. Sometimes that comes in the form of a weekly roundup of our latest blog posts, new product or service offerings, and sometimes it might be a survey or other feedback mechanism to help us serve our readers better. All fall under the umbrella of the original promise.

How much is too much?

When it comes to receiving spam complaints, the industry standard for an acceptable percentage of reports per email campaign is less than 0.02%. That’s less than 20 per every 1,000 emails sent.

That’s why it’s important to:

√  Have a welcome message automatically sent when they sign up, letting them know what they can expect.
√  Email regularly so your list doesn’t get stale, and your subscribers don’t forget you or lose interest.
√  Send quality content that remains along the lines of what was promised initially.
√  Maintain a quality list of doubly opted-in, engaged people.
If, at some point in the future, you ever want to increase the frequency of your messages, you must give your readers a chance to accept or reject this new arrangement. You can do it by creating a separate list of people who want to receive more often, and then sending an email to all existing subscribers offering them the opportunity to add themselves to this list or remain on the current list. Making the choice up to them reduces the risk of spam complaints.

Why do valid subscribers mark my messages as spam?

Lots of reasons, though not all are legitimate or fair. Some people may think it’s an easy way to unsubscribe. Some people get a little kick out of it. Most probably don’t realize that it penalizes you, the sender, both with their ISP and your ESP.
The only reasons a message should be marked as spam by a recipient are if the message was unsolicited or falls outside the boundaries originally set forth when they signed up.
I like to think that people don’t realize the impact it can do to mark an email as spam as opposed to simply hitting unsubscribe. The only reasons a message should be marked as spam by a recipient are if the message was unsolicited or falls outside the boundaries originally set forth when they signed up. For all other undesired messages, an ‘unsubscribe’ is called for.

Let them go

Unsubscribes are to be expected, and for seasoned business owners, they’re appreciated.
A popular marketing tactic used to build lists is content marketing which is the exchange of free information in exchange for your email address. Website owners, myself included, expect that some people will grab their freebie, and for whatever reason, will immediately unsubscribe. And that’s ok. If the content wasn’t for them, or if they felt it didn’t resonate, personally I would actually prefer that they unsubscribe. There’s no reason they should feel compelled to continue to receive messages that don’t benefit them. And I don’t need a list of people who aren’t getting value from what I’m saying.
Existing subscribers who never seem to open your messages are called ‘cold subscribers’. Some ESPs maintain a list of cold subscribers automatically. These are usually considered the subscribers who haven’t opened or clicked an email from you in the last 90 days. If your ESP keeps a list for you, you have the option to send a message to just that group, or to unsubscribe them. This helps limit your list only to active, engaged readers.
Why would you want to voluntarily reduce your list size, you ask?
While it’s great to be able to boast a huge list, if people aren’t actively engaging, then you’ve got nothing more than an audience who isn’t really all that interested. And no one wants to talk when someone isn’t listening, or worse yet is being annoyed or aggravated by the conversation.
And now for all of you on the receiving end of annoying email…



If you’ve got an inbox, you’ve undoubtedly received spam messages. Probably a lot of them, and probably pretty regularly. Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Spam is a scourge of the online marketing world. It annoys you as the recipient, and by making readers skeptical, it threatens to blemish the credibility of legitimate senders.

To Unsubscribe or To Spam?

As a businesses owner, you know all too well how hard we work to provide valuable incentives to entice potential subscribers. The idea behind these marketing tools is to let you into their business to have a look around, get a feel for things and get a taste of how they work.
Sometimes, you’re on the receiving end of things when you requested something from another business. If it turns out that after receiving the gift, you don’t feel it’s a fit, you’re under no obligation to stick around. Unless the marketing piece was blatantly different than what was promised or some other outward violation was committed, just unsubscribe and move on.

A spam complaint says, ‘I never gave you permission to email me.’ or ‘This is not what I signed up for.’

By marking something as spam you’re reporting the sender for violating the sanctity of your inbox, and they will be penalized on some level for it. As noted earlier, once enough spam complaints are racked up against a company it can damage their reputation with an ISP (internet service provider) and with their ESP.

An unsubscribe politely says, ‘No hard feelings, I’m just no longer interested in receiving these emails.’

ESPs will automatically remove any email addresses instantly upon request. They will not allow the sender to manually add you back. If you ever want to resubscribe, you’ll need to go through the opt-in process again.
*Note that you do not have to unsubscribe from transactional emails that are only sending you a receipt for a purchase or return you made with them.

How Can I Find Out What Newsletters I’m Subscribed To?

Sometimes you might sign up for an offer or some other incentive and forget which companies you subscribed to. If you aren’t sure which lists you’re currently on, try unroll.me. It’s a free service that teases any subscriptions you currently have out of your general emails and puts them in a list that allows you to unsubscribe quickly from as many as you like, all in one action. Just tick the boxes of those you no longer want to receive, and the rest is done for you.

What happens when I mark something as spam?

When you mark a message as spam, you’re essentially saying that the message was either unsolicited (sent without your permission) or that it went beyond the expectations and promises made by the sender when you initially signed up for the subscription. For example, if someone states they’ll email you once a week, yet you begin to receive daily correspondence.

Once an email is marked as spam:

1. It gets filtered.
When a message looks suspicious to your email service provider’s bots, it gets automatically whisked off to your SPAM mailbox where you can manually scan messages to see if they are, in fact, junk.
2. It gets reported to your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) administrator.
For example, Google is the administrator for Gmail. When a message is marked as spam, the administrator records the complaint. Get enough complaints and a company risks being blacklisted by an ISP. That means if enough people from Outlook.com or Yahoo.com mark their messages as SPAM, they may be unable to send any messages to anyone who uses those services.
3. It gets reported to the sender’s email service provider. (ESP)
Enough complaints can prompt an ESP to limit or suspend their account. Serial violators may even be forced to close it.
As a recipient, what constitutes an unsolicited emails is really your call.
Here’s how I handle it: As the owner of The Mogul Mom, I accept pitches from PR firms and media companies. Most days I will receive between 2-3 dozen of them. All (or most) of these messages are expected, though not all are relevant to us. For those that aren’t, I either respond letting them know I am not interested, or I simply delete it. If I tell them I am not interested, and they continue to pester me with the same pitches, I may mark them as spam.

What happens when I unsubscribe?

MOST legitimate emails will have an unsubscribe link somewhere within the email itself, usually at the bottom. When you click it, a message is sent to their ESP, and you should automatically be removed from their list. They will be unable to add you manually back. If in the future you want to get back on their list, simply sign up again. Again, unless the company did something blatantly wrong, there’s no need to spam it. It will be removed as soon as you unsubscribe. Remember, spamming counts against the sender. Don’t put a dent in their credibility unless they deserve it.
When you unsubscribe, you may be asked why with a short survey on the unsubscribe landing page.

Choices might include:

√  I never signed up for this list
√  This is not the content I expected
√  I am receiving email more often than I expected
√  This is spam and should be reported
√  Other
Answering this is optional. You’ll still be removed, even if you don’t offer a response.

Masked Links

Note that using the unsubscribe link is not a guarantee that you’ll be removed, and can sometimes actually create more issues for you.
Here’s a tip you may not have heard before:
If something feels off with an email or a sender, don’t just click through on the unsubscribe link, right-click on it and ‘copy link’ instead. Paste the link somewhere where you can see it in its entirety. It should appear to direct you to somewhere to unsubscribe using the word ‘unsubscribe’ and/or the name of the user’s email service provider (ESP).
A legitimate unsubscribe link will often include the third party email service’s name and look something like this:
http: //el2.convertkit.com/u/p11ulv13r7h9h7vol
While that’s not a real link, you can see that the ESP’s website (ConvertKit in this case) is clearly in the link itself, making it very likely that this is a valid unsubscribe link. Phony links, on the other hand, may lead you to a website or worse yet, threaten the security of your system. Take a few seconds to safeguard yourself when unsubscribing to a suspicious email.

A few more helpful tips on how to limit the amount of junk you receive.

1. Don’t respond to unsolicited email. Ever.
Some tricksters will ask you to reply to the message with the word REMOVE or something similar. Don’t. And no matter how tempting, don’t respond with a sassy retort. It may feel good for a moment, but you’ve given the spammers what they want- assurance that your email address is valid and that you check it. Simply mark it as spam or create a filter. We’ll talk about how to do that in a moment.
2. Avoid displaying your email addresses in public places or online directories.
When you purchase your URL, you have the option to add Privacy to your domain. This means people are unable to see the owner or any other information when they search WhoIs or any other ways. Not only does it keep your personal contact information safe, but it also reduces spam because spammers can’t get instant access to your contact email address.
Namecheap.com offers FREE privacy on all their domains, even when you don’t host with them. If you got your URL somewhere else, consider transferring it to Namecheap to take advantage of this offering.
3. Never sign up with sites that claim to remove your name from spam lists.
Some sites that promise to remove your email address from spammers are legitimate, but most are not. By signing up with them, you’re actually doing the very thing you’re trying not to do, hand over your email address to spammers.
4. Create filters.
To curb spam many email transfer agents make filtering capabilities available to their customers. You can create an unlimited number of filters, but be careful of being too picky or you may miss some important messages along the way. You can create filters based on sender, subject, keyword, URL, or another variable. You can also create them based on individual messages themselves.You can find out how to filter messages using your own email provider with a quick Google search, or by checking their FAQs or support forums.


As a recipient on the flip side of the spam filter are the messages you actually want to keep. For example, if you sign up for a company’s newsletter, you’ll want to be sure they aren’t being sent to your junk folder. You do this by adding someone to your safe senders list. We developed this handy reference to walk you through how to do that.


::Bottom Line::

The FTC’s CAN-SPAM Act has explicitly defined parameters when it comes to sending commercial emails.
If you have any questions on whether something is on the up-and-up, check out this list of frequently asked questions.
For marketers, it’s not difficult to comply, but it takes some time and effort to make sure your email processes are set up correctly from the start. Doing things right not only keeps you compliant but also builds the confidence and trust of your readers. And, it helps you avoid potential penalties, both monetary and beyond.
Most importantly, your email list will be full of subscribers who truly want to read what you have to say. And isn’t making that genuine connection what it’s really all about?
To learn more about how to increase your readership and pack your list with legit subscribers, check out our new mini-course, List Building 101- How to Build a Profitable Email Marketing Machine in 18 Days or Less. It’s all the tactics we used to help grow our list by more than 1,000 subscribers in about a month. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.


Melissa Bolton

Brand Therapist™ + Copywriter at Melissa Bolton
Melissa is a mompreneur and brand therapist™ providing neurobranding and conversion copywriting services to solopreneurs and micro-business owners looking to truly connect with their right people. Leaning on proven psychology principles, she helps clients create a brand presence that's not only explicitly unique, but highly memorable. She offers 25 years of extensive sales and marketing experience through her proprietary brand therapy™ methodologies. You can learn more about her and how she can help you grown your own brand, right here: MelissaBolton.com

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