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Caught in AWeber’s Web – Why All Marketers Need a Backup Plan

by Ryan Guina

Everyone needs a backup plan. For everything. You need to back up your computer’s hard drive, you need to back up your photos and your music, and you need a backup plan for your finances. If you are a small business owner, you need multiple backup plans – one for each major aspect of your business. If you are an email marketer, you need a backup plan for your email provider. This is an important and costly lesson I learned, thanks to AWeber, one of the most popular email service providers around. This is my story:

A few years ago, I opened an AWeber account. For those who aren’t familiar with AWeber, they offer a system that allows business owners to send a large number of emails and newsletters at once. Of course, they offer much more than that. They allow users to track the open and click through rates of their newsletters, split test their emails (test performance of variations), create an automatic newsletter series, track historical data for your marketing efforts, and much, much more. Using an email management system allows businesses to create entire marketing systems.

Why Businesses Need Email Management Systems

It might seem silly to pay a company a couple hundred dollars a month to manage your newsletters when you can send email for free. Here is how it works: anyone can send a few emails. But most free email accounts like GMail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or even the free email service from the web host using an email on a domain you own, cap the number of emails you can send in any given day. This is designed to prevent spammers from flooding your inbox. Newsletter providers such as AWeber, Constant Contact, MailChimp, and similar companies work with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to deliver large quantities of email. Even then, these companies have internal measures which help them control the quality and deliverability of the email. Too many messages marked as spam can get your account flagged, and possibly shut down.

Caught in AWeber’s Web

AWeber logo - spider webAs I mentioned, I opened my AWeber account over two years ago. During that time, I have grew my newsletter list from zero, to about 30,000 people. This is a decent size list – larger than I could manage through a free email system, but certainly not one of AWeber’s largest accounts.

During this time, I set up my account, created a newsletter template, and sent thousands of emails. I also paid AWeber thousands of dollars in monthly fees.

Like most small business owners, I am a jack of all trades, but not an expert in any one field. I do what I can, and try to outsource the rest to people who have better skills than I. A good example is the spiderweb image you see here, which I had created on Fiverr (which I will remove if AWeber requests. I think it falls under fair use, but I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one online).

Being that I am a jack of all trades, optimizing a newsletter is not my strong point. I followed many of the tutorials AWeber sends out in their newsletters and I was consistent with my message and sending frequency. I clearly labeled each email with the sender name and subject title, I verified it passed AWeber’s internal system which checks the content for likelihood of spam. For the last year, I have sent out two newsletters per month. I think you know where this is going.

AWeber Closed My Account with No Notice

Closed AWeber AccountI received an email from AWeber last month on November 12, 2012, stating my account was closed. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. I simply could not log in to my account. Here is the kicker: they never gave me warning*.

Why AWeber closed my account: From the form letter they sent me:

Upon investigating a number of spam complaints in regard to your account and subscriber process, it has been determined that you are using your AWeber account in a way that is generating an unacceptable number of complaints.”

I immediately called AWeber and asked to speak with a representative. She explained how the number of spam complaints from one account can affect their entire business. If too many emails from one account are marked as spam, it will affect the deliverability rates of all newsletters sent through AWeber. They need to maintain quality control, otherwise their business will suffer. Because of this, they closed my account, effective immediately, and they requested I never open an account with them again. She offered to send me all my data in a zip file, which she did.

I understand AWeber’s stance. 100%. But I strongly disagree with how they closed my account.

*I received a notice on November 14, 2011 (almost exactly a year prior to the date my account was closed) that I needed to monitor the number of emails marked as spam. I immediately made the requested changes. At the time, AWeber used a notification system with the colors green, yellow, and red to indicate the quality of the email broadcast. A green indication meant all was well, yellow meant you needed to make improvements, and red meant there were problems. Since I received the initial email a year ago, I have not hit the red mark, nor have I received any additional communication from AWeber regarding the quality of my broadcasts. Many of the broadcasts I sent were marked as yellow, but I was at no time given any indication that my account would be closed without further improvements. (I know the exact dates because I archive every business email I receive in GMail).

How Much Spam is Too Much?

AWeber email spam

No one likes spam.

Based on the people in the newsletter industry that I’ve spoken with, one spam per thousand emails sent is the rough threshold. More than that and you run the risk of harming the newsletter provider. Less than one email marked as spam per thousand emails sent, and you are probably OK.

I’m going off of memory, because the account records AWeber sent me did not include the number of spam complaints for each newsletter sent. I seem to recall my newsletters received around 15-22 spams per broadcast, with a few spikes here and there. My newsletter list was roughly 20,000 for most of the past year, which puts that right at one spam per thousand emails sent. As explained above, my newsletters were generally marked with the yellow color, indicating the need for improvement. However, there was never any indication from AWeber that my account would be closed for this.

Why was your spam so high, Ryan! To be honest, I think there are two primary reasons.

  1. I could been more proactive in culling my list. Running a large newsletter list is a tricky business and you need to be proactive with it. Some people simply get tired of receiving emails and mark them as spam instead of deleting them or unsubscribing. (note: each newsletter I sent had an unsubscribe link clearly marked at both the top and the bottom of the email, as recommended by AWeber and other email service providers). I should have been more proactive in removing people from my newsletter list. When I received my subscriber list from AWeber, I asked for them to remove all subscribers that had been a member for more than 6 months, but who had not opened an email in the last 6 months. That reduced my list by over 3,000 people, and also reduced the likelihood that some people would mark the email as spam without opening it. Making this small change earlier may have improved my spam rates.
  2. My newsletters were frequently forwarded. I noticed that some subscribers opened the newsletters up to 50 times. I like to think that I provide good information people can reference again and again, but I know the newsletters aren’t compelling enough to be opened 50 times by one person. But that could be the case if they forward the email to 50 people in their contact list. When someone marks the forwarded message as spam, it still counts against my account. Unfortunately, I can’t control that, and people who aggressively forward my newsletters could have contributed to the total number of emails marked as spam.

Update: I have since been notified by the folks at AWeber that forwarded emails are not a contributing factor. “When a subscriber forwards your email to another person, any spam complaints lodged would be be counted against the subscriber forwarding the email, not against you.”

What have I done to correct this? I have since moved to a new email provider, Constant Contact, and their support has been amazing. New customers with over 10,000 people on their email list get 90 days of free consultation with a dedicated account manager. I have sent out two newsletters since then with the following metrics:

  • Newsletter 1: Sends: 27,621, Opens: 9,772 (35.8%), Clicks 5,987 (61.3%), Spam: 15
  • Newsletter 2: Sends: 27,561, Opens: 9,457 (34.8%), Clicks 3,590 (38.0%), Spam: 4

As you can see, the spam rates are well within limits, and the open and click rates are both very good. In other words, the few small changes I have made have turned my account from an account of borderline quality, to one that any newsletter provider would be happy to host. And it only took one 30 minute phone consultation to achieve these results.

Constant Contact newsletter stats

Dear AWeber, a 30 minute consultation helped achieve these results.

How This Affected My Business

The timing of this couldn’t have been worse, as I was in the middle of my biggest marketing event of the year. To put this in perspective, it was like someone shutting down a coupon site on Black Friday. Not only did they shut down my ability to add several thousand new subscribers to my email list, they shut down all the links in the emails I had already sent.

That means all the newsletters I had sent my subscribers were broken. They couldn’t get the information they wanted because all the links in the newsletter were routed through AWeber’s servers. When AWeber shut down my account, they shut down those links. I received numerous questions and complaints from my subscribers. The folks at AWeber were kind enough to turn on the links in the newsletters for a few hours that day, but I still lost the ability to access my account, records, or add new subscribers. The links were shut down again at the end of business that day.

I can’t put a firm number on what this cost me, but it was easily several thousand dollars in direct losses, lost subscribers, lost opportunity, time to find a competing product, time to learn a new email system, and time to create a new system of emails to welcome new readers, follow up with them, etc.

How AWeber Needs to Improve

AWeber needs to shut down illegitimate accounts. Immediately. There are CAN-SPAM laws, state laws, and other issues to deal with, such as the overall deliverability rates for their company. But they absolutely need to take some time to better communicate with their customers who are following all the rules and may need some help increasing their opening rates and other factors.

The metrics I showed in the above screenshot are very good. My account rep at Constant Contact was amazed at the results from the first newsletter send and was equally happy with the results from the second newsletter. How did we achieve those results? A 30 minute phone call and implementing a few recommended changes. (again, note that I asked AWeber to cull a portion of my list before exporting my subscribers; this likely had a net positive impact).

The point is that a quick consultation with an account rep at AWeber most likely would have achieved a similar net result. Instead, they shut down a customer’s account without notice – which cost both companies a lot of money. I put my losses at several thousand dollars, and AWeber’s losses at a similar number. At the time my account was closed, I had 30,000 subscribers and was paying in excess of $200 a month, plus their annual fee.

In other words, AWeber lost a customer of over two years, and an account worth $3,000 a year – all for something that could have been proactively handled with a 30 minute phone consultation.

AWeber Lost More Than a Long Time Customer

Losing an account worth $3,000 a year isn’t going to sink AWeber. But it certainly doesn’t help them. By closing my account, they got a quick fix on their metrics. But not a lasting fix. AWeber chose to use an an axe instead of a scalpel. With a small outlay on their side, they could have kept a long time customer and improved their metrics and deliverability rates. Not only would they have kept my business with this newsletter list, but they would have my business for any future newsletter lists I create (I currently run multiple websites, and have plans to build four more newsletter lists in the coming months).

AWeber also lost my recommendation. The newsletter industry is incredibly competitive – there are many excellent options with similar feature sets and price points. As such, it can be difficult to make a decision, which is why most people crowd source recommendations. I am a businessman, and recommendations from friends and colleagues are incredibly valuable when I make a business decision. I know many people are like me and crowd source advice when choosing new service providers. And now I will have a caveat whenever I mention AWeber to another marketer.

To be clear, I am not slamming AWeber here. I still believe they offer a good service. It is relatively easy to use, offers more functionality than many email service providers, and they have (had?) a great reputation in the Internet marketing community. But why take a risk when there are many other equally good options out there, many of which are proactive with helping their customer base? Any time I mention AWeber to another marketer in the future, I will disclose how they closed my account without warning. And I will tell them how much it cost my business.

I am Sharing My Story for Two Reasons:

Business backup plan1. Everyone needs a backup plan. If something is integral to your business model, then back it up. It doesn’t matter what it is – email list, customer list, backups of your databases, processes and procedures, etc. Find a way to back it up on a hard drive, to the cloud, hard copies, whatever. Then test your backups to make sure they work. With an email list like AWeber, Constant Contact, MailChimp, etc., it is a good idea to back up your emails in a text file, and keep a spreadsheet of any stats you want to keep for your own analysis.

2. AWeber needs to make internal changes. I understand why AWeber closed my account. But I disagree with how they closed it. It is possible all of this could have been avoided if AWeber had an internal system in place to flag accounts and contact customers who were potentially causing problems. If someone is blatantly breaking laws or causing problems, cut them. But if a simple 30 minute phone consultation can achieve outstanding results, then it is worth their time and investment. AWeber has dozens of employees. It is in their best interest to dedicate a few resources to 1) create a system to identify customers who could use improvements on their metrics, and 2) allocate a few account specialists to work with them. Start with the big accounts 100,000+ that aren’t meeting metrics. Schedule a call with the owners. Then do the same with customers who have accounts with 50,000 plus subscribers. Then go down to the accounts with 25,000, 10,000, etc. Your customers will love you for it, and you will achieve better long term results on your company wide metrics. Think scalpel, not axe.

Instead, AWeber closed my account without warning. They cost me thousands of dollars, and they cost themselves a customer of two years that was worth $3,000 a year to them, plus growth. This was badly done, AWeber. Badly done, indeed.

Photo credits: Closed: slimmer_jimmer, No Spam: Thomas Hawk, Thumb drive: sparkieblues.


Published or updated December 13, 2012.
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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mike Holman

That sucks. I can see shutting down a small account, since it might not be worth their while to fix it, but 30k+ is a reasonable sized account.

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2 Ryan Guina

Mike, I don’t know how large 30,000 is on the totem pole. I know it’s a decent size account, but with over 100,000 customers, I’m sure it got lost in the crowd. I’ve emailed a few times with Justin Premick, AWeber’s Director of Education Marketing, about some internal changes AWeber can make to help their customer base avoid these problems. In my case, I believe it was a situation that could have been avoided had I a) understood the severity of the problems my newsletters were causing (there was no indication of this other than a yellow box highlighting the number of spam emails, and b) a little coaching to improve my newsletter performance. The changes I made literally only took a few minutes, and the results fall well within most newsletter providers guidelines.

To AWeber’s credit, they were receptive of the feedback and Justin mentioned they will look at ways of implementing some of the changes, though it may take some time. Unfortunately, my account has already been closed and their form letter requested I never open an account with them again. So my days as an AWeber customer are over.

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3 Glen Craig

Looks like a perfect example of what not to do for a company. Shame they couldn’t work with you better. It’s ridiculous they cut you off without notice.

Thanks for pointing out what could potentially happen!

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4 Alan

I’ve had problems with Aweber too, but not that bad. I just found their website to be difficult to use compared to other platforms. It takes too long to build an email and the reporting is complicated. Refreshing to see someone who is critical of their service though. They have one of the most aggressive affiliate programs, so everything you read about them on marketing blogs is sugar and roses. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t horrible. But they aren’t perfect. Never had a problem with them being unprofessional like this though. I just got tired of their complicated interface so I moved to MailChimp.

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5 Steve |MyWifeQuitHerJob

The exact same thing happened to me with MailChimp which is why I switched to Aweber in the first place. I find it very disturbing that they cancelled you without warning.

Did they at least let you export your email list?

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6 Ryan Guina

Steve, I heard the same thing about MailChimp from several people – mostly in relation to running ads in the newsletter. I was disappointed in AWeber’s action toward my account as well. My account was often flagged in the yellow section for the spam limits, but there is no notification regarding how serious of a matter this is or that my account was in danger of being closed. It was a simple fix too – I had the issue cleared up with a quick phone call with my new email service provider.

When AWeber closed my account I simply received an email notification from them telling me that my account was permanently closed and to never open an account with them again. I was completely locked out of my account and could not access anything. AWeber has a process for exporting data from accounts, which included my list and copies of all my sent emails and drafts (text and html), but virtually all of the metrics were lost. If you are an AWeber user and your metrics are important to you, then I recommend taking some time to transfer them into a spreadsheet so you will have permanent access to them.

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7 Matt Jabs

Your experience has helped me be proactive with my Aweber list, and for that sir, I thank you! Sorry you had to go through this, but your account should help people long into the future, and will hopefully help Aweber improve. Blessings.

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8 Ryan Guina

Glad to be able to help, Matt. I wish it could have been under other circumstances, though! And I agree, I hope this does help AWeber improve. I don’t wish this upon anyone else. Small business owners have enough on their plates to not have to worry about searching for a new email provider, learning a new system and dealing the stress of doing it during their busiest time of the year.

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9 Lazy Man and Money

I thought you couldn’t have affiliate links with Constant Contact (or was that Mail Chimp?)

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10 Ryan Guina

It’s MailChimp that doesn’t allow affiliate links within the newsletters. I have a sponsor or my newsletter, and I cleared it with Constant Contact before I signed up for their program.

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11 The-Military-Guide

Great post, Ryan, thanks for airing a balanced summary of AWeber’s fumbles.

I see their website claims that they’re “privately owned, profitable, with zero debt, and not seeking outside investors”. Good thing, but I hope that they’re seeking to improve their customer retention too. As bloggers reach out to each other on social media, it won’t take long for the backlash to ripple across AWeber’s revenue.

I hope your mailing list is profitable beyond the hassles you’ve described. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the metrics that it’s hard to tell whether it’s worth the effort.

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12 Ryan Guina

Doug, running my newsletter has been an incredible experience. I’ve been able to meet so many people, and I receive multiple thank-yous each time I send my newsletter. A lot of people forward it too, which I always took as a compliment, but I realized after the fact, the unwelcome forwards may have contributed to my problems. Overall, having a newsletter has had a net positive effect on my business. And to be honest, even though I am very happy with Constant Contact, I would have preferred to avoid this entire experience. The only good thing I can say about this experience is that it has taught me to be more proactive with all aspects of my business. And that is an incredibly valuable lesson to learn.

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13 Rasheed

In our country we have a saying: you don’t cut off your finger because you have a hang nail. It sounds like aweber did this to your account. If you can fix your email with a 30 minute phone call, wouldn’t it make sense for aweber to create some internal controls to flag accounts that need attention, then pay an employee to help optimize the accounts? If 30 minutes on their end could save an account worth $3.000/year they should do this. That is business 101.

If I were on aweber’s team I would run the numbers. How many accounts were closed for these reasons in the last year? How much were their accounts worth per month? per year? How much does it cost us to acquire a new customer? How much would it cost us to develop an internal system to flag problem accounts that can be saved (most probable only a few hours of good coding. the metrics should be there, yes)? How much would it cost to train someone to coach these accounts to improve them?

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14 Pinyo

MailChimp did the same to me. Shut down without warning, but at least they are just as good with reinstating. The reason given was because I included a link to Credit Sesame in my email (a legit company).

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15 Ryan Guina

Glad to hear that MailChimp is good about reinstating their customers. I set up a free account with the awhile ago, but I haven’t done much with it. I will try them for one of my new lists t see how their service compares. I’m learning that it’s always good to have familiarity with other systems, just in case!

But as I mentioned in a previous comment, this has taught me to be more proactive with my business. An expensive lesson, but an important one.

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16 Shawn Hessinger

Interesting and cautionary tale, Ryan, and thanks to Glen Craig for sharing this post with the BizSugar community. I know that AWeber is a member at BizSugar and wonder if they would be interested in commenting further on this.

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17 Ryan Guina

Shawn, I had two discussions on the phone with AWeber’s Best Practices Manager the day my account was closed. The discussion was professional on both sides of the table, and I asked for explanations of policy, how my account was out of line, and for tips that on how I could improve my marketing campaigns at my next email provider. It was during this call that I asked to cull my list of all subscribers who had been a member of at least 6 months, but hadn’t opened an email in the previous 6 months. I believe this was the biggest win I had in reducing the level of spam complaints at my new provider. This literally took a few moments, and could have been handled before I was unceremoniously dumped from their customer roster. It was during this same phone call that I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not welcome back as an AWeber customer at any time in the future.

I also had a couple email exchanges with Justin Premick, who is AWeber’s Director of Education Marketing. Justin does a lot in the Internet marketing community, including traveling to conferences, writing blog posts, and generally making himself available, regardless of whether you are an AWeber customer or not (I have heard him speak twice in the last two years and he promotes email marketing awareness, not AWeber, which is awesome). I sent Justin a thorough email regarding my situation, how I was doing legitimate email marketing but had a somewhat high spam rate, I listed several reasons why I believe my spam rates were high, and I told him how I was cut with no warning and how it affected my business. My primary goal was to inform Justin and those at AWeber that I was not maliciously misusing their product and that their account closure procedures need to be addressed. Again, the emails on both sides were professional. Justin thanked me for providing feedback, and mentioned they would try to implement some of the suggestions in the future, though they have over 100,000 customers, so it could take some time.

At the end of the day, I have learned a lot from this experience. The biggest thing I learned is that I need to be more proactive with all aspects of my business. I have also learned that as a business owner, I need to treat my customers with respect. Customers have many choices, and they choose to work with you for a reason. There are times when you need to cut your losses, but there are also times when you need to look at ways to nurture the relationship.

I hope AWeber takes some lessons from this as well.

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18 Jane

Hi Ryan, this is indeed serious. I’ve many cases like this with Mailchimp. It is very important for such a reputed company like Aweber to have a perimeter where they flag accounts and warn the customers before closing their account abruptly. After all, they are receiving thousands of dollars as fee; the customers could use some courtesy!

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19 Samuel

Ryan,

I’m curious to know what percentage of complaints from users Aweber feels is justifiable to close an account. They should have at least giving you a warning to allow you time to cure or segment your lists.

Seems like this is the position most large online service providers like to take. Shoot first ask questions later.

Have you found an alternative?

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20 Ryan Guina

Samuel, I can’t speak for AWeber regarding an acceptable umber of spam reports or a percentage. I can say that I was averaging roughly one spam per thousand emails sent, which I have since learned is the threshold from several other email marketing companies. That equals a 0.1% spam rate.

I spent a full day looking at alternatives and speaking with customer service reps at several email providers and based on those calls and my research, I chose to use Constant Contact. I’m very happy with the decision as they have given me a dedicated account manager for the first 90 days and their interface is incredibly easy to use. I estimate it takes me about half the time to create a newsletter compared to AWeber. Their system is just much easier to use (I always felt AWeber had a complicated user interface). But until this happened, the UI was the only complaint I ever had about AWeber.

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21 Alton

I hate to say it, but you got caught up in the mix. It was a business decision plain and simple. You are just a number and you fell on the wrong side of the line. Here is what happened: AWeber has had delivery issues lately and the recently slashed numerous customers for the same reason they slashed your account. Any spam hurts their overall delivery rates and they had too many bad performers. Some of them had to go to get their overall numbers at a rate acceptable to the ISPs. Otherwise all their customers were in jeopardy. Could you have easily improved your delivery rates? It looks that way. But they were in a bind and had to take drastic measures. They have what, over 100,000 customers, and about 75 people who work there? Do the math. They can’t give you one on one attention unless you call in and ask for it.

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22 Lena @ WhatMommyDoes

Wow, I cannot believe Aweber did that to you! 30k is a nice list, $3,000 is nothing to laugh, and your future referrals could have been worth a ton. I’m sure you have your fair share of subscribers who are bloggers.

That’s I have been considering signing up with Aweber, but now that I’ve read this, I am going to think twice.

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23 Ryan Guina

I was very disappointed with the entire affair. But at the end of the day, it’s AWeber’s business and they have to run it as they see fit. I’ve been more than happy with my new newsletter provider, so it worked out, even if it cost me a lot in the process.

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24 Barbara Friedberg

As an Aweber user, I’m shocked that the small percent of spam comments caused you to get banned. That is really surprising and disappointing.

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25 Ryan Guina

Barbara, until I was removed from AWeber’s program, I had no idea what was acceptable or not. It wasn’t until I spoke with several different email service providers that I was able to understand the industry a little better. The number I heard from several sources is 1 spam per thousand emails sent is right around the acceptable threshold (please note this isn’t a firm number, and I do not speak for AWeber or anyone else). I don’t have a problem with AWeber removing me from their program based on to much spam. I understand they need to take care of their business, first and foremost. The issue I took was how it was done. There was no indication from them regarding the seriousness of the problem. They simply shut down my account without notice. It turns out, it was incredibly easy to reduce my spam rates. My primary feedback to AWeber was to better inform them customers their accounts were in danger of being closed. Simply shutting down a borderline account without warning is wasteful and hurtful for both businesses. This entire situation could have been avoided. That is why I shared the story.

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26 Barbara Friedberg

Ryan, From rereading the comments feed, it sounds like culling your list was the best way to cut the spam rates. Were there other strategies that you used to get the spam count down.

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27 Ryan Guina

Culling my list was the biggest thing I did. I also made a few small changes to the “sent from” address and redesigned my newsletter to a cleaner template. Overall, there were very few changes, and all of it was accomplished in about 30 minutes time.

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