One man’s Spam is another man’s lunch

No Spam pleaseEmail marketing is both one of the most cost effective methods of reaching your customers and the most loathed.

Email marketers have to contend with over zealous junk mail filters, spam crusaders that seek to destroy them and list subscribers who forgot they gave permission. It’s so much easier to ‘report as spam’ than it is to unsubscribe.

I’ve used email marketing myself. I also hate spam. I will only use opt-in lists for this reason. Yet that doesn’t stop recipients of emails I’ve sent replying with torrents of abuse for daring to darken their inbox, and those are the ones I’ve heard from.

Many users will just instruct whatever spam filter they use to block an email. Depending on how that spam filter works, that action gets reported and if enough people do that, the sender of the email gets blacklisted. In the case of an opt-in list this is sailing pretty close to a collective act of defamation.

When users mark an email as spam, and that blacklists the sender and prevents other subscribers, who would gladly have received (and may even have been looking forward to) that email from benefiting from the content of it.

There is a solution, though it’s only partial, in the form of FBL or FeedBack Loops. Setting them up is a little complicated, though is often included in the service provided by reputable email marketing providers. I say partial because it only provides a solution for large email providers/ISPs like AOL, Comcast, Hotmail and others (a non-exhaustive list can be found here), and has to be set up with each ISP, per sending domain. An entry on the FBL for an ISP means that when one of that ISP’s customers reports your message as spam, instead of you getting blacklisted, you get a report, requiring you to unsubscribe that user. An FBL however makes no difference if the recipient of an email isn’t using their email provider’s web interface, a third party spam filter

What is needed is a concerted effort by providers of spam filtering solutions, internet service providers (as users of those spam filters), email client developers (web and desktop) and email marketing vendors. All it would take is a recognised standard email header for ‘unsubscribe address’ and ‘unsubscribe URL’, which email client software, or the spam filter in use, would interpret and communicate with, instead of placing a black mark against the sender. The email marketing vendors (or the DIY sender) would handle the unsubscribe submissions. The list might get smaller but the deliverability goes way up.

This appears to be the way Google are going with their unsubscribe option in Gmail. Criticism of this by email marketers is levelled at the wording and operation – equating unsubscribing with reporting spam. It fits with Google’s usual m.o. of trying to simplify a process as much as possible, as long as the sender does what they’re supposed to.

Who loses out? People who don’t play by the rules. Everybody else wins. The spam filter providers have shorter, easier to process blacklists. Email providers and email marketing vendors spend less time processing blacklist removal requests and finally the end user who wants a mailing is guaranteed to receive it.

Image credit: Thomas Hawk

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