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How to devalue your mailing lists

This morning I got spam about college basketball – Subject: Inside: your ESPN Tourney Guide. That’s anything but unusual, but this spam got through my spam filters and into my inbox. That’s a rare enough event that I’m already annoyed before I click on the mail in order to mark it as spam.
Wait a second, the spam claims to be from Adobe. And it’s sent to a tagged address that I only gave to Adobe. Sure enough, it’s Adobe and ESPN co-branded spam about college basketball sent to an Adobe list.
Down at the bottom of the email there’s a blob of tiny illegible text, in very pale grey on white. Buried in there is an opt-out link: “If you’d prefer not to receive e-mail like this from Adobe in the future, please click here to unsusbscribe“.
I’d prefer not to receive college sports spam from anyone, including Adobe, so I click on it and find a big empty white webpage with this in the middle of it:

You are about to unsubscribe
from our mailing list
Click below to confirm unsubscription request for (my email address) 
Confirm unsubscribe

There’s no Adobe logo. There’s no branding. There’s nothing to suggest that this is an Adobe related mailing list. There’s no mention of Adobe at all, in fact. There’s nothing to tell me what mailing list this is, nor what clicking on the Confirm unsubscribe will do. It looks just like a typical spammer website.
Here’s another problem. I’m on a bunch of Adobe mailing lists, using this Adobe-specific email address. I’ve registered several versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, Creative Suite. I’ve probably downloaded Adobe Reader. I’m a FLEX developer, of sorts. I’ve signed up for Adobe beta programmes. While I don’t want college sports spam, I do want the content from Adobe I’ve actually signed up for. So I log in to the Adobe website using that address, after doing the “you’ve forgotten your password” dance a couple of times.
And it doesn’t help much.
After logging in, there is nothing that tells me which mailing lists I’m on, nor gives me an opportunity to unsubscribe from some subset of them. Down a couple of menus, under “Change Communication Preferences” I have the option to tell Adobe not to send me any email at all, and that’s it. (They did have a link to “Manage Your Subscriptions” that looked promising, but it turned out to be a red herring).
At this point, my choices are either to unsubscribe from all Adobe mailing lists, then go and work out which work-related lists I need to resubscribe to (and hope it’s not one of those they’re sending ESPN spam to) or to suck it up.
What did Adobe do wrong here, and what could they do better?

  1. Sending unexpected and inappropriate (and irrelevant to your subscribers) content to your mailing list is just a bad idea. It’s likely to make some subscribers hit the This-is-Spam button, and damage your future delivery rates. It’s also likely to turn some subscribers off and make them unsubscribe.
  2. Sending inappropriate content without any figleaf of relevance makes it worse. This mailing had some slight tangential relevance to Adobe (the product it was pushing was a PDF document advertising ESPN). It could have been easily spun as “Here’s something neat we’ve done with Acrobat” rather than being just an ESPN sponsored “Win a TV for the big game” competition. Wrapping the content in a way that seems more relevant to subscribers will get more people to read it and fewer to mark it as spam.
  3. Not having an explanation anywhere as to why the recipient received the email, neither in the email itself nor in the unsubscription page means recipients don’t know why they’re seeing the mail, nor gives them any feeling of control over it. Telling me that I’m receiving the mail “because I registered Acrobat”, for example, would at least give me some context as to which mailing list I was on.
  4. Not allowing recipients to control the content they receive. I know that in the Adobe back office there’s a database that knows which mailing lists I’m on, so giving me only the ability to stop all email from Adobe, both the mail I’m interested in and the mail I’m not isn’t a good solution. It means that I’ll either stop all mail from Adobe or I’ll keep getting all of it, yet be grumpy about it. Neither is a good way to keep a recipient involved and likely to buy in the future.
    If, instead, there were a webpage that allowed me to see which lists I was subscribed to (and the emails themselves were clear about which list they were sent to) I’d be far more likely just to opt-out of the content I wasn’t interested in. And I might even notice other lists I might be interested in in the process.
  5. Lack of branding. Not much looks more suspicious than a generic, unbranded landing or unsubscription page. Phishers can get this right, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for a real company (especially one that’s all about good web development).
  6. Remember whose customers your recipients are. If a large company offers you a lot of money to send an inappropriate email blast to your mailing lists, balance that immediate income against the long-term damage done to your lists, and the damage done to your relationship with existing and potential customers.

Why Adobe thought that a mailing list of their customers – graphic designers and web developers, mostly – would be a sensible list to sell mailings for ESPN adverts I’ve no idea. But their other mistakes with branding, list segmentation and unsubscription handling really exacerbated that misstep.

2 comments

  1. John Dowdell says

    Hi Laura, sorry for the hassle, but thanks for the word, and the clear explanation of expected behavior. I’ll make sure other people inside Adobe see your post here.
    tx, jd/adobe

  2. Carl Steffens says

    Hello Steve — response from Adobe to your posting about receiving email from us.
    First, thanks for your comments as they help us understand what we might do differently or better in the future. We strive to make all our customer communications relevant and valuable. Apologies if this particular email was not of interest to you or confusing as to the identity of the sender.
    The background is this: we recently partnered with ESPN to promote their coverage of the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament, a part of which was creating a rich, interactive pdf about the tournament using Adobe Acrobat. The email you received was sent to Acrobat owners and prospective customers, from Adobe, to highlight capabilities of the product, many of which they may not be aware such as embedded video, interactive forms, and dynamic content. For those following the tournament, we also hope it will be an entertaining and informative way to keep up with the action. (important to note again that the email was sent from Adobe; we did not provide our list to ESPN for their use).
    Your points about indicating communications preferences and our opt-out process are appreciated, and have been shared with the internal teams at Adobe responsible for those activities.
    Please let me know if we can provide any further information.
    Thanks & regards —

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