TWSD: My lunch is not spam
My ISP information page occasionally gets trackback pings from various blog posts. This week one of the trackbacks was from a blog post titled “One man’s Spam is another man’s lunch.” The theme of the blog post was that email marketers are poor, put upon business people that have to contend with all sorts of horrible responses from recipients, spam filtering companies and ISPs.
Since the poster took the time to link to my blog, I thought I’d take the time to look in detail at his post and talk about how likely it is to work.
Email marketing is both one of the most cost effective methods of reaching your customers and the most loathed.
Recipients don’t loathe mail they want. If your recipients actually loathe what you’re sending then you’re doing it wrong. If you can’t send wanted and relevant mail then you need to reconsider your email marketing program.
What I do loathe is all those idiots that send me thousands (yes, thousands) of messages a day that I never asked for, and don’t want.
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.
Yup, senders have to deal with the fallout from spammers just as much as recipients do. Welcome to life on the Internet where the spammers have made email worse for all of us.
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.
I know a lot of email marketers and those that are really sending with permission don’t get “torrents of abuse for daring to darken their inbox.” Something about this story just isn’t ringing true. I suspect that these “opt-in” lists are being purchased and the recipients are really tired of being spam victims.
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.
Yes, if a lot of people say they don’t want mail from a particular sender, than mail from that sender is going to be blocked. That’s how spam filters work. What I can’t understand is why this person keeps doing the same thing, sending mail to these opt-in lists full of recipients that don’t actually want his mail, over and over again while expecting the results to be different.
I’m always suspicious of anyone who claims saying “this mail is spam” is defamation. It shows a deep, deep misunderstanding of how the term “spam” is used by ISPs and end user recipients. It conflates legal concepts with colloquial terms. It is the essence of whining about how mean everyone is to you.
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.
If you stop sending mail to the folks who don’t want it, then the folks who do want it can get it. If so many of your users don’t want your mail that the ISPs or spam filters can’t distinguish your mail from spam, then your mail is going to be treated as spam.
Let me repeat that: If you don’t want your mail to be treated like spam, stop sending mail that is indistinguishable from spam.
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 [sic]
This is a bit of a mis-interpretation of how FBLs actually work. FBLs, with the exception of the Yahoo FBL, are set up based on IP addresses, not domains. Also, companies that have FBLs set up can still be blacklisted at those ISPs. Companies with FBLs are sometimes given a bit more leeway and slightly higher thresholds before mail is blocked, but sometimes they’re not.
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.
Finally! The author of the blog post is in luck! There is, in fact a recognized standard email header for ‘unsubscribe address’ and ‘unsubscribe URL.’ At least two different ISPs (Hotmail and gmail) are using the header to provide their users simple ways to unsubscribe from mail.
Now, many email clients have not implemented an unsubscribe button, but I’m told it’s not difficult to write plugins for many common email clients (mail.app, thunderbird, outlook). I think that if a few senders should get together and write the unsubscribe plugins and make them freely available to recipients. If the tools are out there, and the recipients want them, then they’ll be used. There’s nothing stopping senders from creating the tools they want created. Hire a few developers and get it done. You’re the marketers, market the benefit to the recipients to use your tools to improve everyone’s life.
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.
The criticism of Google is out there, but it doesn’t make it right. Google has also implemented the ability to unsubscribe without reporting the mail as spam. This is only being offered to senders who have good reputations at Google and who are using the RFC2369 List-Unsubscribe: mailto header.
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.
This is what I don’t understand. How does this do anything to punish folks who are not playing by the rules? What do they lose? In fact, what’s to stop spammers from playing by these rules? Spammers already have fake unsubscribes set up, use false headers and steal content from other senders.
I realize that sending mail is currently complicated and painful. It’s hard to not do all those things like buy lists, send lots of mail and annoy recipients. This is what separates the good marketers from the bad. Good marketers don’t have near the problems with spam filters that this blogger seems to have.