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 (, 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.


  1. Al says

    As you say, email marketing isn’t loathed. Spam is loathed. Some people confuse the two sometimes…I think that doesn’t bode well for the person making the argument. If they’re confusing the two, maybe they’re sending spam, instead of wanted email.

  2. Charles Neville says

    Hi Laura, thank you for reading and responding to my post, I can see how some things could be misinterpreted and I’ll work on the post to make things clearer. I’d like to make it clear that I’ve never used purchased lists, my only experience of anything close is having an email sent by a third party to their list and the results of that indicated that it just wasn’t worth doing when compared to working on an organically built, permission-based list.
    I understand your position as an antispam advocate but I think you’ll agree that some users react irrationally. People simply forget that they gave permission and either become offensive, or report as spam something that they asked for, because to the user spam is now ‘something I don’t want’, because the ‘this is spam’ button stops them receiving that email any more, but it doesn’t take into account all those other factors.
    It was this type of issue that I was thinking out loud about when considering what the solution could be because right now, you’ve got to admit, something’s broken with email – if it wasn’t there wouldn’t be a place for services like those offered by your company. To suggest that email marketers ought to get together and write plug-ins for popular email clients in order to fix the problem misses the point – this is a feature that ought to be a standard part of the software/web interface, as a plug-in it’s subject to vagaries like incompatibilities when the software is upgraded (see how many Firefox plug-ins show errors immediately after an upgrade).
    Thank you for making me think more deeply about the subject and I’ll be adding your blog to my Google Reader account to keep abreast of the insights you share here.

  3. laura says

    To suggest that email marketers ought to get together and write plug-ins for popular email clients in order to fix the problem misses the point – this is a feature that ought to be a standard part of the software/web interface, as a plug-in it’s subject to vagaries like incompatibilities when the software is upgraded (see how many Firefox plug-ins show errors immediately after an upgrade).
    Actually, I didn’t miss the point. I agreed with you. What you seem to think as missing the point is understanding how FOSS and the standards process works. In order to get anything into the core code of open source software project (or set up as a standard for commercial vendors to incorporate into their software) you start by creating it. If others see the value in it, then they will both adopt it and start advocating for it.
    This is how ARF was created, for instance. AOL started a FBL, then started working with other ISPs to create a standard so FBL emails were standard. That’s how DKIM was created as well. Yahoo wrote and published a spec for Domain Keys, then merged it with the different but similar spec written by Cisco, to create DKIM. Other people saw the value of the protocol and are also contributing to make it a standard.
    I do, in fact, agree with you. The ability to unsubscribe through the email client is something that has been talked about for years. Up until now people have only talked about it. Someone needs to step up and create it and then drive the process to get it as a core component of the email client. Given the value to senders, it strikes me that this is a project they are in a much better place to drive than the ISPs.

  4. Al says

    I am so sick of the ignorant “some users react irrationally” defense. It’s crap. These occasional complaints from morons have absolutely no ability to tank your legitimate marketing efforts. If the best you can do is complain that the recipients are mean to you, your marketing career is going to be short and unsuccessful.

  5. Huey says

    Charles Neville:
    this is a feature that ought to be a standard part of the software/web interface
    There is no standard software/web interface. There’s a half-dozen popular email clients and another half-dozen popular webmail platforms, and getting all of them to agree on a standard is a process that, if you care strongly about it, you’ll fight in the IETF for a minimum of a year.
    I am so sick of the ignorant “some users react irrationally” defense. It’s crap.
    This is actually one of the old whipping horses of the antispam world that I can actually see both sides of. Users who sign up, confirm, and then at some later point, complain, I can see how that would make somebody upset. Personally, I think that it’s going to happen whether you get upset or not, and since getting upset doesn’t actually gain you anything, you can probably skip it, but this opinion is not universally shared.
    However, I’d point out that whether or not it upsets you, it is a fact of life that you’ll probably need to do something about, and by ‘something’, I mean ‘unsubscribe them’.

  6. Seth says

    People will be irrational and will complain. You can’t prevent that. What you can do is improve the accuracy of their expectations at the time of subscribing (if they expect one message a month and get 5 a day they’re going to complain), and increase the desirability of your messages (primarily, making them include stuff the user wants; secondarily, making it obvious when they don’t so the wasted time is minimized).


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