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The Universal Unsubscribe Button

[Spam] – [This is Spam] – [Mark as Spam] – [Mark this message as junk]
The text on the unsubscribe button is different, but the effect is generally the same. Mark a message as Spam so further email from the sender will never see the Inbox again. Simple, right? Actually, no. It’s not so simple to the sender, especially if they are legitimately sending you email that you signed up for.  And it’s not simple to the mailbox provider as they use that data to set sending reputations of senders. But to the recipient, yes, it’s probably that simple, and that’s a problem.

CAN-SPAM, CASL, and the myriad other anti-Spam laws around the world require an unsubscribe link in commercial emails. Recipients, however, have been conditioned to think that all links, including an unsubscribe link, are bait to determine email address validity.  As a result they are afraid to click anything in an email and instead opt to click buttons in their email software.  So wouldn’t it be great if there was a universal [Unsubscribe] button that a recipient could click to actually unsubscribe instead of flagging email as Spam?  Well, it does exist, sort of.

List-Unsubscribe
The List-Unsubscribe header record was defined in RFC 2369 in 1998. It is intended to allow universal access to an unsubscribe function, though its implementation has been relatively weak. The idea is simple: if the List-Unsubscribe header is sent with an email it should include a mailto link to allow unsubscribing by email and an http address to allow redirection to an unsubscribe page. When the ISP receives the email and recognizes the header record it should then present an unsubscribe link in its framework. Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail was the first ISP to implement functionality based on the header, but others, including Google and Yahoo, have followed suit. The ISPs don’t present the exact same functionality, but it’s a start.

The Sender
Let’s start with the sender. It doesn’t matter how perfect a sender’s list practices are – they can enforce double opt-in with annual renewal confirmation; it doesn’t matter how well their MTA is configured – full SPF, DKIM, and DMARC; it doesn’t even matter if they provide an obvious and responsive unsubscribe link. The recipient has a tremendous amount of power because they have the “Spam button” at their disposal, available to click at a whim if they get bored with a newsletter or targeted blast. As a result, the sender needs to take it one step further and include the List-Unsubscribe header in their non-transactional emails. Most ESPs automatically handle this and embed the record in the header, but not all of them are on board with this yet. And companies that handle bulk sending in-house are much less likely to include this. So make a note to ask your ESP if they include this; then test them by sending an email to your Hotmail/Gmail/Yahoo account to see if the unsubscribe functionality is there.

The ISP/Corporate mail provider
So what should the provider of the Inbox be responsible for? Simple – implement functionality based on this header. While most of the larger ISPs have adopted this functionality, not all of them have. And most companies, large and small, have not implemented this functionality. And those ISPs and companies that have moved forward with this are using differing implementations. Once again, the ISPs have decided that doing things their own way is a better route than getting together and following a common line of thought. (Read my post about bounce codes to see what I’m talking about.)

The Recipient
Finally, a word to recipients. Yes, the recipient has a role in all of this, and it’s the most important role. Stop using the Spam button for unsubscribing! It doesn’t work. You are not notifying the sender that you want to unsubscribe. At best you are sending them a bounce code that shows the message was flagged as Spam, but you are damaging their sending reputation in the process. Maybe you don’t care, but someone you know probably does. I still find completely legitimate email in the Gmail Spam folder and I always assume it’s there because enough users have flagged it as Spam despite the fact that the email list was built using proper double opt-in methods. If you don’t want email marketers to use aggressive tactics to ensure delivery to the Inbox, then play your part and properly unsubscribe from emails you no longer wish to receive and save the Spam button for real Spam.

This post was written by Ken Vaughn who blogs from time to time on behalf of Port25 Solutions, Inc.  We’re glad to have him on our team.  Our next post will be coming up late this week or early next week and I’ll be discussing the seven ESPs/MACs that are potentially vying for buyouts.  Can’t wait to share.

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