Essay

Laying down the law on bulk e-mail

Have you ever signed up for something online and then started getting e-mails from that company – special offers, newsletters, and the like? That’s bulk e-mail. The software company I work for offers its customers a bulk e-mail service, and so we send lots of promotional e-mails to our customers’ customers. I’m usually reluctant to admit that because the reaction I usually get runs along the lines of, “So your company is responsible for all the spam I get.” I usually respond that it’s true only if one of our customers isn’t following good bulk e-mail practices:

  • You should receive promotional e-mails only when you explicitly choose to receive them. Giving your e-mail address to a company as part of ordering from them doesn’t qualify. You should also have to check a box next to text saying something like, “Please send me promotional e-mails.”
  • It should be very easy to stop receiving promotional e-mails. At the bottom of a promotional e-mail, usually in tiny type, you should find a line that says something like, “Click here to unsubscribe.” Clicking that link should open a Web page were you can tell the company to stop.

You’d think that companies wouldn’t care whether you signed up or can unsubscribe, but a couple things have encouraged them to build and maintain a good reputation.

  • The CAN-SPAM act of 2003 insists on certain good behavior. This law lets companies send unsolicited promotional e-mail only if it follows certain rules, one of which is to allow the recipient to unsubscribe. Failure to follow the rules can lead to legal action.
  • The big e-mail providers punish senders who don’t play nice. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, and so on, watch bulk e-mail like a hawk because it costs them big money in bandwidth and storage. You wouldn’t believe all the rules these providers have in place to prevent unwanted e-mail from reaching you. They also give you a surprisingly powerful tool in that little Spam button that appears on each e-mail. Every time you click it, your e-mail provider takes notice. Spam a sender a couple times, and those messages go to your spam folder instead of your inbox. If lots of people click Spam on a sender’s messages, the e-mail provider will blacklist the sender’s Internet address and not accept e-mail from them anymore.

All of this encourages companies to send you only e-mails you want to receive. That doesn’t mean, however, that companies still don’t occasionally do stinky things.

Some time ago, I wanted to print some photos. So I uploaded the files to walgreens.com and chose to pick them up at my nearby Walgreens. I immediately started getting one or two promotional e-mails from them every day. I certainly didn’t check a box asking for those e-mails. I’m betting they buried that checkbox in tiny type someplace I would be sure not to notice it, and pre-checked the box for me. How helpful of them. But at least Walgreens did include an unsubscribe link in every e-mail. I clicked it and that was that, at least for a while. Four months later, not having used walgreens.com at all, I started getting e-mails again. I unsubscribed again, and it appears to have stuck this time.

Many years ago I made business trips to Louisville all the time. I rented cars from Hertz for all of those trips, and soon they enrolled me in their #1 Club Gold loyalty program. Of course I got promotional e-mails from them, but as a frequent customer they were very useful to me. After those business trips ended, I unsubscribed. When I wrecked my car a couple years ago while away on vacation, I rented from Hertz so I could get home. I didn’t ask for it, but they started sending me #1 Club Gold e-mails again. When I tried to unsubscribe, Hertz wanted me to type in my account number. I threw away my #1 Club Gold card years ago. Hertz gave me a link that would let me retrieve my account number, but I had to type in my driver’s license number to get it! And then it took them two days to e-mail me my account number. I went back to unsubscribe, but their unsubscribe form was crammed full of confusing options. It took me five tries to check the right boxes for the form to go through without returning an error. And then it didn’t work – I continued to get Hertz e-mails! So I started clicking the Spam button on them, and now Gmail delivers those messages to my spam folder so I never have to see them.

So to Hertz, Walgreens, and everybody else out there who sends me bulk e-mail, I am laying down the law:

  • Subscribing. If you absolutely must try to sign me up for your e-mails when I first use your service, please make the opt-out checkbox baseball-bat-to-the-forehead obvious. If you don’t and I miss it, I’m going to assume you signed me up without my permission, and I will click the Spam button on all of your e-mails.
  • Unsubscribing. When I click your Unsubscribe link, it had better do nothing but tell me I’ve just unsubscribed. Don’t show me a page full of checkboxes and make figure out which one means “send me no more e-mail period.” And good heavens, don’t make me look up my account number. Finally, don’t try to keep selling me on receiving e-mails from you – unless you want to send me free gold bars once a week, nothing you say will foil my nefarious unsubscribe plans. In short, if unsubscribing isn’t dead nuts simple, I will just click Spam on all of your e-mails.

Harrumph. That is all.

Thanks to Erika, who is Redhead Writing, for inspiring this screed. Read hers on the same topic here.

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12 thoughts on “Laying down the law on bulk e-mail

  1. ryoko861 says:

    OMG, isn’t it the most frustrating!?? And thank god for that Spam folder! I’ve unsubscribed to PLENTY of emails from companies I don’t care to hear from. It’s junk mail. I love hitting delete sometimes…..a feeling of empowerment….like I just cut their head off with an ax!

    I’m not really a violent person…….

    Like

    • I remember when I got my first spam e-mail. It was about 1991. I was righteously indignant! It was a kinder, gentler time on the Internet, before it went commercial.

      Like

  2. Charlie says:

    Rock on Jim! Lately I’ve noticed that a lot of the stuff I /have/ signed up for just isn’t as interesting or useful as promised. I’m paying more attention now and giving each 5 more chances to send me a coupon I may actually use (mostly restaurants). After 5 strikes they’re unsubscribed.

    Don’t get me wrong — the most obnoxious have already been unsubscribed long ago. I’m only being this magnanimous to the ones I know I did sign up for…

    Like

  3. Lone Primate says:

    I set up a Hotmail account just for this kind of thing. I need to register? You need to send me a confirmation link? Fine, send it to (myjunkyemailcrapbasket@whatever.com), then spam away. I just look at it when I have to and periodically show up to broom it out. I know you shouldn’t have to, but you shouldn’t have to wipe your feet at the door, either… the world’s just like that, so it helps to keep a mat. :)

    Like

    • Yeah, my older-than-dirt Yahoo! Mail account sometimes serves the same purpose. I just forget to check it, I mean powerfully forget, and so I end up just giving out my (primary) Gmail address. You reap what you sow, I guess.

      Like

  4. I’m particularly puzzled by the mass e-mails I receive from businesses I’ve never looked into. In any given day I get e-mails informing me how to become a blueberry farmer, how to stop male-pattern baldness, and how to refinance a mortgage. We rent!

    Like

  5. Tim Hall says:

    I have some pictures of the old closed stone bridge on hwy 50 Nebraska , Indiana…You mentioned you need to check it out…If you want them .Let me know

    Like

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