Laying down the law on bulk e-mail

(First published April 11, 2011.) 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 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 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.

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21 responses to “Laying down the law on bulk e-mail”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Ive had e-tailers send me emails I didn’t want, with no unsubscribe button anywhere on the message, not even in the fine print on the bottom; I’m surprised that’s even legal. I finally got rid of them via the spam button. I’ve had e-tailers I actually want offers from, that bombard me with mail, and my only recourse is to get none, or all? Im calling them out by name here (J.R. Cigars): literally, and I mean literally, if you want email offers from them, it’s over 10 a day, mostly repeats. They used to offer you an option for less, when you hit the unsubscribe button, but if you check less, you get none. This type of thing makes me question an e-tailers professionality. E-tailers you respect sending you 10 emails a day? Something is not right with the people or company involved with their online ad service! This was actually so pervasive and ridiculous, it was just easier to order fewer cigars from them, and that after a 30 year history of ordering from them…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      No unsubscribe link is not in compliance with the CAN-SPAM act. Getting emails you didn’t sign up for is out of compliance too.

      I also do not understand the retailers who bury you in emails. One good email once a month gets more attention from me than even one blah email every day.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        After your entry, I did some “back of the envelope” calculations, and figured out before I pulled the plug on their emails, I was receiving between 350 and 380 emails from JR Cigars between my reorders, and I really only looked at “30-40% off orders” promotions, and highly discounted premium brand cigar blow-outs, near the time I would reorder, which was about every 37 to 45 days. These offers comprised only about 4 to 7 emails over the 37 to 45 day period. I also order a lot from B&H photo, but I bet I get about 3 or so of those a week, which must be below my aggravation cut off.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    BTW, the spam identification system is not infallible as well. I noticed a few years ago, that my emails to people were starting to end up in people’s spam files, so you actually have to admin and check your spam files as well (and the kids never do). If people’s personal emails, or ads you want, are in the spam files, you have to check the “this is not spam” button, or you risk having these people or companies screened out. I was wondering why this happens, and was told by someone “in the know”, that because I don’t use a proper name or variation of such as my email lead (such as JoeBlow@, or J.Blow@), this could cause a trip to the spam file with people that have very high set spam filters. I have three email addresses for different personal and business functions, and never use a proper name lead.

  3. Greg Clawson Avatar
    Greg Clawson

    Right on Jim! Even I feel better now. 😃

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      shakes fist at cloud

  4. Dave Avatar

    I work for a SaaS as well, a CRM product. We deal with Can-SPAM and CASL on a regular basis. This so rings true with me! We strongly emphasize to our clients not spamming their end customers, because then our servers get marked as spammers as well. The world of email marketing!

    Your Hertz story smells a little “phishy” to me. Unsubscribing shouldn’t be tied to an account just an email address. They may not be in compliance!

    Great post Jim!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I worked for a marketing software company that foolishly tried to build its own email marketing platform (when the market was already saturated with major players). Just in testing the thing, we managed to get ourselves blacklisted at Google and Yahoo.

      The Hertz thing was a real puzzler.

  5. brandib1977 Avatar

    I get frustrated with companies that won’t let you shop or learn even basic product information without surrendering your email. I flat out refuse and blackball them all.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What galls me is when I give them my email as part of a purchase, there’s no “opt out” checkbox, and then I get pummeled with marketing emails. Seriously people.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        That’s just bad business.

  6. tbm3fan Avatar

    I have five email accounts. Five because old ones never close even if the company is gone so there are two Pacific Bell accounts. The one for the office gets the most emails that are basically spam. All are optical related and I am sure it all stemmed from one business and it went from there.Average would be 350 emails a week that I delete in mass. Of the four home ones, which all have the same prefix but different providers my gmail gets nothing, It is only for overseas. Hotmail and PacBell get some spam from the same businesses, like the Mercury News, and it is controllable and easily deleted. My everyday Astound gets maybe 25 a day which are more notifications than spam and the spam is mostly photographic related.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I still have a Yahoo Mail account and have tried to figure out how to dump my spam there. But then I’d miss the legit emails I do want from companies. I log into my YMail account about once a year just to see if anyone from long ago tried to contact me there, but that’s it.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I’ve had a Yahoo account since 1998…I get an amazing amount of contacts I’ve had for over 20 years that still use that account after not hearing from them for 5-8 years! One of the “kid” baristas was making fun of the fact that I had a Yahoo email address, but was shut down when we realized I had the account since before she was born….

  7. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Hmmm, interesting, I have never seen that spam button. I use Outlook these days, having avoided the big webmail providers for years, perhaps this only works in the US or the EU where they have strong anti spam laws :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hunh. I thought every email service and program had a Spam button!

    2. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

      It’s the Junk button in Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird.

  8. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

    Jim, I might write about this soon. I have had a draft saved for almost six months.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Looking forward to it.

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