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Unsubscribe is better than “report as spam”

January 4, 2013

One of the most interesting stats of 2012 in Return Path's intelligence report was that 70% of email reported as spam is legitimate. This means at some point the recipient opted in to receive the email in some way.

The "report as spam" option is prominent in most webmail clients so for the recipient it is easier to mark the message as spam rather than search through the message for an unsubscribe link.  Even if you make the unsubscribe very prominent and put a link at the top and bottom of your email, some recipients are very wary of clicking an unsubscribe link in an email because they believe it shows you are a valid recipient and may cause more spam.

ISP's such as Outlook.com (Hotmail), Yahoo and AOL have feedback loops to notify senders when an email is marked as spam or junk. The sender must be part of the feedback loop and is then expected to remove the recipient from the list. Gmail is an exception in that they don't have a feedback loop as such. In the Extravision system anything received via the feedback loops is unsubscribed from the list and marked as an ISP complaint.

In an ideal I think there should be two buttons in your webmail client. "Report as spam" and "Unsubscribe".

"Report as Spam" says I have never opted in to receive this and don't want to receive anymore.
"Unsubscribe me" says I did opt in to receive this but am no longer interested.

From the ISP's perspective this makes a difference when looking at the senders reputation and inbox placement. From the senders perspective it is good to distinguish between complaints and unsubscribes.

In the new Outlook.com webmail client you have the two options providing the email sent includes an optional email header, List-Unsubscribe. This header tells the email client who to send an unsubscribe request to and or what URL to execute to automatically remove the recipient. If the header is valid then at the bottom of the email you will see the below and an unsubscribe link will be listed in the Action drop down.

Click to unsubscribe and you then get the option to also delete everything you have received from that sender in your Inbox.

Finally you get a confirmation that an unsubscribe email has been sent to the list-unsubscribe address. This isn't immediate and it can take a few days for the unsubscribe request to actually be sent. In Outlook.com you don't have a "mark as spam" button but if you mark an email as "junk" then the message is automatically marked as spam using the feedback loop.

In Gmail we know there is no feedback loop as such but if the list-unsubscribe header is available and you mark the message as  "report spam"  then you are given the option of reporting the spam and sending an unsubscribe request.  The spam report is feed into the various automated systems that Gmail uses to try and identify spam and an email send to the unsubscribe address.

There is an option of an unsubscribe link on its own rather than reporting as spam but it isn't obvious and it took me a while to discover it. You need to open an email and then select the small drop down arrow next to the recipient "me".

If you click the unsubscribe link then Gmail almost immediately sends the unsubscribe email.

Currently I can only see Gmail and Outlook.com who are using the list-unsubscribe header to provide the user with a true way of unsubscribing without marking the message as spam. From an ESP's point of view it would be great if every email client gave the recipient the option of reporting as spam and unsubscribing separately but from the users point of view I guess they don't care as long as they don't receive any more emails.

Posted by Simon Hill
Deliverability, General, Technology

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