The New Spam: Broken Unsubscribe Methods

Sometimes, I’ll forget to (un)check the box on a form, and inadvertently tell some perfectly well-meaning company that I want to receive their crappy emails in my inbox. Or, perhaps, I’ll think it sounds like a good idea, and even enjoy receiving them for a while, and then get bored or decide that it’s not for me. It’s not spam, per se, since I did ask for it, and the sender isn’t some Nigerian banker or penis enlarger, but I no longer want to receive it.

Today I ran face-first into the fact that Borders Bookstore breaks every rule in this list. Every single one. And sadly, they’re not that unusual.

Either way, the result is usually the same: I scroll to the bottom of the message, searching for the url that I have to visit to unsubscribe. Since I often view my email on my phone in text-only mode, I then find the words “click here to unsubscribe” that are not hyperlinked. Strike 1: Sending html email is fine, but make sure that the text-only version has the url and not the link text. Almost every text-only email reader these days will turn it into a link.

What’s worse is the “reply to blah blah with the word ‘unsubscribe’ in the subject”. Strike 2: Don’t make me send you anything. If I have to send you an email to stop receiving your crappy emails, I’ll probably just black-hole that account on general principle.

Log onto my email in Firefox, and change to the html view. Click the link. It says that I have to log in to change my email preferences. Strike 3: If I’m clicking a link from my email address telling you that I want to unsubscribe, don’t make me log in and navigate your crappy application to find the unsubscribe link. You already know who I am, because you sent me something. Put a key or whatever in the URL.

I log in, and click the url again. It says that I have to log in to change my email preferences. Strike 4: If I’m already logged in, why doesn’t it just read the cookie or whatever?

So, I log in again, and look through the options to find the “Email preferences” link. I go to the page, uncheck the “please send me crap” box, and then look for the submit button. It’s nowhere to be found. I actually resorted to inspecting the HTML in Firebug and finding the submit element in question and tweaking its CSS to pull it out from behind another element so that I could click on it. Out of curiousity, to research for this article, I tried it in a few other browsers, and it worked in IE 6 on a PC only. (It was broken in IE 7.) Strike 5: Please test your pages in something other than last year’s IE on Windows. At least load them up and make sure that the stuff is visible. It literally takes 5 minutes.

On the next page, it asks me if I’m sure. It assures me that there is no other way to get coupons and valuable discounts. Strike 6: If I’ve made it this far, I don’t care about your stupid offers, I’m sure that I don’t want them.

In my opinion, there is only one good way to handle any kind of automated mailing. At the bottom of every message, in legible font, it should say: You are receiving this message because you signed up for it. Please visit to unsubscribe.

On the page reached, it says, You have been unsubscribed. You will receive one more message confirming this, just in case it was an accident.

It sends you a message that says, You were unsubscribed from the blah blah list. If this was an accident or a mistake, please visit to sign up again.

Failing that ideal setup, the link should take the user directly to a plain-vanilla page where they can easily choose what to receive and not receive in a single step. That’s what this blog does, care of my lightly hacked version of the Subscribe to Comments plugin. As a reader and commenter, I find that it’s nice to receive an update if someone leaves a comment on a blog post where I’ve commented. I’m writing a comment, so I’m interested in the discussion. As an author, it’s nice to know that the readers who leave comments will know that I’m responding to them. And it’s easy to avoid, for those who don’t want to receive anything, because of the nice “Don’t ever send me crap” option on the subscription management page.

If you don’t want to hurt your brand and anger your customers, ALWAYS err on the side of not sending them email. This experience only served to make me more likely to use Amazon next time.