E-mail users fight back

A bit over a year ago, I ran into an unusual problem — for several days, I stopped receiving messages from a customer (in the middle of an important project), then I discovered the messages all hidden deep in my (gmail-hosted) spam box. Everything from that domain was suddenly being flagged as spam.

What happened? This customer had a large mailing list that they used for announcements, etc. My guess is that they sent out an announcement, a lot of other gmail-users flagged it as spam, and whatever weighting algorithm gmail uses tipped it over so that the messages were no longer considered legit by default. I was able to train gmail not to treat those messages as spam (for me, specifically), but it took a week or two before I could trust that some of them weren’t being sent to the spam box.

Hard-core spammers have always had to deal with this kind of thing, and they spend a lot of time trying to figure out a way around it. What’s happening now, though, is that companies with legit (or semi-legit) e-mail lists are also starting to get into trouble, because web-mail makes it possible for hundreds or thousands of people to get together and all vote your e-mail to be undesirable.

The letter of the law isn’t enough

That this isn’t a legal thing. It doesn’t matter at all if your e-mail list is opt-in or opt-out, if the “Send me announcements” checkbox was checked by default or not, or if the recipient originally clicked 10 screens of disclaimers before buying your product/signing up for your service. If they don’t like the e-mail you’re sending them, they’ll just click “Spam”, even if you had a legal right to send it; and if enough of them do it, the e-mail value of your domain fast approaches nil.

You’d better make sure that your mass e-mails have stuff that people actually want to read:

  • I don’t care that your company just won five awards — SPAM! (even if I said before that it was OK to send me e-mails)
  • I probably do care that someone wants to connect with me on a social networking site that I actually use.
  • I don’t care that a merchant I did business with from 2 years ago has a Christmas special on something I’d never buy — SPAM!.
  • I don’t care that your web site has a new look — SPAM!
  • I don’t care that your company has a training session coming up in Tulsa, since I don’t live anywhere near there (and probably wouldn’t go anyway) — SPAM!
  • Yes, I am interested in the tracking info for the books I just ordered. Thanks.
  • I do care that there’s a substantive change to a site that I use a lot.
  • I don’t care about a change on a site I haven’t logged into for a year — SPAM!.

And so on.

This new collaboration is an unexpected side-effect of the shift from desktop e-mail clients to web mail, and it would be foolish for companies not to pay attention. If you consider your domain name to be a valuable part of your corporate identity, don’t piss it away by sending out poorly-targeted mass e-mails, because no matter what prior permission you have, people now can … and will … punish you. After all, it takes only a single mouse click.

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3 Responses to E-mail users fight back

  1. Pingback: The wisdom of which crowd? « Jon Udell

  2. Dean says:

    I don’t care to continue receiving emails I subscribed to after I changed my mind and clicked your opt-out link – SPAM

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