Often unseen, unless you are one of the dorky #emailgeeks out there, are wonderful little things called email headers. These are a part of every email message you deal with, but are tucked away in drop-down menus and raw messages. They are filled with a trove of information detailing the path a message took to get to your inbox, the authentication protocols used, IP information, and other informative bits.
Some of those bits are so the sender (typically an ESP) can identify an account or campaign to which they can tie back signals that identify abuse and other accounts signals. And some of those bits provide information that receiving entities (mailbox providers) can use to enhance their filtering, UI, and how they process customer engagement signals.
One such bit is the list-unsubscribe header. It was introduced by RFC 2369 in 1998 with a number of other list- headers. These are intended so mailing lists could manage typical email actions, such as help, subscribe, unsubscribe, etc. But the fun part about it was that it made “it possible for mail clients to provide automated tools for users to perform list functions [via] menu item, push button, or other user interface element.” Which means, now you can unsubscribe using a button that isn’t in the email. Nifty!
This lovely little header bit looks like this:
As soon as a user clicked the button, or whatever UI element was built, an unsubscribe request would be sent or unsubscribe action kicked off by using the information in the List-Unsubscribe header. This could be done by sending an email to the address listed in the mailto or by sending the user to the URI listed.
The problem with the URI method is that it requires additional steps, making it more cumbersome and not as helpful in advancing the goal of making unsubscribing easier and more likely than a complaint.
So why not make the unsubscribe page a one-click unsubscribe page?
Because spammers be spammers (I like to blame everything on them) and anti-abuse measures developed to spot questionable content and URIs would accidentally trigger an unsubscribe. And this is because of how anti-spam appliances check for malicious content.
In order for these systems to confirm a link and its payload is safe, it has to engage the link and see what comes through. Some systems check a handful of links, some check all links in an email including the body and the headers. Leaving us with the only one feasible solution, which is to include a URI that leads you to a page to confirm your intent to unsubscribe.
But then along comes 2017 and with it RFC 8058. And with that, the introduction of List-Unsubscribe-Post as a partner to List-Unsubscribe. Now senders have a way to offer that one-click unsubscribe!
And because, as we’ll get to below, unsubscribes are better than complaints, list-unsubscribe (especially in its full glory with a one-click option) is a big incentive to implement. To be eligible for the one-click option, a sender has to have a valid DKIM signature. So now we have better usability AND better authentication. WIN – WIN.
Now that we know what list-unsubscribe is, let’s dig a little more deeply into WHY you want this:
UNSUBSCRIBE > COMPLAINT: Complaints ding your sender reputation, unsubscribes do not.
If I had to list the top 10 things that could damage your reputation, near the top, if not at the tippy top would be spam complaints. There is just nothing good to say about them other than from a mailbox provider point of view, they help to identify abusive mailers.
And that is exactly what the mailbox provider is seeing when a customer hits the spam complaint button—my inbox is being abused.
Now, one could argue that spam complaints are misused and are just customers cleaning out their inbox. And I would agree with that, sometimes. But at the end of the day, that user action is not universal. Delete is delete. And a spam complaint is a spam complaint.
And a complaint can come from a previously consented customer. If you are no longer serving the initial purpose, lost value, or are sending too much, a complaint is a glowing, blinking, angry sign that your mail is no longer wanted and the customer wants off your list.
But there is a friendlier way to be removed—unsubscribe! And this is the path you want your subscribers to take when they are ready to move on. The more ways they can get to this option, the better.
Remember, mailbox providers don’t ding a sender’s reputation for unsubscribes—they want a friendly way for a customer to be removed. It’s a positive signal when a sender is not driving a complaint or a “you’ve gone too far” action.
An unsubscribe is an unspoken positive departure. They are naturally pulling themselves out of the population that may end up weighing your program down with no activity or negative activity. And it certainly doesn’t add to the cacophony of noise screaming “GET OUT!”
For these reasons unsubscribes are > complaints, which makes list-unsubscribe so desirable. It offers more ways than one to unsubscribe and depending on how it’s implemented allows some recipients to unsubscribe without ever having to open an email.
LIST MAINTENANCE: Reduce unengaged and pump up your active audience.
There are many ways to maintain your list.
- Verification at the point of capture.
- Bounce handling
- Reengagement/repermission campaigns
- Spam complaint processing through feedback loops (FBLs)
- And unsubscribes!
Making sure you give your customers the ability to remove themselves from your list (preference page, unsubscribe link, list-unsubscribe, etc.) in the friendliest way possible reduces the chances of negatively impacting your sender reputation. And it is a natural cleanse for your list to weed out the undesirables.
As you rid your database of the deadwood, it reduces the number of unengaged customers being mailed so your overall population is more engaged. It’s math, if you keep a constant numerator, but reduce the denominator, the resulting percentage is higher (active/total population: 8/13 versus 8/10.)
And it’s more concrete to receive an action on an unsubscribe request. There is no ambiguity about the customer’s intent. I’ve been a part of conversions where senders debate what to do with a spam complaint because there are scenarios where the complaint was really someone using the spam button as a way to mass delete their emails.
But if list-unsubscribe is selected, YES, the customer specifically selected ‘unsubscribe.’ It’s clear as day—no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Again, unsubscribes are better than complaints for your reputation and your list.
EASE IN UI: Enhance the way your customers can communicate their preferences.
Most often unsubscribes are buried in the email. The List-Unsubscribe feature gives the mailbox provider a way to introduce the unsubscribe into their UI and give their customers multiple exits without the need to search for an unsubscribe link within an email.
Users can remove themselves using a button or link next to the sender.
Some providers, like Yahoo, collect senders that are using list-unsubscribe and host them in a subscriber page.
And some providers will add this unsubscribe request into their action menus. Now their system can offer unsubscribe options with the spam complaint option, otherwise a user may just be left with the option to click spam. Not very desirable, if you ask me.
And, “consumers want simplicity”. Although this study is focusing on brands and consumers, it’s not too far of a stretch (I think) to say being able to make a choice quickly, easily, and without barriers creates a positive experience, regardless of medium.
Currently list-unsubscribe and list-unsubscribe one-click is supported by Gmail, Yahoo, and Apple. Microsoft also provides support for this, but has recently had some issues with it.
As with most things email related, if you do not have a good sending reputation, this feature (even if the header is included) may not show up in the UI of the supporting mailbox provider.
MAY BE THE ONLY FEEDBACK YOU GET: Don’t limit your ability to access information that can help your program.
Gmail does not provide feedback loops (FBLs) meaning if someone clicks the spam button, they won’t report it back to you. This is to help protect their customers and their customers’ privacy.
However, at some point, and I can’t remember when, Gmail started to offer the ability to do more than complain. Now you could complain and ask to be unsubscribed. Hanging off list-unsubscribe, if you decided to do both, Gmail would send an unsubscribe to the sender.
But don’t get confused, this is still not a feedback loop. What they send is the same information that comes in a general unsubscribe request. There is no way to differentiate between an unsubscribe generated due to the list-unsubscribe link or a spam complaint filed at Gmail. And does that differentiation matter? Not really. All that matters is they get removed from your list.
And the difference with privacy here and FBLs is that Gmail asks if the user wants to be removed, allowing Gmail to send a unsubscribe notification.List-Unsubscribe One-Click
Complaints themselves still remain largely veiled and unseen. Even with Google Postmaster Tools, the data is aggregated, available to good senders, and dependent on a billion other things.
And let’s not forget about Apple. They are on everyone’s mind nowadays. Between their market share and their privacy driven initiatives (ehem, MPP), Apple is one that should always be considered. With Apple, not only do you have a large user base, but a large volume of email coming from providers all over the world is consumed through the email apps on the iOS and OS devices. Not all email clients support list-unsubscribe. But, Apple does.
This now gives additional insight into a group of users that may remain unseen especially if they are using in-app features specific to their own account. If someone complains there, it goes into the local decisions. List-unsubscribe, on the other hand, will be sent out, regardless of the mail provider.
And even if a user is using IMAP, there are still signals shared with the mail receiver the messages are being pulled from. And those signals are still important so you don’t want them weighed down by deadwood and lack of engagement.
List-unsubscribe allows MUAs to get into the conversation as well as those that want the flexibility to manage user preferences and privacy.
PROTECT SENDER REPUTATION: Better practices lead to better reputation.
List-unsubscribe helps senders maintain a good reputation. By giving customers more opportunities to remove themselves from their list in a positive way, it removes the dings a sender may receive from the other option, spam complaint.
And in cases like Gmail where an unsubscribe could come from a complaint, yes the complaint is not good, but it’s better than having a complaint being lodged multiple times and then having Gmail see you send continued volume to an uninterested email.
To compile this a bit more, as Gmail sees complaints their algorithms start to filter mail to the spam folder. And as your mail goes there more and more it reaffirms it belongs there because someone who complains is not going to look or fish you out of there. So list-unsubscribes, again, help to keep your sender reputation intact.
Gmail recommends list-unsubscribe in their bulk sender guidelines. And if you are a political mailer – this is a must have for their pilot program. And as Gmail continues to build out other customer-first enhancements, this likely will be included.
We talked about the good, but we can’t fail to mention what the list-unsubscribe feature isn’t.
It is NOT a substitute for unsubscribe language or links in a message.
Not all UIs or mailbox providers support it and it’s also in the headers, which is not typically read by the average recipient. In other words, the body or the message of the email has to have its own unsubscribe mechanism.
You don’t want to end your time with your customer with them yelling at you. Being able to say no thank you to something provides a pathway to an amicable split. Because, ya never know, your paths may cross again in the future.