As I reviewed the amount of email I get – both in aggregate, looking at last year’s email in a prior article (see the “That’s a lot of email” sidebar in Email: Save Everything So You Can Delete More), and just in passing, as I deal with my day-to-day email – it occurred to me that a lot of the email I get is by choice, or by failing to make a choice when I had the chance.
Hence, I started making some different choices to reduce the amount of email I get.
In short, I asked the senders to stop.
I now do this periodically.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Know who you’re dealing with
Before I start down this path, I want to be clear: this requires knowing (and I do mean knowing) who sends you the email in question.
As always, if you don’t know who sent it to you, consider it spam. The steps below do not apply to spam. In fact, they could increase the amount of spam you get. More on that later.
The sin of omission
A very common technique businesses use to establish an email relationship with you is a silly little checkbox similar to this:
Yes, keep me informed of product updates!
Sometimes it’s “helpfully” checked for you.
What they’re really asking is, “May we send you mail?” Technically, then, the email they send isn’t spam, because you “asked” for it by leaving that checkbox checked; you “opted in”.
You’ll frequently find boxes like that when checking out of an on-line store, signing up for an online service, or installing software. It can be quite well hidden. You might find it buried in a long list of other options, for example, or in small print in some step along the way.
Reputable companies use it to trigger a double-opt-in confirmation. That means you need to respond to a confirmation email before receiving their mailings. When part of a “business relationship” (an online purchase or software install), that confirmation isn’t required, and is usually omitted.
The lesson: any time you fill in a form with your email address, make an online transaction, or install software, look for and unselect requests to be placed on mailing lists, send you updates, or keep you informed.
Unless, of course, you do want the email. Sometimes it’s the best way to be kept up to date, get news you care about, or more. Just make it a choice, not an accident.
Just say no
Say you’re like me, and in your younger days you you didn’t know better, and now you have companies (or other concerns with which you once did business) still sending you email.
What to do? Can you get them to stop? The answer is a qualified yes.
The qualifications are this:
- You need to be able to tell what is and is not spam.
- This really only applies to reputable companies.
Let’s say I purchased a shirt at Joe’s Shirt Shop on the internet. A couple of weeks later, they start sending me promotional material. Whoops! I forgot to uncheck the “keep me informed” checkbox. I gave Joe’s Shirt Shop permission to send me email.
Now, I know Joe’s Shirt Shop. They’re national, they have a good reputation, and I trust them. I just don’t need their weekly email. This is not spam – I trust Joe and his Shirt Shop – so I hit the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the most recent email from Joe. He, or his IT department, does the right thing – they remove me from their mailing lists, as requested.
Avoid implicitly agreeing to receive email in the first place, but don’t be afraid to unsubscribe from mailing lists you know to be legitimate. It does work. Really.
Just say maybe
So all that does beg the question: what if you’re not sure? How do you tell whether something is “legitimate”?
Here are a few tests:
- If you’ve never heard of the company or sender, or know you’ve never done business with them, assume it’s spam.
- If the unsubscribe instructions involve clicking on a link, does the destination make sense? An unsubscribe link for Joe’s Shirt Shop should either link to a page on Joe’s Shirt Shop’s internet domain, or to that of a mailing list provider (such as aweber.com, mailchimp.com, or others).
- Does the link actually go where it says it will? For example, hover your mouse pointer over this link to eBay: http://www.ebay.com. You should see that it doesn’t go to eBay at all! That’s a sign – often a strong sign – that what you’re looking at is an attempt to deceive.
If it passes those tests, chances are you’re dealing with legitimate email, and my approach would be to follow the unsubscribe instructions.
If the email fails some of those tests, then I would treat it like any other piece of spam, and avoid the unsubscribe instructions completely.
When unsubscribe fails
Spammers are a tricky lot, and some are quite good at making spam that looks legitimate. Clicking on an unsubscribe link in spam will, at best, not work, and at worst, get you more spam.
In addition, it seems not all legitimate businesses have gotten the message about spam, either.1 There’s no reason, for example, it should take more than a few seconds to be removed from an email mailing list, much less “N business days” (hint: it’s an automated process, and computers work 24×7).
Sometimes you run into email from which you can’t unsubscribe, shouldn’t unsubscribe (in the case of spam), or for which unsubscribe fails.
The best thing you can do is to mark it as spam, or junk, or whatever term is used for unwanted email. Ideally, do so in the web interface of your email provider, so that provider can “learn” what is and is not spam. If you download to a desktop email program, you can mark it as spam there as well.
If something remains particularly obnoxious, even after marking it as spam for a while, and if your email interface supports it, create a rule or filter that identifies messages from that particular sender and automatically deletes them.
Do not reply. You’ll just get more spam. Do not click on the links in the message. You’ll just get more spam. Don’t try to harass or “punish” the sender via email; they’ll likely not notice. What you’re considering drops you to their level, and is very likely illegal anyway.
Mark as spam, and move on.
Just say yes
Remember, this isn’t about stopping all email. This is about making a choice to get the email you want, and not get the email you don’t.
In many cases, email from a business relationship is, in fact, critical.
Consider your bank, for example. If your bank has something to say to you, you likely want to hear about it. That’s one of the reasons phishing scams so often target banks – not only is the bank “where the money is”, but recipients of those scams are likely to care about whatever their bank might be trying to tell them. Fortunately, phishing scams typically fail one or more of the tests I outlined earlier.
You probably don’t want to “opt out” of your bank’s mailing list. In fact, you might even want to give it higher priority.
This is one of those situations where, if you have multiple email addresses, you might elect to use your private, closely held email address. That way, you know any email coming in on other email addresses claiming to be from your bank are either forgeries, or at least unimportant. By registering your private email address with the institutions you trust and value, you know anything truly important will be sent to that address.
It’s all about choice
For the class of email we’re cleaning up, it’s all about choice.
Choose not to get email in the first place. Choose to stop email from legitimate senders we don’t need. Choose to accept and
prioritize the email we do want.
Ultimately, it’s about consciously making choices to get less email.
Of course, I hope I’m providing enough value that you’ll consciously choose to keep getting The Ask Leo! Newsletter.
But the power of choice is yours. Use it wisely.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!
The “Taming Email” series of articles is based on a project I originally started back in 2006. Now, well over a decade later, the topic is still critically relevant, particularly in the workplace.