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Opting In and Opting Out of Email

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.

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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

Subscribe or Unsubscribe?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:

  1. You need to be able to tell what is and is not spam.
  2. 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.

Revisiting the choices

I go through phases where I suddenly realize I’m getting more email than I can deal with effectively, and that as a result, I’m just skipping a lot of it. Why skip if I can unsubscribe?

The fact is, there’s a lot of good information available in email newsletters. I heartily recommend signing up for those that make sense for you. But over time, they can add up, and it takes a periodic culling to determine what is and what is not adding value to your inbox.

A key component of taming email is exactly that: understanding the value email brings to your life, and saying “no thanks” to the rest.

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. Smile

But the power of choice is yours. Use it wisely.

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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.

Footnotes & references

1: Just last week, I found myself subscribed to something like 60 newsletters because I’d provided my email address in order to be able to view some online content. The business involved is a long-time tech news organization.

9 comments on “Opting In and Opting Out of Email”

  1. I have an email account which I use exclusively for newsletter subscriptions etc. I access it via Thunderbird, so it’s always available to me to view those when checking my email, but less of a distraction as they are not in my main email folders. I don’t always look at the newsletters, but they are always conveniently available.

  2. About those emails which come from legitimate companies who are simply incompetent and don’t include unsubscribe links, I’ve found that marking them as spam isn’t as effective as creating a filter to send email from that sender to the Trash or Spam folder. Some spam filters don’t block the sender, they just add the emails’ contents to their spam criteria. It might even train your spam filter to reject similar content emails which you might be interested in. If you do block a sender, be sure it’s not a company you might want to deal with in the future, as any emails from them wouldn’t make it into your inbox (I was going to add that you can remove them from the filter if you decide to buy from them again, but I doubt if I’d remember setting the filter 🙂 .

  3. that`s like Google`s email blocker. the down arrow next to the rely button.
    the drop down says “block” and the sender`s name is next to it. i`ve used that 100`s of times and the same emails keep coming. you block a sender and they change one character in the URL and its not blocked anymore. same thing with opting out. you opt out and the sender buys a new email list and you`re
    back on their list again.

    • “you opt out and the sender buys a new email list and you`re back on their list again.” Actually, if you click on the opt out link in a spam email, you won’t be removed at all. In fact, by doing that, you’ve increased the value of your email address to spammers by confirming that it’s a valid email, and your email address will be sold to more spammers.

  4. A few months ago, somebody used my email address to sign up for a bunch of paid and non-paid online subscriptions. Even though I didn’t request them, I did not mark them as spam because they all seemed legit, and it wasn’t their fault. I contacted every one to opt-out, and was successful with this – with one exception. Any legit business really should know better: The Wall Street Journal’s response to my opt-out request: “We have sent a request to have your information removed from our mailing list. Please allow up to 60 days for this request to be processed.” 60 DAYS? Are you kidding me? Even if originally asked for, failure to promptly remove me from your mailing list when requested makes you a spammer.

  5. I have found it easier to set up a “throw-away” e-mail address for every form I complete. Then when I no longer want to receive mail from that entity I can just delete the address. Done, Fast, Permanently.

    • I use a disposable address only for sites I don’t trust. I have another email address strictly for newsletters and subscriptions that I trust. This is more to keep newsletters and other mailings to distract from my “real” emails. This account doesn’t receive any more spam than my main email account because legitimate companies have proven trustworthy with people’s email addresses. If that account ever does fall prey to spam, I can easily move on from that to receive mailings. Since I don’t get any personal or business email at that address, losing it would be no major loss.

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