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‘Tis the Season … to Unsubscribe!

With the Christmas holidays in full swing, it’s a busy, busy time of year.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in our email inboxes. Companies are reaching out to us with a constant stream of last-minute gift ideas, online specials, and more.

The kicker is that these are all legitimate emails from companies we’ve done business with in the past, and that we will, in all probability, continue to do business with in the future.

Just not at this breakneck holiday pace.

It’s the perfect time for a little email pruning.

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Evaluate every email

I use my holiday inbox as an opportunity to evaluate every email I get.

Does it add value? Is it something I read, or routinely delete? Is it so much noise, or something worth keeping?

Every email. Every subscription. The holidays are a great time for a little email pruning.

Unsubscribe from those that add no value

Next time you get email from a business or email list that you’ve subscribed to, ask yourself: do I get value from this email?

Too Much EmailIf you find yourself never reading it – or never even opening it – it’s a candidate for unsubscribing. Why continue to clutter your inbox with email you never actually look at?

If it’s a list you intentionally subscribed to in the past, you can re-subscribe in the future should you find that you actually miss it. If it’s an email list of company you’ve done business with or otherwise given your email address to, you can always return and do business with them by going to their web site.

Again, if you’re not paying attention to the email anyway, of what value is it to you? Why keep getting it? Unsubscribe.  (“Unsubscribe” links are almost always found at the very bottom of the email.)

Unsubscribe from those that add too much noise

I find there’s a class of email subscriptions that I would like to continue, but I find that I just can’t. Not because they don’t add value – they do. Not because I’m not interested – I am.

It’s because I’m not that interested.

I don’t need daily reminders of all the interesting stuff that this company has. Yes, it’s cool, it’s awesome, it’s fun – but once a week would be plenty.

Daily? I just don’t have the time to invest in that. It’s too much of a distraction every time I open my email.

Unsubscribe. If I want, I can visit them on the web – on my schedule.

How many emails do you get that fall into the “too much” category? Would your time be better spent elsewhere? Unsubscribe.

Don’t unsubscribe from spam

Now, I have one caution for you: never ever “unsubscribe” from spam.

Spam is email you did not ask for. Spam is email from companies you’ve never done business with.

Clicking on the “unsubscribe” link on spam emails only confirms to the spammer that they’ve found a live person in their mass mailings, and it will likely get you more spam, not less.

On the flip side, never mark email that isn’t spam as spam.

Email from companies you do business with typically isn’t spam. Often, as you go through the purchase process, you give them permission to add you to their list (sometimes inadvertently, by failing to uncheck a checkbox). This is not considered spam. Unsubscribe instead.

Similarly, never mark email that you actually asked for as spam. For example, if you subscribe to my newsletter and later on you no longer want it, unsubscribe.

In both cases, marking legitimate email as spam can actually harm the business and its customers, because email providers may use your actions to begin filtering this legitimate email as spam for others, who may not think it’s spam at all.

Don’t unsubscribe from emails that give you value

It should go without saying, but if you’re getting value from an email subscription, don’t unsubscribe.

If the emails are things you look forward to, or file away for future reference, or just generally read and value, that’s exactly what email mailing lists are for: putting value into your inbox.

Naturally, I hope you feel that way about The Ask Leo! Newsletter. :-) (But if you don’t … then yes, you should unsubscribe, using the link at the bottom of every message. Seriously, if you’re not getting value from my newsletter, I don’t want to bug you.)

My criteria

I’ve been doing this for a few days, and have developed a little bit of a sense for what appears to be valuable to me.


  • My friends’ mailing lists. As you might expect, I have a few entrepreneurial friends, and I subscribe to their work both to show support and to give them feedback they might not hear from less invested readers.
  • Email that I actually read. This falls into a couple of buckets: entertainment (like This is True, though that falls into the prior bucket as well), and business-related (a couple of CopyBlogger‘s lists are good examples). If I find myself reading them immediately, or saving them to read later and then actually doing so, then it’s a clear keeper.
  • Businesses I do repeat business with. Starbucks and Amazon contact me regularly, and that’s OK.
  • Most (though not all) non-profit organizations that I support.


  • Emails that are too frequent. I mentioned earlier a business that was emailing me daily with new and cool featured items. It hurt to unsubscribe, because they are indeed cool items … but I only have so many hours in the day.
  • Emails that I routinely discard. That’s a clue that I shouldn’t be getting them in the first place. Unsubscribe.

That’s just me; your criteria may be different. What I recommend is that you think about what your criteria should be. Then, during this busy holiday season, when all of these email sources are sending you plenty of reminders, evaluate each, and start unsubscribing.  In the midst of holiday chaos, here’s one arena in which you can have complete control!

Subscribe to Ask Leo!

I’d be remiss if, while talking about email subscriptions and unsubscribing from things, I didn’t mention my own newsletter – The Ask Leo! Newsletter.

I believe that my newsletter adds value by including lots of information, solutions to problems you might be experiencing, tips for using your technology more effectively, and strategies for staying safe online.

Subscribe, and give it a try.

If you find that it doesn’t add value, if you find you’re simply discarding it unopened each week, then unsubscribe. In fact, please unsubscribe. Like I said earlier, I don’t want to bug you. :-)

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15 comments on “‘Tis the Season … to Unsubscribe!”

  1. The biggest problem with unsubscribing is with institutions that ask you to reply to unsubscribe, rather than provide a link. I use different email aliases for each institution (including AskLeo) that are receive-only which are forwarded to my primary email account. Therefore if I I reply to unsubscribe it comes from my primary account, not the original alias, which is pointless!

    • I’ve not run into many of these any more. The ones that annoy me are the ones where you click a link and then you have to type your email address in again to confirm. Not only is that annoying (they know who they sent the email to, and thus they know who clicked the link), but I think it’s also against the CAN-SPAM legislation.

  2. I sorta disagree with one thing you say in the article. I believe an email from any company I’ve done business with who sends email without explicitly haven received my permission is spam. I generally mark those as spam and then unsubscribe. By definition it’s spam as it’s unsolicited, so I do my tiny part in letting the world know by marking them as spam and in extreme cases flagging them as spammers on WOT. One notorious example is an (in)famous discount airline who constantly sends promotions and even third party ads. A lot of companies believe they have the right to spam you just because you’ve bought something from them once.

    • According to the law in the US, at least, I believe they can send you email. But that same law says they must pay attention to the unsubscribe request. You may be doing others a disservice in marking those emails as spam (i.e. preventing people from getting email they want).

  3. I have a simple issue of unreasonable emails, they go to Spam, or Deleted items, I still use IE2K email and when Ella failed, I relied on Office 2000 and the Organize function. Works well. As long as you remember how to use it. MS makes nothing easy.

  4. I disagree with your point that you should not unsubscribe from spam. I used to get a ton of them, so at one point I started to unsubscribe, knowing that they would now know my email address was valid. But, there was a significant drop off in the amount of spam. Now I rarely get any spam.

    • What you are unsubscribing from probably isn’t full spam in the legal sense. It’s most likely unwanted email from legitimate companies. Many companies consider it fair game to send promotions to anyone who’s ever done business with them. Personally, It’s can still be considered spam as it is unsolicited email, but still not spam according to the law.

      • I agree Mark. If the “unsubscribe” link works then it is not really spam. Definitely use the unsubscribe button when it is not spam. Quite often people actually sign up for something, even double-opt in, then forget and turn around and call it spam. Not really fair to the legitimate businesses.

  5. I keep tabs on some companies I have unsubscribed from. This has allowed me to identify one business I have bought from once (like 50 years ago), and which stills spams me once a year. Proposing to unsubscribe.

    However, if you do, they still spam you one year later. Actually, they just want to know whether you were still alive and your address was valid.

    Last time they did this, I paid attention to the message “acknowledging” unsubscription. It said : “See you soon”, which, in retrospect, is a particularly vicious way to say : “You’ve been had, sucker, we’ll keep spamming you till you die”.

    Needless to say, I don’t plan to buy again from them — ever. But I’m sure they think they are smart. So I wrote a rule under Outlook 2003 to bin their “unsubscription” proposals as soon as they get in.

  6. This is a major problem. The big email providers micosoft, msn, hotmail, gmail yahoo etc all insist that web developers include unsubscribe links in email or else you get blocked. So spammers win again the major email providers need to get their act together when asking for unsubscribe links to enable inbox deliveries. I use dmarc on my servers and that appears to work better than unsubscribe links

  7. It’s definitely good to do an end of year cleaning. I often use birthdays as an occasion to unfriend people on Facebook that I really don’t know, like old school acquaintances I might have talked to once or twice in my life. It seems kind of mean, but when I get a birthday reminder and have to ask myself how I know this person, it’s time to rethink our FB “friendship”

  8. If you unsubscribe aren’t you just verifying that you are a legitimate subscriber and open yourself to even more unwanted emails?

    • That depends. If it’s a legitimate company, then unsubscribing is safe. If it’s spam, then unsubscribing will bring more spam.

    • If you try to unsubscribe from spam: exactly. That’s why you should:

      NEVER unsubscribe from spam
      ONLY unsubscribe from things that you explicitly asked for, or have a business relationship with


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