Tag Archives: unsubscribe

The Techniques Behind Mail Client Unsubscribe Links

Of course, we’d all rather have no unsubscribes from our painstakingly crafted newsletters and promotional mailings, but you can’t please everyone, and having a recipient unsubscribe is vastly superior to having them mark your email as spam. In 2014, Google caused some furor in the Email marketing community when they announced the addition of an unsubscribe link that appears at the top of the email content. A few years down the road, we can see that the angst of many marketers was unfounded. Gmail wasn’t even the first email client to offer an automatic unsubscribe link. Microsoft started offering unsubscribe and block features in Outlook as early as 2010. We did some research, looking at a large collection of emails we’ve received to determine what criteria caused the ISP to show the unsubscribe link. There were inconsistent results, but one of the most significant factors is the List-Unsubscribe header.


One thing that should be included in your mailing—and is automatically inserted by most ESPs—is the List-Unsubscribe header. This provides a web link and/or a mailto address to use for automated unsubscribes. To see if your mailings have this, look at the header information, either by choosing to see the header or, in Gmail by choosing “Show original.”  In some cases, you’ll see this line followed by a “List-Unsubscribe-Post” line, which may contain the command: “List-Unsubscribe=One-Click” to further facilitate the unsubscribe.

In our research, most of the cases where the ISP showed the unsubscribe link the email included the List-Unsubscribe header. Since this is the main mechanism to provide an automated unsubscribe ability, it is unclear how Google and the other ISPs are determining the unsubscribe link when the header is missing, but we have seen some cases where this was done.

Using “Via” Sends

When the ISP displays that your domain is “via” some other domain, it generally means that you do not have your SPF records configured correctly. If your email is “via” another domain, there’s a good chance the unsubscribe link won’t appear. Take a look at these two From addresses:

direct domain

via domain

The mailing that was sent from the How-To Geek’s primary domain (howtogeek.com) has the unsubscribe link, while the mailings sent using a different domain (reviewgeek.com via howtogeek.com) does not. In our research, we found that none of the mailings sent via other domain addresses appeared with the unsubscribe links.

The Link’s Reputation Score

You can do everything right and still not have the unsubscribe link appear. In our research we were surprised to find many valid senders that didn’t have the ISP’s unsubscribe link. It wouldn’t make Google or some other ISP look good if the unsubscribe link they offered instead went to a phishing page. Email recipients should have confidence that clicking the link will be safe, but how does the ISP determine if the link provided as the List-Unsubscribe is valid? The answer is by using the same basic algorithms they have already applied to your sending to determine if the recipients want your email (your email Reputation score).

When the link does not appear, it is usually for one of these three reasons:

  1. The sender does not send enough email out to create a usable profile
  2. There is a problem with the sender’s IP information
  3. The sender is a known spammer.

If it’s the first, the problem should disappear as your email sending rates increase. If it’s the second, you may have some erroneous information in your setup. As for the third, it needs no explanation.

The World of Apple

Not surprisingly, Apple has created its own version of the unsubscribe button. On iPhones and iPads, these appear in the Mail program like this:

Apple unsubscribe

The Apple unsub link appears to be intended to make it easy to unsubscribe from newsletters and other list-based mailings. The Apple unsub link is not contingent on the sender’s reputation score, so you may get the unsubscribe notice on the iPhone, but not in Gmail on the desktop. As with the Gmail unsubscribe link, figuring out why and when it appears is difficult. The wording of the message suggests that it appears when it recognizes that an email has come from a mailing list, but we see plenty of emails that unquestionably are sent from email lists that don’t include this link.

Email Apps

Email apps handle things slightly differently again. In the Gmail and Yahoo apps, you’ll find unsubscribe as one of the choices in the “more options” menus.1 It won’t appear if your unsubscribe process uses a preferences menu or requires the subscriber to re-enter their email address.


Determining the conditions which will cause your email to appear in the ISP’s unsubscribe link can appear a bit arbitrary or illogical. The most important thing is to make sure you have the List-Unsubscribe header, and that the link works properly. Beyond that it appears to mostly be an issue of your good email reputation score, which is significant for many other reasons as well. Allowing recipients an easy way to stop receiving email they don’t want will help ensure good deliverability to the remaining engaged recipients.

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1. Unlike the hamburger menu, which everyone agrees on, this menu goes by several names. Apple prefers to call it the “more options” menu, while on Android it’s the “overflow” menu. Some sources call it the “meatball” menu, while others refer to it as the “dumpling” menu. Still, others go for the most literal description of the menu, referring to it as the “ellipsis” or “three-dot” menu.

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The Year in Email

Happy New Year
Here we are again. Another year has come and gone. As always, there was no shortage of email flubs this years and we’ve collected a few of our favorites. Interestingly, we saw fewer of the “Dear [customer name]” errors that used to plague email marketing. Either people have finally made sure that their name fields contain information, or they’re starting to use dynamic content more. Either way, it’s nice to see that one go away. We’ll start the list with the one thing that doesn’t appear to be going away: the inactive unsubscribe link and CAN-SPAM violations.

Don’t You Dare Unsubscribe

unsub failAfter receiving ten unsolicited emails in just a few days from a company pretending to be Dawgs—a purveyor of ugly sandals—I tried to unsubscribe. This is what I got. How much of this is the sender’s fault and how much is the fault of their ESP, I can’t say, but needless to say, all of their emails went straight to the spam folder.

Unsubscribe? Never heard of it!

no unsub
How do I count all the things wrong with this email? From the needless word breaks to the disconnect between the offer (car rentals) and the company offering the deal (North Hills Clothing), this email cries “spam” at every level. How it ended up in my inbox is beyond me. I never would have clicked on the unsubscribe link on such a suspicious email, but this one doesn’t even have an unsub link!

See, We’ve Got an Unsub Link. I Think…

inactive link
East Midlands Trains does a good job of providing their physical address, and it looks like they’ve provided an unsubscribe link, but click on that link and nothing happens. A look at the email’s source code show where the problem lies:

<a href=”<%unsubscribe_link_text%>” target=”_blank” style=”text-decoration:underline; color:#333333;”>How to unsubscribe.</a>

There should be an actual URL listed in this href. Somewhere along the line, the unsub link got screwed up. Whether this was the email’s creator typing it in and accidentally using the wrong number of percentage signs, or HTML that was copied verbatim from a different ESP is hard to say.

Click Here. Go ahead. I dare you.

spammerYou can click on that unsubscribe link all day and nothing will happen. This is an odd one. If you look at the email’s source code, you’ll find an unsubscribe link that works and a physical address (Royal Caribbean Cruises), but you won’t find either in the email when it’s opened. There is an unsubscribe, but the one that’s displayed is missing its URL. It’s a sloppy piece of coding that has the body copy closing before the final content. Add to all of this that the email supposedly comes from Amazon but clearly does not. This is either badly designed spam, or phishing or both.

We’re Experts!

white text errorThe above example is the bottom of the page on an email. Yes, that blank white area below the signup button is part of the email. At first it may look like the information required by CAN-SPAM is missing, but it’s there. The problem is that the sender decided to use a dark orange background image and set the overlaying type (the physical address and links) in white. This email looks fine as long as images are turned on, but not everyone turns the images on. When the images are off, you end up with a seemingly empty white space at the bottom of the email. This error is bad enough on its own, but this particular email came from another email marketing service provider. Out of professionally courtesy, I won’t name them, but the “Friendly From” in their sender line refers to them as an “Email Markeitng” (sic) service. As if all this isn’t enough, the mailing is filled with buttons asking readers to “Read More” or “Check It Out!” but none of these buttons are linked.

We Prefer to Call It…

sneaky unsubThis runs dangerously close to violating CAN-SPAM, which specifies that mailings must have a clear unsubscribe link. Here they’re trying to be clever. It didn’t help that clicking on the link went to an unsubscribe page that requires one to enter their email address. Guess which email went into the Spam folder?

Readability is So Last Year

GucciGucci likes to stay fashionable, but sometimes fashionable and readability collide. Pink and gold might be an interesting combination for apparel, but it makes a lousy combination in a text box.

Did You Say &⁠#38 or &⁠#48?

weird codingThis one confuses us. The HTML clearly shows that special characters labeled “&⁠#38” were inserted between each word in this headline. That’s the HTML code for an ampersand, but there’s no reason for for ampersands to appear between each word in the headline. The most likely cause is the code was copy and pasted from one program to another, leading to the insertion of this character for no good reason.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

bad buttonsIn the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty minor infraction, but it’s if you are going to make a table cell in your email look like a button, it’s better to put the <a> tags around the cell instead of the type. In this example, you’ll only activate the links by clicking directly on the type. Clicking within the boxes has no effect.

We’re a Real Company, Honest!

stock photosWe can’t tell whether or not the way the words “social media” run down the left side of the image is some misbegotten design idea (we think not), but the CanStock watermark on the image is unforgivable. If you plan to use an image, either pay for it, or create your own version (paying for it is usually cheaper). Sending out email like this makes a company look suspiciously like a fly-by-night affair. Marketing Knowledge Cloud isn’t such a company, but you couldn’t tell it from this email.

Even Alt Tags Can Be Wrong

bad code
This one nearly caused my brain to explode. You can see in the text I’ve highlighted in yellow that the HTML codes for the right and left curly quotes are displaying instead of the curly quotes. That might have been okay, except that below it on the right, another article on the same page is displaying curly quotes in the same content. It that weren’t enough, as soon as I choose “display images” the HTML code disappears. A closer examination of the code revealed that this text appears as part of a styled alt tag (for more on stylized alt tags see The Finer Points of Styled Alt Tags). The code for the right curly quote reads: “&amp;#8220;” which will display as “&⁠#8220;” which is the correct code for that curly quote. Either somebody really wanted this to look exactly wrong, or they got confused. The right curly quote on the headline to the Page-Turner article has a value of x201C, which works, but it is hexadecimal code instead of the more common HTML code. If I had to guess, I’d say that the two article were written and formatted by different people and then assembled in the newsletter. One of them knows more about HTML than most people, while the other needs to go back to class.

All Tests Are Not Created Equal

media query errorThis looks pretty bad doesn’t it? The code contains media queries to make sure the content adjusts its size across various devices. The problem is, it’s wrong. This screenshot was taken from an iPhone. The first table is behaving as it should, but then the rest of the email goes all cattywampus. We suspect the person that created this simply tested the responsive results by resizing the window on their browser—a kind of poor man’s test environment. If you do that, this email looks fine, proving that there’s no substitute for the real thing.

I Are An Expert!

Speaking of testing, here’s an email from a company that that specializes in providing testing environments for all the various browsers and phones. Either they missed one, or they decided that the Mail program in Microsoft’s Windows 10 wasn’t worth worrying about. Either way, this isn’t something a company whose raison d’etre is testing email should ever be guilty of (to prevent further embarrassment, we’ve removed the company’s logo).

I Heard You the First Time

Amazon errorAmazon likes to send out notifications about newly available movies and TV shows. We’re not sure what happened here, but suspect that the API call that was suppose to register that the email had been sent wasn’t receiving the proper information and decided to keep sending until it was told to stop.

There’s Always One More Typo

misspelled glassTypos are the bane of every writer’s existence. So what’s worse than a typo in your content? How about a typo on the actual product you’re selling. This glass, offered by Bourbon & Boots, has what should have been a clever quote by Mark Twain, but we’re sure Mr. Clemens knew the difference between “then” and “than.” This error has gone uncorrected for over a year now.

Hey Everybody! We Value Your Privacy!

GDPR goofWhen the GDPR came into effect, lots of businesses scrambled to make sure they were compliant. Sometimes, these efforts were counterproductive to say the least. One of the worst came from Ghostery, who sent out an email explaining the steps they’d taken to ensure GDPR compliance. Too bad the included everyone’s email addresses in the “To” field.

Did I Say Mail Merge Errors Were Gone?

mail merge errorPerhaps I spoke too soon. Just when I thought I’d see a year without mail merge errors, this one landed in my inbox. It’s such an easy error to avoid with the careful use of dynamic content.

Our Next Speaker: Wyatt Earp

dead speakerOne of the more amusing apologies came from b8ta—a tech gadget store than sponsors meet-ups with inventors and start-up founders. We’re not sure how you’d confuse Ben Holt with Ben Einstein, but we guess it could be worse: They could have announced that Albert Einstein was going to appear at the b8ta store instead.

Don’t Do This. Not Ever.

fake oopsApology emails have a higher open rate than other emails, so one can see why a marketer might want to use this to their advantage. But apologies are a serous thing and pretending to apologize for the sake of sales puts you just one step away from being labeled a spammer. Don’t do it.

Okay, that’s it for this year. We hope you enjoyed that. In the end, the lesson to be learned is always the same: Test, test, test.

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List Segmentation Landmines

But I've already unsubscribed!

Everything in email marketing starts with your list of recipients. How your particular ESP handles lists varies from provider to provider. Here’s a quick rundown of things to watch out for when you are working with list segments. A good understanding of the various models used to create lists will go a long way toward helping you avoid problems.

But I unsubscribed already!

A question frequently asked by email recipients is, “Why does a company keep sending me email after I’ve unsubscribed from their list?” It’s a good question, and the less tolerant respondents in the audience are apt to answer, “They are violating CAN-SPAM! Report and/or mark their email as spam!” While it is easy to understand the anger anyone feels upon getting more email months after unsubscribing, this time the marketer is not entirely to blame. They may be using an email marketing solution that creates separate lists for each segment. If you are faced with this problem, here’s a brief primer on how this happens and how to avoid it.

Here a list, there a list…

Let’s say you start with List A. This list has everyone who has opted in to receive your mailings on it. When a person unsubscribes from this list, they are immediately removed from all subsequent lists.

Start with a list...

So far, no problem. Now you create a second list (List B) as a segment of List A, and two more people unsubscribe from it. Everything seems to be in order, but because you are no longer working from your List A, the unsubscribes are only reflected in List B. We have two more unsubscribes, and as long as you are working from List B, everything is fine.

Create a new segment...

But if you go back to List A to create a new segment (List C), the two people who unsubscribed after the mailings from List B (outlined in red) are unpleasantly surprised to find they are back on your list. This time, they mark your email as Spam and all future email from you goes directly to the Junk Folder. In the meantime, another person has unsubscribed. Now you have three lists all with different unsubscribe information.

Create a third segment...

Pulling information in from other lists can further compound these problems. “I’ve got a great list in Excel on my computer,” someone might say. “Let’s use that too.” Unfortunately, this list has people who have previously unsubscribed from the other lists. Unless someone is riding herd over all of this, things can get pretty messy. Every time you create a new list and the changing from the various other lists are reflected in it, you run the risk of more and more people marking you email as spam. At a certain point, the ISPs start to notice this and move your email directly to the Junk folder for everyone.

Combining lists

Some ESPs solve this by treating every unsubscribe as a global action. In this way, the segments won’t matter. The problem with this approach is that sometimes you really do want to give people the opportunity to unsubscribe from a specific subset or topic. For instance, if you send out an email about an upcoming trade show, you may only want to target the people who have expressed a specific interest in trade shows. Any unsubscribes from a list like this shouldn’t be treated as global unsubscribes. They may still be interested in your products, just not in attending trade shows.

By the same token, the person doing the unsubscribing may, in fact, want to stop receiving email from you and their unsubscribe really is intended as a global action. Ideally your email marketing system should be able to offer a topic-level unsubscribe, a global-level unsubscribe, or both, all within the email, so recipients can make the choice that is best for them.

Unsubscribe Strategies

How your ESP handles segments, then, must be the determining factor on who you need to approach this issue. Ideally all segments pull their information directly from the master list, in which case, topically and globally unsubscribed recipients should automatically be removed from future distributions. However, if your ESP uses separate and distinct lists of recipients for segments, you’ll need to stay on top of those segment unsubscribes. Check with your ESP to see if they’ve provided tools for consolidating these lists, otherwise, you’ll need to handle it manually. Set up a schedule for checking and consolidating your lists. This isn’t even a best practice—CAN-SPAM requires you to honor your unsubscribes. If you don’t, technically, you are breaking the law.

Our solution

In case you’re wondering, yes, Goolara Symphonie does solve this problem. Our email marketing solution does not require you to generate separate lists. All recipient information is stored in a master database and the information is accessed as needed according to segment or “topic.” You can create as many different topics as you need, and these will all support both global and topical unsubscribes. You can create unlimited segments that target any recipient in the system based on any available criteria. Recipients who unsubscribe are automatically removed from any posting sent to that unsubscribe topic. To learn more about this process, or to see Goolara Symphonie in action, click here, or contact us at 1-888-362-4575

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The Great Unsubscribe Myth

Spam from Unsubscribing

A few months back, computer maven David Pogue wrote an article about finally getting over the fear of clicking the “Unsubscribe” button. “[T]he rule, for 15 years, has been: Never respond. Don’t even try to unsubscribe,” he wrote. “…You’ll wind up getting put on even more spam lists as a result.”

Pogue is one of the smartest journalists in the technology field. The fact that he would think that responding to an unsubscribe link might cause you to get more email just goes to show how pervasive this myth is. And make no mistake about it: it is a myth.

Just to make it clear, I’m not talking about the obviously questionable messages that continue to fill our junk folders every day. There is no profit in sending any kind of message back to someone who is trying to sell you Viagra or nude pictures of  Russian models. You shouldn’t respond to one of these anymore than you should engage in conversation with the guy selling “Rolex” watches on the street. I’m talking about the email you receive as the result of some online action, be that purchasing a laptop, or signing up to receive a whitepaper. Painting these emails with the same broad strokes does a disservice to them, and, in the era of the CAN-SPAM Act, is patently wrong.

The story started in the early days of email, when, every time you tried to unsubscribe from an email, twenty more unwanted emails showed up in your inbox. “Don’t ask to be removed from a junk-mail list,” wrote Amy Harmon in the New York Times back in 1998. “…Some of them may actually remove you. But many more appear to simply take the reply as confirmation that they can continue to reach you there.” Ms. Harmon doesn’t really explain what she means by “junk-mail list,” nor does she attempt to distinguish between legitimate business email (those ones that honored the request to be removed from a list, I suspect), and the spammers. Back then, unsubscribes were accomplished by replying with “unsubscribe” in the subject line. While there may be a few legitimate businesses that still handle unsubscribes in this fashion—although, frankly, I’d be suspicious of any that do—most email marketing today uses an unsubscribe link that takes you to a page where you can opt to stop receiving email from that source.

The different email marketing service providers handle unsubscribes in their own ways. Some require a double opt-out. As a rule, we don’t recommend this technique. A double opt-in is put in place to make sure the recipient really wants to receive that email from you and the recipient knows it. A double opt-out, on the other hand, is seen as a nuisance, and actually may qualify as a violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. Others require the recipient to re-enter their information, even though all of this information could easily be included in the link. Some go to the other extreme, automating the entire unsubscribe process so that clicking the link  is all it takes. We don’t recommend this approach either. It is too easy to accidentally unsubscribe, and people might not bother resubscribing after that. The best approach is to take the recipient to an email page where they can unsubscribe with one click. If they accidentally clicked the link (or, the person to whom they forwarded the email clicked it in error), they have the opportunity to leave the page without changing anything. Some sites includes short surveys to help them understand the cause of the unsubscribe. This is fine as long as it is optional. Force a recipient to wade through a survey and they will simply go back to their inbox and mark that email as spam.

In 2003, the CAN-SPAM Act made it a law that clicking on those unsubscribe links will actually do what they say, and yet, the Unsubscribe Myth persists. Many people will tag email as spam—even though they agreed to receive it—simply to stop getting it. There is a misperception that tagging an email as junk is a better way to stop receiving unwanted email than clicking the unsubscribe link; that somehow this bypasses notifying the sender. If that were true, it would be very easy for anyone to scuttle another company’s email efforts with just a few clicks. If a recipient tags an email as spam, any ESP worth its salt will know about it immediately and will take steps to ensure that that this doesn’t affect a company’s email deliverability. Nonetheless, clicking Unsubscribe is still the preferred way to eliminate email you no longer want. Flagging an email as spam if best done only if the sender doesn’t respect an unsubscribe request. It’s nice to see that David Pogue finally realizes this. Hopefully, others will follow.

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