Gmail: Unsubscribes, Complaints and Engagement


Gmail reported in their blog this week that they have developed a way to provide their users with an opportunity to report spam and/or unsubscribe from emails they receive in their Gmail accounts. The article, titled “Unsubscribing Made Easy” is a positive change for Gmail, but still falls short of where most legitimate senders want to see.

Like many complaint feedback loops (also known as FBL’s) offered by a number of ISPs, Gmail’s new functionality is mostly a good thing. I applaud their effort, and it certainly helps when there is this cooperation and transparency in the sender/receiver relationship. It is better for everyone. This is why the Abuse Reporting Format was met with applause by senders when it arrived a few years back.

Here are the good parts. First, Gmail’s new feature provides the subscriber with a chance to mark a message as spam, which should allow Gmail to better filter their email. Second, in addition to the option to just report spam, the end user may also choose to “unsubscribe and report spam.” This second option apparently is just provided when Gmail deems the sender to be reputable. See the image below for an idea on what the subscriber sees.

Gmail Image






In his blog, Brad Taylor outlines the reasons Gmail pursued the development of this new feature.

“For those of you senders who are interested in this feature, the most basic requirements are including a standard “List-Unsubscribe” header in your email with a “mailto” URL and, of course, honoring requests from users wishing to unsubscribe. You’ll also need to follow good sending practices, which in a nutshell means not sending unwanted email (see our bulk sending guidelines for more information).

With an easy way to unsubscribe, everybody wins. Your spam folder is smaller, and senders don’t waste time sending you email that you no longer want.

Update (1:50pm): If you want to unsubscribe without reporting the message as spam, click “show details” in the top-right corner of the message, then click “Unsubscribe from this sender.”

It is this piece that leads me to a bit of concern on the implementation. If Gmail is doing their usual checks on authentication, reputation, content etc. to determine which senders are legitimate, why then force the end-user to either mark something as spam, or go through “show details” (which nearly no one will do) to unsubscribe? Why not also provide an unsubscribe button on the interface in addition to the “report spam” button?
I can understand why Gmail would forgo providing the email address back to the sender at the user’s discretion. However, even the FTC has a study showing that unsubscribing from spam doesn’t really lead to more spam. In the FTC’s 2002 study, they report that “In no instance did we find that any of our unique email accounts received more spam after attempting to unsubscribe.”

Gmail has the opportunity to educate their subscribers on legitimate and unsolicited email. Why not provide just an “unsubscribe” button for legitimate senders, and explain why they are doing it, rather than propagating the unfounded fear of unsubscribing?
Also, other ISPs have gotten around this privacy concern by not passing back the actual email address back to the sender. Many senders use other forensics to determine which subscriber complained so that this subscriber can be removed from the list.

Engagement Matters
We advise clients to look at all sorts of engagement metrics, and unsubscribes and complaints are equally as important as opens and clicks. When possible, I’d like to know the ultimate intent of the subscriber when they choose to get off of a list. I always say I’d rather have someone unsubscribe from my email than ignore me.

As for which email this is enabled for and which not, the folks over at Word to the Wise looked at this a bit deeper and do some testing. They found that:
“Conditions where the unsubscribe option is presented include:

  • The mail is authenticated
  • The sender has a good reputation
  • The email has a mailto: option in the List-Unsubscribe header
  • The recipients marks the message as spam”

Read more about their tests here or here

Either way, legitimate senders do benefit from this, but it is fun to dream of having both unsubscribe and report spam options available to subscribers.


– Chip House, Vice President, Industry & Relationship Marketing, ExactTarget

Chip is responsible for industry research and relations, and owns the targeted marketing programs that ensure the satisfaction and success of ExactTarget’s client base.  Chip also manages the teams responsible for marketing research, deliverability compliance, and privacy initiatives.  As an established industry leader, Chip writes regularly for online marketing publications and was named to BtoB Magazine’s 2005 “Who’s Who in B-To-B” for being a vocal proponent of legitimate commercial email. Chip brings 20 years of direct marketing and twelve years of internet marketing experience to ExactTarget.