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How Not to Reduce Junk Mail

Recently, I’ve seen a few blog posts suggesting that a good way to reduce the amount of junk mail (spam) you receive is to filter out any e-mail that contains the word unsubscribe. It may seem like a good plan on the surface, but it’s really a bad idea in the long run.

Then why do people suggest this?

The CAN-SPAM act of 2003 ( requires senders of commercial e-mail messages to provide a mechanism for the recipient to opt-out of receiving future messages. The typical mechanism used in marketing messages is to provide an unsubscribe link somewhere in the message. The link leads to a page where the recipients can remove themselves from the list or modify their preferences as to what kind of messages they wish to receive.

Since the unsubscribe link is so ubiquitous, and since it’s not a real word (Did you know that?) and unlikely to show up in other types of messages, filtering out all messages containing this word seems like a great way to get rid of all commercial e-mails.

Here’s the problem . . . or problems:

If a message includes a way to opt-out, the sender is complying with the law. If you no longer want to receive their messages simply following the procedure (usually three clicks or less) will get you off their list. The senders who don’t provide a way to modify your subscription are the real “spammers”. You’re not going to get rid of them by filtering out unsubscribe because that word won’t be there.

E-mail lists are used for many different purposes. Most of it is marketing, in some form or another, but the value of the information provided varies from sender to sender. (Read: You might actually want some of those messages.) Filtering out all messages that include unsubscribe is a clear example of the old phrase, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Most e-mail marketing campaigns are tracked closely by the sender, to see how many were opened, and how many people modified their subscription. To the sender, a message that was auto-deleted by your mail program looks exactly like a message that simply went unopened. The marketers are going to re‑craft their subject lines, and tweak their sending times, and do other things to entice you to open their messages, but they’re not going to know why you didn’t open them. By using the mechanism to opt-out or modify your preferences, you’re sending the people responsible a clear message that they can use to improve the value of what they’re sending. It may not matter to you (since you’re no longer subscribed) but it may help out the rest of us.

Finally, if enough people start filtering out unsubscribe marketers will simply get wise and change the wording.

Try it

If you’re tired of receiving too much irrelevant mail, try canceling your subscription to a few lists and see what happens. Next week I’ll follow up with my experience removing myself from various e-mail lists, and we can compare notes.

If you want to receive some relevant e-mail messages, click the follow link at the bottom right of this page. (Once you sign up, you can, of course, “unsubscribe” at any time.)

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