Ironic as it may sound, commercial e-mailers are jubilant about a new feature Microsoft's rolling out: an "unsubscribe" button.
The button is part of Windows Live, the beta service that will replace Hotmail in a few months. If it's as successful as many anticipate, expect similar changes at the other major ISPs.
Here's how it works: Windows Live account holders have begun to see the "unsubscribe" button replace the dreaded "report spam" button on messages that contain a valid unsubscribe link. When a person clicks the "unsubscribe" button, Microsoft forwards the request to the sender.
What's so great about inviting recipients to bail from your list? Lots of things, sender reputation being foremost among them. "Reputations are going to be calculated a little bit better," says Vertical Response's Janine Popick. "This reduces spam reporting."
Bluestreak's Eamon O'Neill sees another benefit to the program -- for ISPs. "I think this could lighten the ISP's workload. They could be getting a lot fewer spam complaints. Those complaints were tallied up by the ISP and forwarded to the marketers as complaints."
Unsubscribes aren't great, but they sure beat the current alternative: spam reporting. "This is one of those things like the invention of the light bulb. Every loves it," says Silverpop CEO Bill Nussey. "With the 'report spam' button, you're a spammer until proven innocent. With the 'unsubscribe' button, you're legitimate until proven a spammer. People don't trust unsubscribe links. So this is great news. Everybody wins. Why didn't we do this a year ago?"
Don't blame Datran Media CTO Josh Baer for that. Baer wrote the technical standard on which the "unsubscribe" button is based when he was still in grad school. Back then, he was a member of an e-mail list that contained an escalating number of queries from members trying to get off the list. "So I created a special header. It was encoded into every message; how to unsubscribe, how to stop it."
As far back as the FTC's Spam Forum, Josh was trying to get ISPs to adopt his idea. "They were always concerned about putting two buttons in [unsubscribe and report spam]," he says. "Microsoft solved that problem by instead of giving them two buttons, they just show you the 'unsubscribe' button, not the 'report spam' button."
A recipient who has the sender address in her address book is the prime determinant of whether the "unsubscribe" button will make an appearance on the page. "Now there's a real incentive for marketers to try to get put in the address book," Baer notes. Microsoft's Craig Spiezle, director of industry relations and business strategy, technology care and safety group, told me senders certified by ReturnPath's Safe Sender program may also merit the button on occasion.
I asked Spiezle what commercial mailers are going to have to do to get up to speed with the program. "They have two choices," he replied. "The right choice I would think, for them and their customers, would be to review that specification and put the correct header in their e-mail. Add an e-mail address so recipients can unsubscribe. We've looked at the issues and consumers being distraught and confused about how to get rid of [spam] and being told not to click on 'unsubscribe.' They've been reporting it as junk, but the mail keeps on coming and the marketers degrade their reputation." Generally, says Spiezle, this isn't spam per se, but "ham," or gray mail that's no longer relevant to the user.
As good an idea as the "unsubscribe" button is, I wanted to run a few what-if scenarios by Spiezle. What happens, for example, when publishers use dynamic sender addresses (as this publication does)? The domain stays the same, but everything before the "@" changes e-mail by e-mail (this does offer other advantages).
"As long as they have the information in the header, the information will get back to them," he confirms, but added that since these dynamic addresses cannot realistically be added to address books, the button wouldn't appear on these e-mail messages.
Domains can't be whitelisted, only complete addresses. So a very large marketer with multiple client touch points -- say a bank at which a single recipient had a credit card, an account, and a mortgage -- would have to carefully segment its lists and get multiple addresses into client address books. "This scenario would depend on how they'd segmented the mail going out," affirmed Spiezle. "This is only going to appear by design. And the design is only going to be active if it's a trusted or known sender."
Another wrinkle: when recipients hit 'unsubscribe,' the sender's address is automatically added to a block list. They'll never get mail from that sender again, not even an unsubscribe confirmation. This raises obvious hurdles if someone wants to re-subscribe (some people unsubscribe when on vacation, for example). Moreover, the recipient won't necessarily know the address is blocked for their account.
Can the button be exploited by worms, viruses, or spoofers who lift your unsubscribe code? Spiezle: "There are always extreme scenarios. For example, say I don't like ClickZ and I'm going to do a random address book attack. Yeah, that's possible. But that's something we'd put in the crimeware category of criminal or competitive intent. What we have to look at is balance of usability."
Bottom line: The "unsubscribe" button is coming, and overall it looks to be an overwhelmingly positive development. Sure, there will be a few stumbling blocks for senders, but once these initial problems are fixed, you'll likely be a better mailer in the end. Your e-mail service provider will help and has likely already been briefed by Microsoft.
And rest assured the other ISPs are watching. "There's a tremendous amount of collaboration," says Spiezle. "We recognize this problem is bigger than any one of us. Collectively we need to control this."
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Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.
March 19, 2014