Wanted: standardized behavior for email list unsubscribe

I subscribe to a lot of email lists. I mean, a lot. In addition to the lists I’ve opted in to, there’s the grey area of lists I “joined” (or was added to) without much conscious effort on my part, e.g. because I filled out a petition, went to a conference, or bought something.

Email is my life, so I have to keep my inbox organized. That means a lot of filters and folders, tagging, and flagging as read/unread. I also use plus-addressing, which sometimes (when people share my address) means stuff ends up in funny places.

Bottom line: I do a lot of subscription management (subscribing, unsubscribing, changing my address, changing subscription options, etc.). And I’ve noticed that methods for subscription management are quite varied.

  • Sometimes there’s a link, sometimes there’s a reply-to address, sometimes there’s both, and sometimes there’s neither.
  • When there’s a link, sometimes it requires logging in (usually with a password I don’t remember), and sometimes it doesn’t.
  • Sometimes there’s a confirmation email, and sometimes there’s not; sometimes I have to reply to confirm, and sometimes I don’t.
  • Sometimes it simply says “click here to unsubscribe”, sometimes it says “click here to manage your subscription preferences”, and sometimes it says some other variation.

All in all, it’s not very standardized. (In fact, about the only thing that is standardized is that, when there’s information on how to unsubscribe, it’s usually at the bottom of an email.) That means more time figuring out how to make it do what you want.

There are actually some standards here. CAN-SPAM sets some requirements (although U.S. law only applies in the U.S., and there are questions about enforcement, to say the least). I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s also some RFC or other standard that exists — but if there is, it doesn’t seem to be followed significantly.

This shouldn’t be that hard. It’d save consumers a lot of grief (and, thus, senders — how many times have you seen a message posted to a public list, “Please remove me”?). Another motivation for senders to develop and apply the standard: they could use it as evidence that they’re “doing something” about spam (e.g. for PR purposes and to ward off further regulation). So can we get some of the major players in list software/e-mail marketing (e.g. Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, Mailman, L-Soft, Wired for Change, Lyris, Constant Contact, etc.) to sit down, maybe along with public interest groups like CAUCE or CIPPIC, and develop some standards? Then we can go about getting marketers to agree to use the standard — maybe something along the lines of the TRUSTe seal.

I’m not saying there should be only one way to do this. But if we can standardize the look and function, it’ll make things easier. Hopefully, we can also root out some of the more annoying practices (e.g. requiring login to unsubscribe).

Finally, maybe it could even use email headers, or something more than just text. Then we start moving toward semantic email, with the possibility for embedding functionality in client software.

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