One problem programmers and other geeks simply cannot code themselves out of is dealing with the beliefs and expectations of that most elusive demographic: everyone else.
Right this moment, there is a large group of well-intentioned small business owners that are trying to use MailChimp to deliver a newsletter. They aren’t particularly technical folks, and the emails are intended to round up some new paying customers. While they have made some effort to remove the emails belonging to people that aren’t customers for a reason, the tolerance for unsubscribe requests is just 1%. Even scarier, only 1 in 1000 recipients can click “Report as Spam” before the campaign is aborted and the sender’s account is placed under review pending a serious warning.
These entrepreneurs consider these email “blasts” an important part of their business strategy. Isn’t it bad enough that they have to pay to send out emails? They never used to have to pay, so why not just fire up Outlook and BCC 800 people? They aren’t spammers, after all; just people who have to send out marketing emails to all of the folks that haven’t paid them money in a while. And since they aren’t spammers, they won’t send out emails to people who are paying them — that would be unnecessary!
Hopefully you geeks haven’t gnashed away your molars reading this. You could use a dozen harsh analogies to demonize these “stupid newbies” that don’t get why what they’re doing is wrong. The abolition of slavery was likely viewed as a significant inconvenience to many former slave owners — a real pain in the ass! Morality and ethics change over time; anyone who watches Mad Men marvels at how backwards social norms were just 50 years ago.
We’re all going to be seen as dinosaurs someday soon. Discussions about the best Rails hosting strategy will seem as quaint and historical as watching videos of Douglas Engelbart demonstrating the mouse. Adaptation to a new way of doing things is not easy, and people will work very hard to maintain the status quo. If you’ve already made the switch — think Subversion to Git — that doesn’t make you’re better, smarter, or more entitled to respect.
Instead, it’s really just an opportunity to demonstrate your true colours. Will you help people do things better, or leave them in the cold?
Clean Up Toxic Spills
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: what is to be done with our unintentional spammer friends and their out-dated mailing lists? Can’t we let them do one last blast just for old times? It’s not actually illegal, is it? (Yes, it is.)
The ugly truth is that their lists are probably too risky to be of practical use. When you can only have 1% of your list unsubscribe, it means that you cannot use a service like MailChimp to clean up your list. They will shut your ass down, hard. You’ll get one warning, and that’s it. If you try to send the same emails through GMail, they will shut down your account. And if you attempt to set up your own mail server, your ISP will have something to say about it.
So how are they going to send out these emails? What’s the solution? They’re tired of hearing about RBLs and assassins and IP bans! They just want to email those legitimate future potential customers so they can go put the kids to sleep.
How Legitimate Marketers Can Prevent Spam Complaints
You know the answer already: they aren’t going to send those emails successfully. They might need this explained to them several times, but ultimately they don’t get to make up new rules just because they don’t understand what they’re doing wrong.
Someone in their position needs to start over from scratch using a double opt-in system, preferably making use of the excellent tools on their mail provider’s site. They must regularly prune their lists as customers move on. It’d be great if more internal systems used the API to remove old customers after 3-6 months, because ultimately there is no substitute for permission. If someone doesn’t remember signing up to your list, then you don’t have their permission to send stuff to them.
Ask Before You Blast
As geeks we need to do better at remembering how unintuitive, frustrating and nerdy this stuff seems to people who are just trying to get a job done. Making people feel stupid compounds the problem, because you’re probably not as subtle as you think you are. You might be great at poker, but chances are if you think someone is dumb, they can figure that out in no time flat.
Email is a privilege, not a right
If you go to any bookstore, there’s an entire section of online marketing titles that all encourage the reader to broadcast their sales message via email. It’s like cold calling, except you can do thousands of people at a time. Progressive marketers get it — or have moved on to Facebook and Twitter — but some of the bad apples genuinely don’t care about the ramifications of sending spam email. They need to generate sales, and if the conversion rate for spam is 1 in 10,000 then they’re just going to have to send a lot of emails. Those people aren’t just selfish, they’re criminals.
What of the accidental spammer, though? How do we break them of their regrettable bad habits? Can they be shown a better way?
With patience, people will learn to change how they perceive their relationship to email. The only folks they should be sending to are people who are customers that have specifically opted in — just buying something does not make it okay to email them forever. Furthermore, recipients should be getting actual newsletters, not a sales pitch. Harassing 1000 people might generate 4-5 orders, but it’s not worth getting your email account shut down to get them.
As it turns out, a genuinely interesting regular bulletin will reward the sender with highly engaged repeat customers that give good feedback and recommend your products to their friends.
In other words, you’re not looking for permission to advertise at them; you’re giving them a channel to communicate how much they love your products to each other. It’s constructive, it’s legal and it will make you more money with less hassle in the long run.