No, I will not add you to my whitelist

I am so sick of companies that scream about adding their addresses to my whitelist so they can get through my spam filters. Here’s one example from Hewlett Packard:

To ensure you properly receive your HP Technology at Work newsletter, and driver and support alerts, please add to your book. If you also receive the following e-mails from HP then add these addresses to your book:

  • HP Monthly promotions newsletter:
  • Events and other general HP customer communications:
  • Order and support e-mail confirmations:

I have news for the corporate zombies and clueless marketdroids that design these sites and their e-mail bots:

If you’re getting caught in my spam filter, it’s your own damn fault!

Today’s spam filters are very, very good at recognizing spam and distinguishing it from desirable e-mail. If your messages are getting stuck in spam filters, that’s because they’re spam! Just because you think they’re not spam, doesn’t mean they aren’t.

Of course, like everything else, spam is not a binary quality. It is not the case that messages either are spam or are not spam. Rather most messages are a combination of spam and non-spam to greater or lesser degrees. For example, most e-mail signatures including my own contain a little bit of spam. Hopefully the ham in the top of the message is sufficient to make the tiny little ads I put for my books in the signature acceptable.

However, most e-mails sent by corporate systems are really over the top. Instead of being 1% spam and 99% ham, they’re 50% spam or more. Is it any wonder they keep getting caught in people’s filters? However, there are some really simple things a company can do to keep its messages from being marked as spam:

  1. Provide real e-mail addresses on your web site, not contact forms. Replies that come from an address in my outbox are a lot less likely to be marked as spam. (This also helps me keep a better record of our conversations.)
  2. Send plain text e-mail only, not HTML. Of course this means you can’t have all the flashing, colorful ads you like; but guess what? Those are spam!
  3. Remove all pointless legal notices from the messages such as “BLOCKBUSTER name, design and related marks are trademarks of Blockbuster, Inc. ©2006 Blockbuster, Inc. All rights reserved.” or “Copyright © 2006 Apple Computer, Inc. 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014 All rights reserved”. Your customers and correspondents don’t care about these messages and don’t read them. They’re effectively meaningless anyway. Get rid of them.
  4. Only send the customer what they asked for. Do not treat a tech support incident or a forgotten password request as an opportunity to upsell. That’s spam.
  5. Require separate opt-in for all marketing newsletters. Not only should you not default a customer to receiving your marketing spam when they buy something from you. You shouldn’t even ask them if they want to. Only send marketing spam to customers who specifically ask you to do that, separate from a purchase or other communication.
  6. Stop using form letters. If a customer writes you with a personal question or comment, have a real human being type out the response manually. And under no circumstances should you send purely automated responses that say, “We think this answers your question. If it doesn’t, write us back; and maybe we’ll ask an actual person read your message this time.”)

If you follow these simple rules, your mail will fly through most spam filters. (The only exceptions are the truly obnoxious ones that require someone to confirm sending a message before it’s let through.)

I’m sure many companies will complain that they can’t do this; but what they really mean is that they don’t want to do this. It will cost too much. All of these improvements make life easier for the customer. All of them make life harder for the corporation. Thus it’s really a question of whose interests come first. A lot of companies say they’re customer-focused, but who really is? Who walks the walk and who only talks the talk? How much spam a company sends with every message is a really good way to find out.

13 Responses to “No, I will not add you to my whitelist”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    As someone who used to make (part of) his living sending people mail who (a) had a contractual relationship with my employer and (b) had specifically requested the employer’s product (medical news) on an individual basis, I must regretfully say that points 2, 3, and 6 are not realistic. I completely agree with your other points.

    Sending HTML is a practical requirement. In order to keep the mailings down to one a day for everyone’s sanity, we provided two formats: one in which each individual news item is an attachment, and one in which the whole mailing was a single HTML attachment, with a simple table of contents containing clickable links at the top. Except for people who were ripping the attachments directly into a database, *everyone* wanted the HTML version. It’s a lot easier to use, given the corporate email programs (Outlook, chiefly) that most people have to use at work.

    As for failing to use copyright or trademark notices, that’s ridiculous. Content is a product, and a valuable one. Do you routinely leave the copyright notices off your books because the readers don’t bother to scrutinize the copyright page? Of course not — I’ve checked. And failure to proclaim one’s trademarks can lead to losing them.

    Lastly, most customer problems are organized into very distinct classes. For a year and a half, I responded to every customer complaint that organization got, personally. I typed out each and every one. Do you know how tedious that is? Over and over again, explaining that news files are only guaranteed available for download for 24 hours, and after that you have to request them by hand. Or the structure of the zipfiles that you get if you do make a request for old news. Or the reason why someone who has bought access for 10 users can’t add an 11th user onto the system. Or the fact that a customer isn’t getting any news because their subscription has expired and the money people haven’t bothered to pay, despite being individually pursued by the sales force to renew.

    Eventually in self-defense I wrote about 25 little texts and pasted them into email replies as needed; one of those texts was the one explaining that email is not a reliable delivery mechanism (which is why we provided news by download as well) and strongly suggesting that the recipient make sure his employer’s spam filters aren’t knocking our emails out. If the volume had gone any higher, would I have put all 25 texts into a FAQ and sent that FAQ to all first-level complaints? You bet I would.

  2. Paul Clapham Says:

    And beyond pointless legal notices is this one that’s attached to every single e-mail coming from my company’s auditors:

    “Any disclosure, copying, or distribution of this message, or the taking of any action based on it, is strictly prohibited.”

    The auditor I was dealing with was quite taken aback when I explained why I couldn’t respond to any of her requests that she e-mailed to me.

  3. Laszlo Marai Says:

    Whitelisting is also pointless because if people start whitelisting big companies like HP then spammers will fake those addresses in the from field.

  4. Pinner Blinn Says:

    Have to disagree with John Cowan about HTML mail being a “practical requirement”. Just about every email tool will make URLs clickable in plain text email. I get plain-text summary mailing from a number of vendors and am quite satisfied. Plain text rules!

  5. Marcus Says:

    The little legalese that is at the bottom of emails isn’t necessarily meaningful anyway. Lawyers love you to include them, but really there is nothing binding you to their terms by themselves. Just because I send you an email that says “You must send me $5.00” doesn’t mean that you really have to. Unless you have a previous contractual agreement with me, that little tag line at the bottom doesn’t stop me from doing anything. That’s not to mention the fact that unencrypted email isn’t confidential by any stretch of the imagination.

    This is why financial firms (at least all I have ever dealt with) have their own online message center built into their website. The most email you get is something to the effect of “You have a new message in the *BankName* message center”.

    As far as copyright, if people really want to include a copyright claim, why not add it as a header? It could be a simple “X-Copyright: 2006 – Company name. All rights reserved.” This would protect the author (if it’s even needed for plain text in the US) as well as make it as unobtrusive as possible.

  6. John Cowan Says:

    Pinner Blinn, I was too elliptical, and I too like plain text and automatic linkification. The “clickable links” in question were to later parts of the same message: they were relative links like “#story23”. Readers could scan the headlines at the top of the message, click on one, and be jumped down to that story; at the end of the story was a “back to the top” relative link. When there are 25 stories in a single email, of which any given reader cares about five at most, this is the only way to stay sane.

    And some people would subscribe to 10-15 of these things, which makes the other obvious idea, one email per story, hopeless. Nobody wants a flood of 250 emails in one day from a single vendor.

    As for the X-Copyright header, Outlook ruthlessly discards all headers it doesn’t understand. A copyright notice has to be findable (not necessarily easy to find, just findable) or it’s no notice at all.

  7. Avor Says:

    Cool site!

  8. Jon Eastwood Says:

    I agree with Laszlo. If you are going to whitelist companies like HP the spammers are bound to fake those addresses in the from field.

  9. air Says:

    I know some tech available in the market today which ask to confirm the security code after they sent out their messages, once the receivers accept the messages, this can ensure no spam messages anymore, as each and every new message require the sender’s confirmation.

  10. Kevinpan Says:

    I agree Air said..
    The spammers is very very mailbox got about 30-50 mails ,80% is spam mail..
    I have spend many time to delete them .Some time I deleted my userfull infomation.becouse I’ll it’s a spam mail..

  11. What is Spam? Says:

    You can’t really expect companies to ditch the legalese in each email footer. It offers them legal protection. _You_ may not find it interesting, but it’s necessary to cover one’s ass legally.

  12. Jimminy Says:

    I agree with most, except for 1 and 3, as follows.

    1) You don’t want your email harvested off the internet, why should companies want their email harvested? That is not realistic.

    3) Blame the lawyers. Blame the courts. Blame the juries. But in a country where, if someone causes you harm by stealing your stuff, and the “system” decides that you cannot hold them responsible because you “didn’t make a significant effort” to inform them that they shouldn’t steal it, you can count on it being there. Next time you’re on a jury where someone is looking to get paid big because they got hurt robbing someone, be careful where you allow the liability to fall.

    But what happens when you sign up for an account somewhere, yet the confirmation email gets caught in your spam filter because there is a line in the mail like “Your account at” and a line like “Click to activate”. I’ve seen it happen. If you think that “most spam filters” are a decent judge of character, you are mistaken. Spammers will adopt whatever mechanism gets their crap through the most. It’s all dollars to them. Believe it or not, people actually try to buy the products – the fake pills, the enhancers, the whatever. It may only be 2%, but 2% of millions is still lots of thousands.

  13. Spuddy Says:

    “Provide real e-mail addresses on your web site, not contact forms.”

    That’s not a real suggestion is it? You’re kidding right?
    If anyone provides a “real” email address on a site then that is going to guarantee THEM spam and THAT is why web designers are recommending contact forms to their clients.
    What’s wrong with contact forms? you use them the first time, you get a reply via email you then have the address to carry on communicating. Where’s the problem?