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Why Retailers Actually Want You to Unsubscribe From Their Spammy Email Lists

Wooden "SPAM" stamp
Bill Truslow—Getty Images

Gmail made it easier than ever to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists sent by retailers that somehow got hold of your email address. So go on, unsubscribe. Marketers won't mind (much).

This week, a message posted by Google + explained that a change at Gmail makes it quicker and easier to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists. “Sometimes you end up subscribed to lists that are no longer relevant to you, and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun,” the note stated. To simplify things and save users time, Gmail is now automatically putting an “Unsubscribe” button at the top of the email, just to the right of the sender’s email address. Click it and those annoying emails you’re tired of deleting will soon go away (in theory at least).

Google made the case that the “unsubscribe option easy to find is a win for everyone. For email senders, their mail is less likely to be marked as spam and for you, you can now say goodbye to sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link.”

Not everyone is viewing the change in quite the same win-win light, however. Adweek described the Unsubscribe button as potentially “a huge blow to email marketers” because making it easier for people to unsubscribe will naturally result in more people unsubscribing. That means fewer people getting the messages of retailers, activist groups, and others that are constantly seeking ways to bolster their ranks of email list subscribers.

So this is awful for the retailers that rely on such lists to spread the word about new products and deals and thereby boost sales, right? Well, not necessarily. One email marketing expert told InternetRetailer.com that there’s an upside to the change at Gmail. On the one hand, yes, putting the Unsubscribe option in a more prominent position will put the idea into the heads of more subscribers and cause subscriber numbers to shrink. But Chad White, lead research analyst at the email marketing firm ExactTarget, said that the people who will utilize the quick Unsubscribe option are problematic subscribers to begin with. They’re the consumers who are most likely to complain about the emails and/or the company, and they’re more apt to categorize the emails as spam. Reporting an email as spam to Gmail is worse for the sender than unsubscribing, as it damages the sender’s reputation in the eyes of email providers.

“While marketers don’t want people to unsubscribe, that may be a better option than them hitting delete without reading an e-mail or hitting the Spam button,” said White. “This is the least bad option because it doesn’t hurt the sender’s reputation.”

Gmail’s Unsubscribe option has actually been around, but flying under the radar, for a few months. It was only just this week that the company introduced and explained it in a big public way. The development follows the much more significant innovation at Gmail last summer, when the service introduced a system categorizing emails into separate boxes for one’s Social, Promotions, and Primary messages. Retailers and marketers worried (and still worry) that the system segregates Promotions into an easy-to-ignore folder.

Yet as with the Unsubscribe button, some think there is an upside to Gmail’s categorization system. When the Gmail categories were introduced, Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru told us via email, “The segregation could actually be helpful because people can quickly scan in one place things that may/may not be relevant without having to hunt for personal emails in a sea of mixed clutter.” She also argued that the category system could help marketers reach a much more targeted audience, providing “a ‘destination’ for people that’s not unlike getting a pile of Sunday circulars.”

Now that it’s easier to unsubscribe, marketers can assume that the people who remain subscribed are more of a core group that find the messages relevant and appealing. In other words: They’re really great customers. “There are actually people who love marketing emails–that’s the reason they still stay subscribed to email lists in the first place,” said Mulpuru. “It’s very opt-in and self-selected.”

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