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I could just unsubscribe from your mailing list, but I’d rather be a jackass

on September 23, 2010

Do you like to be personally insulted?

Do you like to have the validity of your business practices questioned?

If this describes you, then you must start your own mailing list. It’s the only form of broadcast communications I know of where people have no problem attacking you for what they believe to be an uninvited invasion of their personal space, the sanctity of their email address. I wrote about a similar case of this behavior, that was instigated by a simple mistake, in the article Social media “gurus” and bloggers are egotistical jerks.

While receiving “How dare you put me on this mailing list” emails is not a common occurrence, I and others have suffered the fate of receiving such anger-induced messages that attack our character, health, and the way we do business. In the following cases, all had followed proper email list building procedures. We only added people for which we had developed a business or personal relationship, exchanged business cards, or that person opted into a mailing list form on our websites. On our marketing emails themselves, all of us had easily visible UNSUBSCRIBE buttons that would have removed the person from the mailing list as quick as this:


It takes just a moment to press -CLICK-, but hitting REPLY and responding with a wave of vitriol takes much longer. And here are some tales of people who took that special time.

Hidden sadistic behavior triggered by an e-newsletter

Andra Watkins, a consultant for POSITUS Consulting, received a scathing response from a former temp staffer who used the receipt of Watkins e-newsletter as an excuse to insult Watkins and question her intelligence. Although Watkins was suspect of the former temp, she had thought their working relationship had ended amicably.

“Veiled lack of respect in personal interactions often masks total lack of respect in cyberspace,” said Watkins, “Where a person can feel like they can ‘say anything’ without dealing with the hurtful consequences of their words, even though those words can be forwarded around forever.”

Being online is all about communications and relationships, but not with you

For my work I meet and interview a lot of people. I take copious notes about all my relationships and I exchange a lot of business cards. One person who I interviewed for a video piece responded with outrage after receiving one of my newsletters and demanded that I unsubscribe him. He could have just clicked the unsubscribe button himself, but I did it for him. I also reminded him that we had met at a conference two weeks ago where I had interviewed him on camera. Just one week prior to the email newsletter I sent him a personal follow up email with a link to the finished video. He was not impressed. He viewed all my attempted contacts with him as spam and that I hadn’t properly asked about ongoing communications with him.

Flash forward a year later, I’m sitting at a conference and this guy is now on a panel talking about his new company that builds fan pages and Facebook engagement with companies. He was going on and on about how important it is to foster personal relationships with people online. The irony was obvious and sure I wanted to say something publicly, but I didn’t. I simply took note and will never recommend his company. Forget engaging on Facebook, this guy didn’t know how to handle simple polite discourse.

I’ll get you and I’ll track you down or maybe I won’t

Like in my previously mentioned posts about social media “gurus” and bloggers being egotistical jerks, certain micro celebrities like to throw their micro weight around. By taking down a single individual with a targeted attack it makes them feel a lot better. So why shouldn’t they do it?

Such was what happened to Lisa Jey Davis, PR Principal of Jey Associates. She sent a targeted story pitch to an appropriate group of media professionals. Some responded positively, some ignored the message, and one responded, “Shame on you for this shameless plug for an egotistical client.” He then threatened to “block her, and track her through all of their online systems.” What exactly that meant, who knows. It was a lot of hot air as Davis never experienced any repercussions.

Similarly, Erin Deighan had a list for local musicians and was threatened by one who demanded, “Take me off this list! I did not give you permission to write to me. Stop spamming me or I will sue you.” No lawsuit. In the end it was easier just to unsubscribe, and it doesn’t require the services of an attorney.

I don’t think you realize that I’m bat sh*t crazy

Colleen Lloyd-Roberts didn’t realize what she was getting into when a man who received one of her marketing emails called angrily to complain about a link in the email not working for he and his wife who also received the e-newsletter. The broken link angered him so much that he said he was reporting Roberts to a particular web service and having her website shut down the next day. Even though the link was working fine Roberts offered to unsubscribe the man and his wife manually if he would just tell her the email addresses. He refused. So she said they could unsubscribe next month when they receive next month’s email.

The following month the threats continued via a protected email address. He spewed off a series of random laws and regulations and said a lawsuit was imminent. Roberts’ husband tracked the guy down on Facebook and discovered the guy had a gun permit with special shooting privileges. The situation had now officially become scary. So Roberts goes to the sheriff to get a restraining order on him. Turns out the guy owned a construction company and had come to Roberts’ house to provide an estimate and gave her his wife’s card.

Why do some people respond to e-mail marketing with such anger?

I believe there are two different situations happening here.

First, people will often project a past negative experience upon the next person. It’s kind of like when a boyfriend or girlfriend projects their previous relationship’s baggage on you. You just happen to be the next companion and your mate didn’t get the opportunity to vent on the last one. So you have to suffer now and take the bullet.

My second rationalization for this type of behavior is that some people are just a-holes.

Want to join my mailing list and not attack me?

I invite you to sign up for the Spark Notes* e-newsletter. Twice a month you get a short newsletter packed with valuable media goodies. Take a look at the latest newsletter. If you’re interested, please just fill out the form below, and you’re welcome respond, compliment, disagree, or unsubscribe at any time. If you do unsubscribe, please just click the link and leave it at that. The insulting commentary won’t be necessary.



Creative Commons photo credits to Toby Bradbury, Neil Abbott, and Gregg O’Connell

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon September 23, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I think the issue is one of consent.

Subscribing to a mailing list via an actual 'subscribe' button, buying something from you where the terms say “we will add you to our list”, etc – all fine.

Handing you a business card is not consent to being put on a list. Doing business with you such that you go look up the person's email address and add them – not fine either.

Yes, you can just click the unsubscribe button but that doesn't do anything to discourage the behavior. I can't comment on *how* other people have communicated to you personally on the matter but I think this kind of behavior deserves pointing out rather than letting it go unchecked.

I would be upset and pissed if you added me to a mailing list because I gave you my card.

Marketing today is something you opt into, not out of.

David Spark September 24, 2010 at 3:36 am

Have you felt compelled to “teach someone a lesson?” And why do you feel so much that you're in the right? Also, do you think they'll actually learn something if you take action in an impassioned negative way?

What do you think is the best way to get your point across and have someone adhere to it? I'm asking seriously.

Angelan September 24, 2010 at 4:19 am

What is so difficult to get about consent? Perhaps email and ask if they would like to be added. That said I would like to get on your list. Please add;)

David Spark September 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm

The sign up form is right there at the end of the article. :)

Jigsaw Renaissance September 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I give my card to people I want to make a personal connection with. I am fully capable of signing myself up for newsletters for which I am interested – your doing so for me is insulting and intrusive.

You remember the talk which was given at Gnomedex, about how we give up our privacy in exchange for free stuff? I didn't give up my privacy when I handed you a card – I made a contact. I send people I have business cards for individualized follow-up e-mails. My e-mail to you got no response, but I was subscribed to a marketing list based on the card of mine you had. See the difference?

Yes, I could just unsubscribe with a click. Or I could call you out for being socially inappropriate so that, perhaps, our norms (and laws) will change, and we won't have to put up with this. The web at large is public space – post what adverts you want, but my inbox is *mine*.

I'm not the asshole here, sorry.

Willow Brugh September 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I give my card to people I want to make a personal connection with. I am fully capable of signing myself up for newsletters for which I am interested – your doing so for me is insulting and intrusive.

You remember the talk which was given at Gnomedex, about how we give up our privacy in exchange for free stuff? I didn't give up my privacy when I handed you a card – I made a contact. I send people I have business cards for individualized follow-up e-mails. My e-mail to you got no response, but I was subscribed to a marketing list based on the card of mine you had. See the difference?

Yes, I could just unsubscribe with a click. Or I could call you out for being socially inappropriate so that, perhaps, our norms (and laws) will change, and we won't have to put up with this. The web at large is public space – post what adverts you want, but my inbox is *mine*.

I'm not the asshole here, sorry.

Guest September 24, 2010 at 7:46 pm

An interesting post.

But if you're writing a list of “Why did this person react negatively to me?” reasons you need to include “Maybe I was in the wrong this time.” And if that's not something you ever consider, you need that option more than most.

Youre Kidding September 24, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Just because 1), we did business or 2), you were handed a business card, is not justification to add my email address to any marketing list you do. You can redefine marketing any way you want but that doesn't change that it's marketing. If someone opts in (by asking to be included in email marketing) have at it. You don't get to define opting in as items 1 and 2 above.

Sure, I could unsubscribe but, in the era of people passing email addresses around like commodities, I think it's reasonable to speak back to those that misuse this form of communication for their own purposes. Silently unsubscribing, if that really works all the time, doesn't communicate that it is an unacceptable practice. It's like taking two steps sideways from someone who is stepping on your foot or bumping into you.

It's better to say, “hey, please stop that!”

Now they can get all offended but, if this doesn't sound too childish so as to make the message missed, *they* started it.

As to people being rude to you? It would be nice if people wouldn't be so vile but, as patience wears thin with what is perceived as a continuous rude marketing tactic and intrusion into *our* email boxes (my space, no doubt about it — mine), it's not reasonable to expect politeness *all* the time.

btb September 24, 2010 at 9:03 pm

If you were any kind of marketing guru, you'd take a hint from your potential customers and quit using their email addresses in ways for which you haven't been granted permission. These are prospective clients, but I doubt they'll consider doing business with you after you've called them a jackass.

Qnonymous September 24, 2010 at 9:28 pm

While the CAN-SPAM act doesn't specifically prohibit adding to your list the email of someone who contacted you about an unrelated subject, it's generally assumed that if someone wants to read your pitch/spam/newsletter they'll specifically opt-in.

The point, ultimately, is that simply meeting you once does not count as an opt-in.

Just because you're provided with contact information, doesn't mean you should use that information to sell whatever you're selling.

David Spark September 25, 2010 at 4:20 am

Ah, great anger everyone. Excellent.

The unfortunate reality is that you're in a very severe minority when it comes to mailing list outrage, but you're definitely in the majority when it comes to outrage on this post. These kinds of backlashes are far from common. I and the others I spoke to can count on one hand the number of times these types of angry responses have happened. I posted them here more for their humor rather than to show that they're a representative sample. They are less than .001% of all subscribers. When has that small of a community voice drastically changed your decision to do anything?

But as you have all shown you're a very vocal minority here. When I wrote this piece for Mashable, “12 Great Tales of De-Friending” ( two years ago I learned that everyone has a very clear personal definition as to how their communications and social networks should operate. When someone crosses that line (e.g. “That type of communication is for MySpace not Facebook”), a line that only the individual knows, then there's the moment of de-friending.

Willow Brugh September 25, 2010 at 12:35 pm

We're in a minority of people you're whole demographic, but we are those who are *vocal* and willing to fight back, not a sum total of those who do not like your techniques. How many people simply unsubscribe or filter your newsletter our of their way? Those who are willing to respond to affronts will always be a minority.

The condescending nature of your reply makes me realize that this is not worth my time any longer. I'll post my overview of social media marketing and your gender-biased reviews on my own blog. You're welcome to attempt participation there.

David Spark September 25, 2010 at 3:00 pm

No matter how popular one becomes there will always be detractors. Even people like Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears who have millions of followers on Twitter still have people unfollowing them all the time. The reason they don't react to the unfollowers is it's such a small fraction of the greater whole. I wrote about this in another piece entitled “When technology tells us we have no friends” (

I hear all of you in your anger, and you've found this post, designed initially to be humor, as a springboard for your anger about not being personally invited to the many mailing lists that you're on. In the examples that I used, all the people had met or conversed with the person in person or electronically. While they had communications, and they weren't a random person being spammed, you still all voiced your desire to opt-in and be asked before you're put on a mailing list. You, like I, are probably on a lot of mailing lists in which this is the case. I would say 90% of the mailing lists I'm on happen that way. You're probably in the same boat.

As for unsubscribers, according to my own experience and others that I spoke to, that again is a fraction of a percent. Again, I hear your anger, but let me ask you when does a fraction of a percent's voice whether passive or active cause you to change your decision on anything?

Let me provide a suggestion for all of you who are angry on how to be heard more than you are currently.

Talk to all the mailing list providers. Start with the biggest ones, such as Constant Contact, and ask them to amend their policies on how names can be added to an email marketing list. Ask that they require a verbal or electronic opt-in for all contacts specifically asked to be on the mailing list.

If you do this, let me know. If you don't think this is the solution, let me know what you think is. If you take any divisive action outside of commenting on this post or sending back a nasty retort to somebody's mailing list, I will be unduly impressed.

Ellis October 18, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Wow! You're post and comments are proof that people really can justify anything. Even though you're getting consistently negative feedback about this, and even though people keep making the same very rational point crystal clear to you, you keep dodging the message.

The bottom line is this: if you want to respect your customer's privacy and intelligence, then give them the option to subscribe and let them choose whether that works for them or not. If you care more about your profits than your customer's wellbeing, then yes, spam them all you want. In the end I think you will lose. What I see more and more in this internet age, is businesses operating with the coda, “Don't be evil” rise to the top (and have more fun getting there).

And yes, what you're doing is called “spamming”. The definition of “spam” on Wikipedia is “unsolicited or undesired email messages”. Period.

You are also ignoring another crucial fact: that you're not the only person sending this kind of spam to people. Many people are doing it. So it's not just a simple click to unsubscribe, as you describe it. It requires a constant maintenance to stem the tide of unsolicited marketing hype that pours relentlessly into our inboxes. And you're surprised by people's anger?

In this day and age when software companies and website developers acknowledge the value of each mouse click, and are constantly striving to reduce the number of clicks needed, to streamline their product and make it more user friendly, your blithe nonchalance about forcing people to stop what they're doing and unsubscribe from your spam is a willful kind of ignorance. You offer a threadbare justification of actions which disrespect others. Why? Because they appear to benefit you.

You also miss another important point. A lot of spammers like you continue to send marketing emails even after we've unsubscribed. The standard practice seems to be merely to hold off spamming for a few months when someone unsubscribes, and then resume spamming again after some time has passed. I even created a special folder for spam that I've unsubscribed from after I started noticing, “Wait, didn't I already unsubscribe from this, like, 6 months ago?” I couldn't always remember, but after I started saving them I could see that I kept getting automatically re-subscribed even when I'd had no further contact with that company. This is a total pain in the ass. It's totally disrespectful. It's sleazy. And yes, it makes me angry. In fact, I will stop doing business with a company just for using these kinds of sleazy marketing practices. After unsubscribing numerous times to one such company, and writing them directly and receiving no response, I went so far as to write a scathing review about them on, and judging from the response I'm sure that review has steered enough customers away to cause hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost profits to that company.

I even feel a sort of betrayal when a company I've done business with subscribes me to marketing hype without my consent. It's like, “I gave you my business, and you return the favor by spamming me???” Lame. And you know what, the better companies don't do this. They offer you a choice, and they respect your choice if you choose not to subscribe. That is called integrity in marketing, and it's noticeable, it creates a positive impression, and it attracts more of my business.

Sure, many people don't write to you and complain about what you're doing. Many people don't complain about a lot of things that they find annoying or disrespectful. Most people I know are deeply worried about many things that they never take action about. Most people are simply too busy to deal with it. For most people it's much easier to delete your spam or unsubscribe than it is to write you and give you honest feedback. Writing you takes time and effort, and they suspect that their thoughts and feelings will just be ignored by people like you anyway, as you clearly demonstrate here. So yes, the only time you're likely to hear from someone is when they have reached the boiling point. Hence the angry emails you describe. That doesn't mean there aren't that many more people out there, frowning with distaste when they see your unsolicited newsletter in their inbox.

I do admire you're honesty in admitting your viewpoint on a public forum. I hope you're not surprised that you've become a lightening rod because of that.

best of luck

David Spark October 27, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Your definition of spam is very broad to include most email that we receive. Most people delete a lot of “unwanted email” that they would not classify as spam. Every day I delete 80 percent of my inbox and I don't think any of those messages are spam. I think the definition on Wikipedia is more on target: “unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately.” Which is spam the way most people define it and it doesn't define what I do or any of the examples I give in this post.

As per receiving messages after you unsubscribed, I think the mailing lists would want to know that. If you're using a proper email marketing service, they should unsubscribe users that click the unsubscribe button. If I knew that my users weren't being unsubscribed I would leave my mailing list provider. That's a fault of the mailing list provider, not the mailing list owner. You should tell the mailing list owner.

Do you really think I'm “ignoring” people's thoughts and feelings as I've written a long post and I'm responding to everybody's comments including yours? I think I've demonstrated the complete opposite of what you claim I'm doing.

What I'm most amused by is the attack you ensued on me and then telling me that you admire my viewpoint. We call this a backhanded compliment and I'll take it as such. :)

Again, I point to the fact that the number of people who unsubscribe or publicly complain is microscopically small. If you want to make true change, don't complain to me, complain to the mailing list providers and have them amend their policies like I say in my previous comment.

Delayna3131 December 18, 2010 at 11:49 am

So when someone sends me an unsolicited email, and their “unsubscribe” button does nothing but take me to their products page, and after 5 attempts to write to the company I am still receiving emails, I have no right to be angry? I suppose you are also the sort who meets someone in an elevator, she politely says hi, now that gives you the right to stalk her until she agrees to go on a date with you. Just because you think you have the right to something, doesn't mean you actually do.

David Spark December 18, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Delayna: You have described a situation that is not outlined here. Also, when an unsubscribe button doesn't work, it's considered a bug. A bug does not immediately translate into a malicious attack against the user. You have fabricated anger in your head about trying to unsubscribe from a newsletter when the unsubscribe button doesn't work, and you have also fabricated a story and projected the role of stalker on me.

May I suggest the next time the unsubscribe button doesn't work send an email with the words “Please Unsubscribe.” Nothing else. You won't have to hit the “unsubscribe” button four more times nor will you let your imagination run wild as to the intentions are of the company. Nor will you project the role of “stalker” on an innocent blogger.

Mike Amerikaner December 18, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Great piece. I read it when you first published it and now again today. I just got an unsubscribe email yesterday and, although it wasn't angry, I wondered why this person didn't just hit unsubscribe. As sender and receiver of a mailing lists, I can see it from both sides. It's widely known that unsubscribe buttons are at the bottom of mailing lists. Maybe the angry unsubscribers don't know that (or don't see it). What if we put our unsubscribe buttons at the top of our emails? Of course, then we'd be worried that people would unsubscribe before reading our carefully crafted emails. But those people probably will unsubscribe anyway.

I wondered how my unsubscriber got on my list in the first place. I looked at their email history and realized I added them a few months ago (and they had not opened any of my emails). How did I get this persons' email? In my business, there are three ways we capture email. 1)They sign up in person at an event, then I add them to the list 2) They enter their email online when registering an event, then I add them to the list. 3) They opt in online to the mailing list directly. In this case, I know it wasn't option 3, so it must have been 1 or 2. In both cases, this person gave me their email address, but I guess they didn't consider what I would do with it.

From reading the comments, it seems the real issue most people have is HOW they got on the mailing list. I agree that it is inconsiderate to add someone to a list after someone hands you a business card… unless they were asked permission. “Nice meeting you. Do you mind if I add you to our mailing list?”

Many probably do this, but my solution to the business card dilemma is this: If someone hands you a business card, they're interested in doing business with you (or they are an indiscriminate card tosser, but that's for another blog). Obviously, if you're not interested in doing business with this person, you wouldn't contact them with a personal email, so why add them to you mailing list? But if you are interested in doing business, send a personal follow up email, and ask if they want to be added to your mailing list? Or add to your auto-signature a link that says “Join Our Mailing List” and let that person join on their own.

But the bottom line is this: as email marketers, we can't get offended when someone sends an angry unsubscribe email. As Delayna3131 pointed out, there may be some extreme cases that warrant a nasty email (even though she could have just marked the email as Spam). But I bet 99% of the time, someone who takes the time to send an angry email has their own personal issues are dealing with.

David Spark December 19, 2010 at 5:42 am

Thanks for your feedback Mike. I obviously touched a nerve with people on this topic. It's interesting how people don't get upset about getting hammered with social media content as they do to an uninvited email in their inbox.

Foo May 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I just read your blog post and thought that since we now have a relationship I could subscribe you to random marketing mailing-lists. You would not mind clicking on the “unsub” link in each of them, right?

David Spark May 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm

@24191827e60cdb49a3d17fb1befe951b:disqus you obviously didn't read this post correctly as that's not the criteria to adding someone to a mailing list. But, you chose the latter option (mentioned in the title).

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