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Jennifer Nespola Lantz: Gmail “Political Pass for Messaging” Program


Today’s guest post comes from my colleague Jennifer Nespola Lantz, VP of Industry Relations and Deliverability at Kickbox, keeping us updated on a potentially upcoming Gmail spam filtering process change that is likely to have a great impact upon all of us. Take it away, Jen!

On June 28th, I saw a news article by Axios reporting that "Google moves to keep campaign messages out of spam." At first glance I was very surprised about the statement knowing all Gmail does to protect users and how hands off they tend to be (outside of the machines doing their magic.) What I originally defined as campaign messages was coming from a too in-the-weeds mental dictionary about email production. I always coined campaigns as a singular email marketing effort.

And then I read it"Google has asked the Federal Election Commission to green light a program that could keep campaign emails from ending up in spam folders, according to a filing obtained by Axios." Oh no, ohhh nooo, this is not about marketing emails, but about POLITICAL ones. My surprise quickly pivoted to a feeling of shock, and somewhat betrayal (#emailgeek punch to the gut.)

Political mail is very distinct. You know the ones. Terrible copy. Little to no value to the end user. And a leech-like mentality to siphon money off people. These are the emails that you get even if you didn’t subscribe. The ones that keep coming, over and over and over again. The ones that, even if you did sign up for them, can send over 40 messages a day from ONE campaign (not an exaggeration). I’m sorry even in my own mailbox, where I have subscribed to many a mailer that max out at 2 maybe 3 Xs a day, I have a hard time managing the sheer volume. Now I may have to defend my inbox from political mail that is not only unwanted, but comes in droves? OYE!

Thinking about this further, I ruminated with others that this is a flat degradation of trust for the end user. How they currently view their inbox and how it functions against what will clearly change will be a big shift. Especially considering that email addresses are shared like candy amongst party lines and candidates—the end recipient has no control. Sign up for candidate A and you now get candidate B-Z. Don’t sign up at all, but someone sells your information and blammo, emails from A-Z.

Bulking is often a saving grace for end users and is a protective measure to help manage their inbox when it’s clear they are receiving unwanted mail (the basic premise of email filtering.) Take the practices from political mailers and apply it to any other sender, and the email program would burn to the ground via solid filtering and blocking. It’s the only way to alleviate abuse.

However, even with a registration process, this step enables political spammers (and yes I have moved from senders to spammers terminology because even messaging with those I really, really, really want to hear from has limits on how many emails I want to read from them.)

As to the 'why'? Well the article does mention the legislation in the works that would force receivers to place the emails in the inbox by making it illegal to do what they are designed to do, protect the inbox. (And let’s just say I think this legislation, if passed, would be self-serving, harmful for the email ecosystem, and just a <insert not nice word> move.) Oh and it also requests that mailbox providers reveal their secret sauce.

So that legislative tidbit alone is the writer’s suggestion that this program could be in response to potential legislation to prevent 'the need' for it to move forward. In other words, "Hey, if I work with you, can you just not?"

I don’t believe that Gmail is doing this because their AI is wrong. Instead, it’s likely more protective as Gmail has some of the most intensive and complex AI. And this AI is their lifeblood. Who would want to reveal that? Plus, if others know how to make the same bread and butter, the abusers will know. And once they know, they will find ways to get around it.

Another smart person also posed the question about how the registration process and or the domains registered would be abused knowing they would have a red carpet into the inbox. I’m not sure if the domain list will be public or what the registration process will be to really say anything on that, other than, good question!

My hope is that there is a larger play out there for Gmail in protecting the email industry. Looking at the statement Gmail made, "We recently asked the FEC to authorize a pilot program that may help improve inboxing rates for political bulk senders and provide more transparency into email deliverability, while still letting users protect their inboxes by unsubscribing or labeling emails as spam. We look forward to exploring new ways to provide the best possible Gmail experience." My optimistic, deliverability geek is crossing her fingers that the end goal after collecting all the data is to say, "HERE, this is why political mail is bulked and why unfettered access to the inbox is detrimental to our users. Practices need to change, not the AI."

Last two thoughts and/or questions for you, I swear!
  1. Did anyone else but me have a flashback to Hey.com when you read "when users would receive an email from a campaign for the first time, they would get a "prominent" notification asking if they want to keep receiving them, and would still have the ability to opt out of subsequent emails"?
  2. Remember that little bit above about 40 emails a day??? Does anyone else feel like this is just going to burn a lot of email accounts, even those that have been around since the beginning of Gmail? OOF!
Concern over this type of methodology isn’t new. Anti-spam groups have been fighting against this "one bite at the apple" approach since 1999! Five years before Gmail came to be, those who guard the inbox from spam knew that in a marketing context, with now over 100,000 B2C companies in the United States, that a methodology like this could let many thousands of companies nibble their way into the inbox without permission.

And now that we see this through a political lens, does that make things better, or worse? How many political races are there in your neighborhood, city, county, state or country right now? How many candidates for each one of those offices? Do they all get to force their way into your inbox "just once," as long as they register? OOF, again!

1 Comments

Comments policy: Al is always right. Kidding, mostly. Be polite, please and thank you.

  1. This sounds like a recipe for disaster and it puts the onus of not receiving the emails or routing them (back) to the spam folder on the recipient. No one wants to spend hours unsubscribing from emails or marking them as spam. Gmail is already trying to get users to pay for email storage using banners saying their storage is full and they might stop receiving emails if they don't clear out their inbox or pay for storage. My son's Gmail inbox has about 108 emails after he cleaned it out and Gmail still has that banner up. I wonder about 2 things: might Gmail be doing this to get users to pay for storage and will users, in fact, pay for storage or abandon their Gmail accounts if they stop receiving emails due to not paying for storage. Following...

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