Gmail: Subscription management is coming

Folks have been reporting these past few weeks that centralized subscription management is coming to Google’s Gmail. This is a change, and change is scary, so many people will have questions and concerns. What challenges will this bring and how will this make it harder for me to get my email delivered?

It turns out, the concept of centralized subscription management at the recipient end isn’t as new as you might think. Above are screenshots of how the functionality exists and works today for mail you send to Yahoo and Microsoft subscribers. With the new list-unsubscribe requirements (and even with the past prevalence of prior implementations of list-unsubscribe having been out in the wild for years), it’s easy for mailbox providers to track and denote recipient subscriptions. And some providers are already doing so.

This shouldn’t be considered a scary thing – some variation of these subscription management tools have been around at Yahoo and Microsoft for a good long while, and there aren’t a lot of complaints out there about the functionality being buggy or broken, or impeding senders in some painful way. (Though I recall that years ago, using “unsub” functionality inside of could result in the sender being blocked from sending to that recipient again. I don’t know if that’s still true today; I’m going to guess not. It would make it tough for those folks sending both transactional and marketing emails. You’d still want your order receipts, no?)

I don’t know for certain exactly how Gmail’s functionality will work. It’s not live yet and those who have stumbled across the functionality say that it isn’t yet usable, and I’ve got even less experience with it than they do.

But let’s theorize how this kind of thing could work, shall we? These are all assumptions on my part; how I would design this functionality myself. I could be wrong on much of this, so keep in mind that I’m guessing. Possible features and functionality might include:
  • The mailbox provider (MBP) denotes that mail is marketing mail by it being sent in bulk and containing a list-unsubscribe header or list-ID header. It could also denote the sender based on the from address or from domain (so I recommend consistency in your from address and domain).
  • The mailbox provider extracts list-unsubscribe header links/functionality from the most recent email message received from a given sender for that particular recipient. (Which might mean: don’t shut off unsub links after 30 days if you can help it. If you send more sporadically than that to some folks, keep unsub links working forever if at all possible, as they might be cached in a mailbox provider’s subscription management feature for certain subscribers.
  • The mailbox provider is able to tell when a recipient clicks on the “unsub” button found in the subscription management page. The mailbox provider calls the “list unsub post” function or sends the “mailto:” unsubscribe request email. The MBP is going to assume that the unsubscribe request was successful.
  • The mailbox provider is able to track how often you continue to send mail to people after they unsubscribe.
  • If the “continued to send mail to recipients who have unsubscribed” rate is very high; the sender might be identified as failing to comply with legal unsubscribe requirements – yuck. Fallout here could include blocking or even legal action, for the worst of the worst. Make sure your unsubscribe actually works.
  • What about transactional email messages? My gut tells me that it’s going to be okay to continue to send those even if the subscriber has unsubscribed from marketing messages. But keep in mind that this is not a free pass to drop ten tons of mail into a subscriber’s inbox. Yahoo has made it clear (and others likely agree) that they’re not going to make exceptions to requirements for mail just because it is transactional. If you’re sending transactional mail that is garnering high complaint rates, you’ll likely end up blocked (and you’re likely doing it wrong).
TL;DR? Continue to be a good sender and you should be fine.

As far as documentation goes, Yahoo is ahead of the game here, as they have a specific section on their website that notes their support for easy unsubscribe and lets senders know that this functionality exists. (Yahoo also suggests contacting them to participate in the “subhub” program; I’m not entirely sure if you need to register to show up in the Subscriptions panel, though.)

In the case of Microsoft, it has been impossible to find information online about Outlook’s subscription management functionality. All of my attempts to find useful information were thwarted as I found page after page talking about how to manage paid Microsoft subscriptions, and nothing on how the third-party marketing/list/newsletter subscription manager itself works.

Stay tuned; I’m sure others will share more details on the upcoming Gmail subscription functionality, and I’ll add my two cents as well. In the meantime, don’t panic – this is not as novel a thing as you might think, as centralized subscription management is already a part of our mailbox provider universe; it’s not new.
Post a Comment