Mar 21, 2014

Gmail’s New Unsubscribe Link and Feedback Loop

You may have noticed a new unsubscribe link at the top of your campaigns in Gmail. Behind the scenes, they’re also adding a quasi-feedback loop to let ESPs like MailChimp know how many spam complaints our users are seeing. While I’m not sure if they planned it this way, I like to think these two changes complement each other.

The way I see it, spam complaints have a lot of power to tank your deliverability, whereas unsubs are fairly healthy. Healthy in the way that jogging to a table of free doughnuts is better for you than crawling on the floor, following a trail of gumdrops, and then finding yourself at the table of free doughnuts like, "Whoa!" What was I saying? Oh yes, unsubs. They’re a healthier way for your subscribers to disengage.

I did some quick research on the 4.6 billion sends to Gmail we’ve seen this year, so I’ll throw that in as we go over how these new Gmail features work.

The new unsubscribe link

A few weeks ago, Gmail started displaying an unsubscribe link in the upper left corner of an open email. It’s right next to the "From" name, so it should be really easy for your readers to see. This link doesn’t show up on every marketing email because there are a few requirements that must be met first.

To start off, Gmail looks for the "List-Unsubscribe" header, so this new link won’t appear in just any email with an unsubscribe link. Since using that header is a best practice, all MailChimp campaigns have had it for years. The sending IP also has to authenticate the email, and that just means DKIM—a digital signature of sorts—has to pass. That’s why all MailChimp deliveries to Gmail get signed with an additional DKIM key. Basically, Gmail wants to verify that we own the IP and that we are who we say we are, which is what the second DKIM signifies: we’re a trusted company that sends email.

That said, I’ve noticed some inconsistencies. The new unsub link will show up one day and not the next. It’ll even show up for some users and not others, and then switch a few days later. I can only assume the rollout of this feature is ongoing, or there’s an unseen reputation factor. I should also note that Gmail experiments with their features all the time, so your results may vary with little to no explanation.

While the new unsub link naturally makes us worry about list attrition, I haven’t observed any huge changes in unsub rates for Gmail. Aside from the spike in unsubs that happens after Christmas and New Year’s, the rate still looks fairly steady. I should note that I looked at Gmail unsubs as a percentage of Gmail opens. This data represents about 4.6 billion sends to Gmail addresses since the beginning of 2014.



Earlier, I mentioned that unsubscribing is the healthy way for your subscribers to disengage. I know no one wants to lose subscribers, but some attrition is natural. The way your subscribers disengage can have a huge impact, because Gmail looks at past engagement when trying to prioritize and place your emails. If you want to motivate Gmail to put your campaigns in the inbox, try to avoid low open rates and high spam complaints, because those are huge red flags.

For those of you who are as paranoid as I am, I’ll answer the obvious question: Yes, now that they have the data, Gmail could start using unsubscribes as an indicator of low engagement. There are some good reasons why unsubs shouldn’t be viewed in a negative way, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

Either way, it’s going to be more important than ever to reduce irrelevance if you want to keep your subscribers around. Gmail is clearly challenging the notion that increasing your volume or frequency will overcome low engagement. The more email you send to uninterested subscribers, the more you risk annoying them into disengaging. If you haven’t started using segments to target or find groups in your list, now is a good time to try that out.

About that feedback loop

Behind the scenes, Gmail also started offering a kind of feedback loop (FBL). Normally, FBLs are just an email that goes to the sender whenever a subscriber hits the spam button. MailChimp gets these reports on behalf of our users, and we use the data to unsubscribe the complaining email address. Gmail set up their FBL a little differently.

Gmail doesn’t want to share data about individual subscribers the way most FBLs do. Some countries have laws that prevent that kind of sharing, so this isn’t entirely unusual. Fortunately for us, Gmail recognizes the value this data holds for ESPs, so they started providing aggregate reports on a campaign level, without specifying which subscribers complained.

Like the unsub link, Gmail uses the second DKIM signature we provide to authenticate and aggregate our email. To get down to the campaign level, Gmail had us add a special header called "X-Feedback-ID" that specifies the user and campaign IDs for aggregation. Once a day, Gmail sends us a CSV file with the worst campaigns according to their own mystical and unfathomably occult-like criteria. Just kidding, but I really don’t know what their thresholds are, because we don’t get every abuse report. We only get the ones Gmail thinks are really bad.

Needless to say, once we get the report, our compliance team gets to work. We look at the users to determine how abusive they are, and what steps we’ll take to end the abuse. So far, the number of users Gmail notifies us about is extremely low, so we’re still in the process of learning and doing things by hand.

I haven’t seen any major shifts in unique open rates. There are low opens just after New Year’s and a huge surge as everyone sobers up and goes back to work. By February, things seem to have calmed down again. I haven’t looked for changes before and after the whole image caching thing, but I’ll dig into that for a future post.


Gmail’s master plan

In the past few months, Gmail has added tabs, turned on images by default, made the unsub link more prominent, and now they’re starting to work with ESPs to stop abuse. If I had to pull out a single philosophy behind these changes, I’d say Gmail wants to make sure their users don’t feel annoyed when checking their email. If you’re struggling with engagement, it might help to keep that in mind.