Stop Making Up Promotional Email Categories

Companies need to stop creating new promotional email categories in pursuit of click-through rates. There’s no incentive for them to quit this behavior. The least we can do is teach our email providers’ crowdsourced spam filters to start filtering these promotions for all users (almost blackholing since no one looks for spam in their Spam folder) by marking offending messages as spam.

If the user has unsubscribed to all existing promotional emails, it’s bad form to create a new email category for additional marketing messages and opt all users into this created category. Block, Inc (formerly Square) is the latest company to opt users into exciting new “messages” which claim:

Your favorite businesses may send you messages and rewards via Square like the one below.

Square Spice 6 Modern Indian Spam

Really? Block knows that I am not interested in Block/Square promotional emails due to me explicitly unsubscribing from previous emails but Block has created a new email category for local business promotions, generously allowing advertisers to reach my inbox through the Block/Square brand.

This is a sorry excuse for trying to increase the click through rate for a dying category of advertising. The marketing tactic is to carpetbomb users with so numerous promotional emails and one of the “new” email lists will inevitably show an increase the click through rate. It’s hard to not improve the new promotion category’s click through rate if it was zero to begin with so from a marketing growth and improvment standpoint, it will always be a success.

These unsolicited emails cost very little to send but inflict a huge drain on users’ time and concentration to sort through and unsubscribe. Block, Inc is basically selling users’ inboxes and time to third parties. Third parties are able to reach previously unreachable users using Block’s vast email list and high email server reputation.

For the unaware: Most users don’t trust/know how unsubscribing works and simply let their inboxes accumulate messages over the years. Some users believe that the “unsubscribe” link in every email is a phishing attempts to gather valid emails for future spam and thus do not unsubscribe out of a well founded, undue sense of safety. No one has time to verify which of the below senders is most authentic:

Users simply resign to ignoring the regular promotional emails which end up sitting in an inbox that never gets manually sorted. Gmail and other email providers’ spam filters use global spam samples to determine categorization which is helpful but not perfect. For the vast majority, email is just a means to an end that must be endured.

Block’s marketing department probably claims that these emails are “geographically targeted” so that users will only get promotions from local businesses. Even if the emails are more supposedly more relevant (hint: they aren’t), users never asked for these emails and even fewer will go through the trouble of unsubscribing.

Even if Block automatically adds users to a new promotional email category, at least users can easily unsubscribe with a single click, right?

But wait! There’s more!

You would expect a reputable company such as Block/Square to have an accessible one-click unsubscribe method (RFC 8058). Simply click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the promotional email to opt out.

Square Spice 6 Modern Indian Spam unsubscribe

Oh. Unsubscribed from the Spice 6 Modern Indian email list.

This does not mean the user is unsubscribed from the new local business promotional messages. You’ve merely opted out from getting email blasts from the Spice 6 Modern Indian restaurant. You’ll still get emails from any other third parties that Block is more than willing to sell access to you to. I know this because I got another promotional email from Block hawking a Korean restaurant 2 days later.

Maybe the user needs to sign into their Square account to unsubscribe from a larger marketing email category. This takes more than one click for the user and requires that they either have their phone available for an SMS code or remember their password. I don’t have my Square password memorized and I’m sure most users don’t either. Depending on the user’s work environment, their phone may not be available so they end up using the password reset link to login. That’s a lot of clicks.

Marketers will say that authenticating the user is necessary so that a misclick by a second user whom the first user forwards the email to does not accidentally unsubscribe the first user, thus robbing the first user of the opportunity to get valuable offers from third parties.

In no world will a recipient forward these marketing emails to someone who then clicks the unsubscribe link resulting in the original recipient missing out on anything. In fact, the forwarded recipient probably did both of them a favor.

Square profile

Ok, so we’ve logged into Square to hopefully stop receiving emails from this new marketing list. There’s no option to unsubscribe to anything, there’s not even an option to change the email. This is where 99% of users give up because users have better things to do in life ⁠— and so do we.

Block/Square isn’t the only offender of opting users into new promotional categories, recent memory recalls at least Linkedin and Twitter making similar changes to their notifications and email lists.

Square profile

Rather than waste more time trying to opt-out of this new category of spam, we can mark it for what it is as a sample for our email providers’ spam filters and hope that the filter can save others from the same fate.

Anson Liu