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How are people handling the unsubscribe requirement in emails that aren't really subscriptions?

I send out various emails from my domain including

  • Newsletters. These are opt-in with unsubscribe link (from [email protected])
  • Automated email in response to user action. For example, user submits something and we send a "got it" email. Or user requests a file with data. (from [email protected] or [email protected])
  • Individual email that I send from my domain via Gmail. Usual a response to their email, but not always. (Also from [email protected])

Currently, only the newsletter has an unsubscribe link. The others are specific emails sent to a single user in response to a request (but they can add up to many in total).

The rules are getting stricter with Google and Yahoo requiring unsubscribe links in every email and, soon, an unsubscribe header link. The header link has to be one-click and done.

What would unsubscribe mean in a user-requested email?

A user requests a file, which we send in an email. What would unsubscribe mean? How would this be clear to the user?

Or what if someone who is not in our database fills out a form and we send back a "got it" email. If they click unsubscribe, can't we send them an email if they later submit a form again? Do we now have to save these email addresses so we know not to send to them again?

Added after answer:

Even if Gmail and Yahoo don't require the unsubscribe links for transactional emails (as opposed to bulk emails), do they actually distinguish between transactional and bulk types if they all come from the same sender and are sent the same way using AWS SES?

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  • I suspect that it means "I don't want to be contacted about this topic again. If I want to hear from you, I will contact you".
    – Steve
    Jan 17 at 21:34
  • But it doesn't make sense for a file that the user specifically requested. The user says, send me a file of X data. We send it in an email. If they now click unsubscribe, can I not send that file again even if they request it later? Might the user think he actually unsubscribed from the (separate) newsletter? Should I unsubscribe him from the newsletter?
    – user984003
    Jan 17 at 22:09
  • "can I not send that file again even if they request it later" - the only thing I would be paying attention to is "they request it".
    – Steve
    Jan 19 at 0:07

1 Answer 1

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The answer is pretty simple, actually: those new unsubscribe requirements only apply to emails that are actually subscriptions.

Here are the industry terms for the types of emails you mentioned:

  • Bulk email: email that gets "blasted" out to a large audience. This includes newsletters, promotions, advertisements, and other emails not targeted to one specific recipient.

  • Transactional email: email that confirms or provides additional details about a user-initiated action. This includes account creation confirmations, purchase confirmations, shipping notifications, 2-factor emails, password reset emails, and customer service replies.

With that in mind:

The rules are getting stricter with Google and Yahoo requiring unsubscribe links in every email and, soon, an unsubscribe header link. The header link has to be one-click and done.

Google seems to only require "unsubscribe" links/headers for bulk email. According to their support article, "Marketing messages and subscribed messages must support one-click unsubscribe, and include a clearly visible unsubscribe link in the message body." From my reading of that policy, that means transactional emails are not required to include "unsubscribe" links. As you mentioned, it wouldn't make much sense to be able to unsubscribe from a one-time transactional email.

Yahoo's policy similarly mentions that "bulk senders" are required to include "unsubscribe" links and headers. The key phrase there seems to be "bulk sender", i.e. a sender of email "blasts" that are not targeted to any one particular user.

Basically speaking, if the user initiates an action and you send an email specifically to that one user to confirm or provide details about their action, that type of email doesn't require unsubscribe functionality.

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  • Can Gmail and Yahoo distinguish between bulk email and transactional emails if they both come from the same sender [email protected] and are sent via Amazon SES? (I do authenticate all emails.) I don't want transactional emails getting caught in their filter.
    – user984003
    Jan 20 at 16:54
  • 1
    It seems to me like they should have the tools to distinguish between them. They can look at the sending patterns and the emails' content. There's probably some machine learning involved. But from googling around, it seems general advice for best deliverability is to separate your transactional and bulk emails across multiple email addresses, and even across domains if possible. Jan 20 at 18:54
  • Using different domains can be bad. Someone bought mysite.some-other-ending and spoofs as newsletters coming from my site. I tell my users to make sure it's from .com
    – user984003
    Jan 21 at 16:43
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    You could always use different subdomains. Jan 21 at 19:59
  • Yes, that might work.
    – user984003
    Jan 23 at 21:18

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