This blog post is about ten years in the making. Silently, well not that silently, I’ve been cogitating my thoughts on email, unsubscribing to marketing mails and junk mail for that length of time, and here’s my conclusions.

  • 7,000+ unread emails (you know who you are….) is not an acceptable way of managing your Inbox
  • Marketing emails from a company you deliberately, or mistakenly, signed up for are not spam
  • There’s no such thing as free email

Now, let me explain what led me to these conclusions!

Inbox management

Over the years I’ve been involved in Technology Support, I’ve seen countless people’s email clients. And it still astounds me when I see people with literally thousands of unread emails on their devices.

There’s a couple of reasons why, in my opinion at least, working this way is not acceptable.

If you have lots of unread emails, how can you be sure you haven’t missed something vitally important (a business opportunity, a new job, a friend or relative that needs to talk)? If it were real, old fashioned letters coming through your door, you wouldn’t pick out the ones that looked important and leave the rest of them piled up below your letterbox (nor would you assume that if it were important, the sender would contact you again), so why people do this with the electronic equivalent I have no idea!

For the record, I’m not an Inbox Zero person, but I do keep my unread emails as low as possible (4 right now, I’ll deal with them when I’ve finished typing this). I like to check my mail in between tasks, deleting anything irrelevant (or unsubscribing if it’s marketing junk – more on that in a bit), replying quickly if it’s a 30 second reply, or adding it to my To Do list if it requires more thought or effort (I use Omnifocus on Mac and iOS – great product that really needs some groundwork by reading this book). That way I know that any unread emails need to be scanned for any required action.

You also have to remember that every single email takes up an amount of room on one or more hard drives somewhere. Depending on how you get your email, this could be just your local computer and/or phone, or it could be this and your email providers server. Disk space isn’t free, therefore you’re spending money you don’t need to spend by retaining every byte of information you don’t need or never intend to read.

Marketing emails

Legally speaking, all marketing emails have to be what’s known as opt-in these days. That means you have to accept a statement saying you are willing to receive these emails. Furthermore, companies are bound to offer you the facility to stop getting these emails.

So, every email you think is junk or spam (more on that later) in theory should be something that you signed up to. Instead of continually dragging these emails to your junk folder and wondering why you still get them, you just need to unsubscribe. Look towards the bottom of the email, there will almost certainly be an unsubscribe link or instructions as to how to stop receiving similar mail in future (sometimes you have to reply to the email with ‘STOP’ as the subject for example).

The difference between Spam and Junk

True spam email is content that you don’t want, and never signed up to receive. Typically this could be marketing for dishonest or potentially dangerous companies, phishing emails (watch my video on phishing here), or frauds/scams and they often won’t have the facility to unsubscribe or stop the emails.

Junk mail, like its paper equivalent, is theoretically legitimate email that you signed up to, but don’t want to see all the time. But there’s different understandigs across the boiard when it comes these terms.

This is where your email provider and your chosen mail client come in. Most email providers offer some degree of spam filtering (our email service, for example, is a premium offering that blocks all viruses infected emails and the vast majority of spam mail), and most mail clients (Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird etc) give you a junk folder where mails of this type are filtered off to. But it might help if I explained roughly how this works. Every mail that is received is scored for its ‘junk-likeliness’ based on the content. The system will look at where the email has come from, the links inside the mail, for particular words amongst other things and sets a spam score. Every system is slightly different, but the net effect is usually that anything that is over a certain spam score will be sent to your Junk folder (mail clients don’t differentiate between Spam and Junk). There are lots of other tools that email providers use to filter your email, but (generally speaking) the cheaper your email service is, the less effort goes on to protect you.

As a user, you have to understand that spam scores are calculated using algorithms, none of which are performed by a human at this stage, so they’re not perfect! But you’ll find they’re actually quite good once you unsubscribe from the majority of the marketing lists you don’t want to be on.

There’s no such thing as free email

I run an email service for lots of clients, and I can assure you that there are lots of costs to consider. Systems to run the hardware on, bandwidth (and email can use massive amounts of bandwidth), licensing costs for the email server, and storage (for every gigabyte of storage a client uses, ther email provider also has to have at least one backup of that data) all cost significant amounts of money, never mind the time to administer and develop the system. No business can sustain those costs unless they are getting something in return.

Now I can think of some ways to make it worth giving away email service. Maybe its a value added service for a broadband provider, or it could be that the provider scans your email to provide data to advertisers about you (which they get paid for), but these all have downsides. Email as a value add usually means it’s not your primary business, resulting in poor service when you have a problem, and I genuinely find the thought of my emails being scanned for marketing opportunities abhorrent.

One other point I want to mention after seeing a post on Facebook yesterday is that if you’re a business, or self-employed, please don’t use a free email address – that’s an instant rejection from me. I think it just looks unprofessional.

Summary

Email is a simple thing, but it confuses many people. As it becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes more liable to abuse by unscrupulous agents. But you can help yourself (or we can help you if you wish). Don’t let your email take over – get it under your control before it has you beat!