How much Mailchimp is spam? What should they do?

A discussion on Twitter led me to wonder; is all the mail I get from Mailchimp spam? Can I filter it? Turns out filtering Mailchimp in Gmail is hard. But I have a mediocre solution and some ideas on what Mailchimp should do to be kinder to email recipients.

I only notice Mailchimp mail when I get some crap I don’t want to see and click the Unsubscribe link. I get a lot of these same spams from the same company, like my old college or my local pizza place. The landing page for unsubscribing is distinctly Mailchimp, which is when I notice that they’re the source of the spam.

What seems to happen is a Mailchimp customer creates a new Mailchimp list for every marketing campaign. So I won’t get any more June 5 Campaign mails, but I’m bound to get the next June 12 Campaign mail and there’s no way to make it stop. It is spam. My question is; is all Mailchimp mail spam? (Spoiler; only 93% of mine in the last year is.)

Identifying Mailchimp in Gmail

My mediocre solution for identifying Mailchimp mail is a gmail search for three special phrases in the message body, the current copy Mailchimp includes to provide their (not-very-effective) opt-out mechanisms. This text could change at any time, but it seems to be consistent for several years now. Here’s the search term, all three phrases:

“view this email in your browser”
“want to change how you receive these emails?”
“You can update your preferences or unsubscribe”

The better way to filter would be on an email header like X-Mailer, Received, or the DKIM signature. Gmail’s filters don’t seem to allow filtering on any of those criteria. Here’s an example spammy mail; maybe someone else has a better idea how to get Gmail to identify these. (There is a possibility involving Google Script but I can’t tell if that’s really a good idea to use.)

My Mailchimp statistics

In the past year I’ve gotten 57 Mailchimp mails. Maybe more if they went to the Spam folder and were auto-deleted. I have deliberately subscribed to 0 Mailchimp mailing lists, so in some sense all 57 are spam.

However, a whole lot of these Mailchimp mails come from organizations I legitimately have business with. Reed College being the primary culprit, also my local pizza place. I’d rather not get any of those emails, but they are in some sense organizations that have a reason and a right to email me. 54 of the 57 Mailchimp mails I got are in this category, or 93%. I’d rather not get any more of them.

3 of the 57 Mailchimp mails were things I actually wanted to get. Two from the XOXO conference, one from OpenStreetMap. Those organizations use Mailchimp responsibly in a way that helps me and even if I didn’t explicitly opt-in to a mailing list. I want these mails.

0 of the 57 Mailchimp mails were pure spam. None of them were from an organization I’d never heard of before. So that’s good! Update: not a day after writing this I got a pure spam Mailchimp mail, an ad for a Kickstarter game called “Cracked”.

Still, a 93% feels-spammy rate is pretty awful and Mailchimp should do better.

Mailchimp for recipients

AFAIK Mailchimp currently has essentially no product for email recipients. We’re not customers, we’re the product Mailchimp is selling. There’s this polite veneer that somehow we’ve opted in to these communications, and Mailchimp does provide opt-outs. But they aren’t really working.

My proposed solution is Mailchimp should build a small product for email recipients. Leave the defaults as-is, to not decimate Mailchimp’s business. But give users the chance to say “I never want to receive any Mailchimp mail from this organization again”. Not just opt-out of a specific list, but all lists from a particular Mailchimp customer. It’s not simple; Mailchimp would have to create an account for each email recipient with some small Web UI, passwords, etc. It’s not a tiny project, but it’s not a huge one either.

Of course Mailchimp won’t do this. They have no incentive to. Right until the moment someone like me gets fed up enough and considers blocking all of Mailchimp as spam. Imagine if Gmail did that; it would absolutely crush the company. Mailchimp should have a solution in hand before their spam problem escalates to the level of existential crisis.

(Even better would be to require an explicit opt-in from each organization, or for each mailing list. That’s how it used to work in the old Mailman days. But no way would Mailchimp do this; it’d destroy their business.)

An alternate thing Mailchimp could do is get more aggressive at policing their customers. There’s a feedback form when you unsubscribe that includes lines “This is spam and should be reported” as well as “I never subscribed to this list”. I faithfully click one or the other every time I get spam via Mailchimp, in the hopes it creates some signal inside the company and maybe their customer will be reined in. So far I see it having zero effect though, and why would it? The spammer is who is paying Mailchimp, not me.

I have several friends who work at Mailchimp. It’s a good company and they have a good product for their customers. But as a company I suspect they are myopic, focussed only on their paying customers. I’d like them to do more to stop spammy use of their product before it becomes a crisis.