Conflict resolution

August 19, 2013

I recently got an email from campaigning organisation Avaaz (it’s OK, I agreed to be on their mailing list) as follows:

Gmail has made a change to its system which experts say could hide Avaaz emails in your inbox — you might now miss out on some awesome upcoming Avaaz campaigns.

To make sure you can participate in campaigns to stop the war on women, climate change, corruption and more all you need to do is REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE. Simply click “Reply” right now and press “Send.” If you’re lost for words — you can say: “Hi Avaaz.”

By replying, you are telling Gmail that you want to receive Avaaz emails and they’ll make sure you do. And once you’ve sent the message, you are done.

In the footer of the email, it says:

To contact Avaaz, please do not reply to this email. Instead, write to us at [contact form] or call us at [phone number] (US).

To reply or not to reply? I decided that the email body overrode what was obviously a default template, so I did what they asked: clicked reply, added “Hi Avaaz, I am happy to keep receiving your emails” and pressed “Send”. Obviously, I didn’t expect to get a reply from them, so I was surprised when I got one the next day:

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification



Delivery to the following recipient has been delayed:

Message will be retried for 2 more day(s)

Oh. My first thought was “Ha, how ironic, their email falls over just when they ask people to email them!” followed by “Maybe they overshot their email quota because of all those people replying to their email”.

3 days later, after one more “delayed” message, I got the (by now expected) “Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently” message.

I think what has happened here is that is a no-reply email address (there are good reasons to avoid these in marketing emails), and Avaaz know this, but also know that if you try to reply to it then the address will be added to your Gmail contacts (even if the reply doesn’t get through). So they’re saying “just reply to this email” instead of saying “please add us to your contacts”, which on the face of it seems like a reasonable plan: people are probably more likely to hit reply than add a marketing address to their ‘contacts’; many people wouldn’t know how to add an address to their contacts, and wouldn’t bother to read/follow instructions if they were given; those instructions would have to account for all the different email clients people use, anyway; and even if you said “use the Gmail web interface” (or explained that in a way that non-technical users would understand) and only gave instructions for that case, Gmail would have probably changed their user interface again by the time the email arrived in people’s inboxes so your instructions would be out of date.

So, taken out of context, asking people to reply to a no-reply email address might seem like a sensible strategy in this case. But the context is this: Avaaz send me an email which a) looks a bit phishy, so I have to look at it a bit more closely to check it’s genuine, and b) asks me to reply but also not to reply (a bit confusing). Then in return I get three automated emails telling me that the email isn’t being delivered. If I hadn’t figured out what was going on, at this point I’d have probably thought that a) the email might have actually been some kind of spam/scam/virus/thing, or b) I’d done something wrong and the thing I was trying to do (stop Avaaz’s emails ending up in the spam folder) hadn’t worked. In other words, this process has depleted my daily store of decision-making ability and left me with some vague worries and uncertainty about whether it’s worked.

How could this have been better? Avaaz could have

a) told the user to add the address to their contacts (including or linking to instructions for popular email clients, or just leaving users to figure out the details). Disadvantages: lots of people probably won’t know how, or won’t bother.

b) told the user to reply, but explained the situation: “Replying to this email is the simplest and quickest way to add our address to your Gmail contacts. However, you will get a couple of automated replies saying that the email wasn’t delivered – don’t worry about this, it won’t affect your ability to keep up with our awesome world-changing campaigns!” (For bonus points, they could have taken “do not reply to this email” out of the footer for this one email, too, though I know CMSs and templating systems can make this kind of one-off customisation hard.)

c) used an email address that allows replies. Disadvantages: Avaaz might actually have to be willing to read and respond to replies.

I should say that I’m generally positive about Avaaz: they’re a campaigning organisation that doesn’t pester me with endless emails asking me to watch videos, forward emails to my friends, engage with their brand on social media, or donate money; they seem to have had lots of successful campaigns; their website lets me sign petitions simply and easily (and it’s usable enough on a smartphone). In the context of their actual core functions, this email contacts issue is a tiny, tiny thing; but it’s a sad truth that the small things can have a big effect on our impressions of the organisations we interact with. Fortunately, they’re also — hopefully — the easy things to fix!

G is for gaps

March 13, 2012

While trying to set up some more intelligent Gmail filters, I’ve become aware of three frustrating gaps in the system:

  1. When I first used Outlook, about 10 years ago, I was delighted when I discovered that it was possible to highlight all the emails which were sent only to me. Simply changing the colour of these entries in my inbox made it easier to see at a glance which emails were expecting my personal attention, and therefore easier to prioritise accordingly.

    Given that this had been possible in Outlook for so long, I assumed it would be trivial to reproduce this effect with Gmail’s filters… but it appears not. You can filter on to:me, but this doesn’t exclude emails sent to you and others. You can filter out individual email addresses (e.g. filtering the To: field on me, will find the messages sent to you but not to Joe Bloggs) or wildcards (e.g. -* will filter out any emails sent to a recipient at, but there doesn’t appear to be a valid wildcard which will match all email addresses other than your own.

    The most annoying thing is that Gmail nearly makes this filter possible with its Personal Level Indicators. Switching on this feature annotates the emails in your inbox with a “>” if the mail was sent to you and others, or a “>>” if it was sent only to you; this is useful, but there is still no way to sort or filter on this property.

    (Priority Inbox is another option which is heading in the right direction but still not quite what I want.)

  2. I like the idea of Google Tasks; I like the fact that I can move an email to the Tasks list or create a task independently of an email. I have two other accounts that I use as well as my gmail account, though; and I’m often checking email from my iPhone rather than a desktop/web client, so it’s harder to interact with the Tasks list directly. What I really want to be able to do is email a task to myself (or bounce an email from another account); ideally, I’d use plus-addressing and filters to do this — that is, filter anything sent to straight into the Tasks list, so that I can set up an alias to that email address in other accounts. However, there doesn’t seem to be any way to apply a filter which will move an email straight to the Tasks list when it’s received.

  3. Related to the above, but slightly more obscure (and probably not compatible with the above): I want to be able to use plus-addressing to assign labels to the things I bounce into gmail from my other account. I can do this if I set up a filter for that label, e.g. I can get the ‘badger’ label applied to any email sent to; but I don’t want to have to remember to create a new filter every time I add a new label. What I want is to be able to say that email sent to janetmck+(.+?) should be assigned label:$1, ie use the bit after the ‘plus’ to determine what the label should be.

Am I just missing something here? I’d be delighted to be told that the only gap here is between my ears, and that any of these things are actually possible!