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The Unsubscribe Dilemma

  |  August 18, 2003   |  Comments

People are taught to report e-mail as spam and never unsubscribe. Why it's a problem -- and ideas for solutions.

The other day, I went to my Yahoo email account and found a sweepstakes promotion on the log-in page. Usually I ignore sweepstakes, but this caught my eye: the Yahoo spam sweepstakes.

Intrigued, I clicked through. It said: "If you receive a message you believe is spam, click the 'This Is Spam' link at the top of the email message."

I give Yahoo credit for good intentions. However, there's a major issue here. When you click to learn how to prevent spam, you're told, "Never respond to unsolicited email." I'm not here to just pick on Yahoo Both MSN/Hotmail and AOL offer the same advice to email users.

Why Your E-Mail Lists Are Dying

My point is the majority of permission-based email lists are seeing a significant drop in effectiveness, not merely because of the glut of email, but because recipients are reluctant to unsubscribe. Instead, recipients either delete or filter email into the junk or deleted items folder.

Worse, promotions such as Yahoo's tacitly encourage users to label email as spam, even if the recipient is actually an opt-in subscriber. This, in turn, makes a bad situation worse for email marketers in their struggle to maintain (or achieve) whitelist status. If recipients continually designate permission email as spam, ISPs and email service providers will have no choice but to discontinue whitelist programs.

10 E-Mails, 10 Unsubscribe Options

There are no common ways to unsubscribe from permission-based newsletters or commercial email. I won't dispute spammers (as opposed to legitimate marketers) do collect email addresses from unsubscribes. But the biggest, most trusted email companies are fueling consumer confusion and lack of confidence in email unsubscribes.

Examining my own email account last week, I found five newsletters and five promotions from highly reputable brands. Each had different unsubscribe options. Some highlights from my unsubscribe confusion:

  • Sender confusion. "If you would prefer not to receive further messages from this sender, please click here to be removed." Is it so hard to remind me who the "sender" is, to ensure confidence? What if I simply want to change my email address or don't want to receive promotions from that sender but still want the content?

  • List confusion. "To unsubscribe click here: Unsubscribe." Or better: "Unsubscribe" (buried in 6-point type at the bottom left corner of the email). From what, and from whom, am I unsubscribing? Reemphasizing brand and list qualities is critical to increasing confidence.

  • E-mail confusion. "To unsubscribe send a blank email to leave-LISTNAME-62264F@MAILINGLISTPROVIDER.com." This one bothers me the most. I've changed primary email addresses three times in six months and still receiving all my old email. When I send that blank message, it will register my new address, not the old one. This is the most flawed of any unsubscribe option and instills near-zero confidence in a sender's ability to actually remove me.

  • Pure unsubscribe pain! "To UNSUBSCRIBE FROM COMPANY OFFERS AND ANNOUNCEMENTS Go to: Update Profile Log-in with your SPECIAL number and password, then select email and communication preferences. Uncheck the option(s) that correspond to the email you no longer wish to receive. Finally, click the Submit button at the bottom of the page. Requests to unsubscribe from COMPANY."

    Five steps to completion! I'm a strong believer in sending users to the Web to update their profile, but this is ridiculous. Usually, I have no idea what my "special number" is. Requesting I log in to change my email address or unsubscribe is more cumbersome than it's worth. Instead of five steps, recipients are more likely to create a new filter for this sender.

Three Ways to Increase Unsubscribe Confidence

Reemphasize who the sender is, precisely what the recipient is subscribed to, and at which email address she receives the messages. If you send recipients to the Web to unsubscribe, make certain it's a branded landing page containing clear instructions. Finally, a clearly branded confirmation page or email helps increase confidence.

Provide options. Instead of unsubscribing, perhaps a recipient wants to change his address, the email format, or his preferences. Often, he wants a modified relationship with the sender, not to sever ties completely.

Make it as easy as possible for recipients to choose the unsubscribe option. Some feel comfortable replying to an email, but most prefer a one-click option. Some prefer to unsubscribe online. A choice increases the chances they will respond.

E-mailers should agree on an unsubscribe standard, a way to increase recipients' confidence. Perhaps this could take the form of a seal or mark. Maybe just a common set of educational resources to help recipients differentiate permission email from spam.

How do you think confidence in unsubscribing can be increased? Should there be a standard or an educational initiative? Send me your thoughts!

Ben is on vacation this week. Today's column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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Ben Isaacson

Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.

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