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Unsubscribing: Get More Out of "Goodbye"

  |  August 16, 2006   |  Comments

Unsubscribes aren't always the e-mail equivalent of breaking up. Find a way to stay friends.

Unsubscribes are a way of life in e-mail marketing, but don't take them for granted. Instead, use unsubscribes to improve your e-mail program and learn how to keep more of your subscribers around.

Unsubscribing itself has evolved over the years. Early on, marketers threw up one barrier after another to keep subscribers around or simply ignored unsubscribe requests. That tactic backfired, of course, giving rise to the dreaded "report as spam" button. So marketers moved on to a no-questions-asked policy: You want off this list? Click here and you're gone.

With Microsoft's announcement to add an unsubscribe button right in the e-mail interface for its Windows Live Mail users, we're getting closer to having a universal unsubscribe.

The universal unsubscribe and the no-questions-asked approaches might generate fewer spam complaints, but they don't serve marketers well because they don't tell you why subscribers are leaving. Did you send too many messages? The wrong offers? Do your messages have broken links and images? Or do subscribers still want to do business with you but hear from you less often or in different ways?

Unsubscribes aren't always the e-mail equivalent of breaking up; you just need to find a way to stay friends.

Your unsubscribe process can work better with a simple two-phase upgrade, one that addresses unsubscribe reliability first, then helps you mine more data from your departing subscribers. You may even be able to salvage a few customers.

Phase One: Improve the Process

  • Assess how many clicks it takes to get from the unsubscribe link to the thank-you or acknowledgement page. (Hint: the correct answer should be one.) Don't make someone wade through four or five pages.

  • Don't require a password to unsubscribe or make recipients log in to a preference center. You might require a password at opt-in to reduce bogus subscriptions, but malicious unsubscribing isn't a major problem.

  • If you require recipients to send a removal request only by e-mail, trade it in for a Web-based system. Unsubscribe requests, and confirmations, can get lost or overlooked. The e-mail also can't tell you why the subscriber is leaving unless she takes the time to write a note.

  • Test your unsubscribe system frequently to make sure it works. Test the link every time you send an e-mail, and check the whole process from the first click to the last confirmation about monthly. Watch all mailboxes associated with your e-mail program to see if anyone complains the unsubscribe isn't working.

  • Do away with the unmonitored reply-to address. You miss out on important feedback that could alert you to problems before the recipient feels forced to unsubscribe.

When you improve the unsubscribe process, you boost deliverability. That's because you make it just as convenient, if not more so, for subscribers to opt out the right way instead of clicking the "report spam" button. That, in turn, improves your reputation with ISPs and third-party authenticators and accreditors, making you less vulnerable to blocking and filtering.

Phase Two: The Exit Interview

Instead of letting unsubscribers go with just a thank-you note, give them the opportunity to tell you why they're leaving. You can use that information to sharpen the focus of your e-mail program, redo your template or send schedule, improve personalization, or find other ways to become more valuable to subscribers or customers.

The fastest way to do this is to beef up your Web-based opt-out page by requesting more information or by offering other ways to keep the relationship going.

Instead of a brusque sentence saying, "Thanks, click here to be removed from future mailings," an opt-out page should include these elements:

  • A form asking why the subscriber is leaving. You can either use a text box and let the subscriber use his own words or provide a checklist of common reasons (no longer interested, don't like the offers, too much e-mail, images don't show up properly, mailings weren't what was expected or wanted). You'll get more responses from a checklist.

  • A form allowing subscribers to change preferences instead, including format (HTML to text or RSS or vice versa), frequency, or type of mailings.

  • An address change form.

  • A link to customer support or service, or a telephone number (if that's more appropriate) for subscribers who want to report a problem receiving or viewing your e-mail. (This should also be part of the regular e-mail message template to keep subscriber frustration from escalating into unsubscribing.)

Be sure to set up the page so it loads with the recipient's address prepopulated in the form. Also, don't require subscribers to fill out the survey forms for an unsubscribe to take effect.

Why Invest in the Unsubscribe?

It seems counterintuitive to devote time and resources to helping someone opt out of your list. It's certainly not a problem print direct mailers have to deal with.

But that's one of e-mail's advantages. Someone can pitch your paper catalog into the recycle bin and you'll never know. E-mail unsubscribe data, on the other hand, can help improve your program and retain more customers, even if they switch to a different channel. Your recipients started the conversation; give them the last word.

Until next time, keep on deliverin'.

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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