Opting-Out Gracefully

  |  February 24, 2005   |  Comments

How to be 'clear and conspicuous' (not to mention legally compliant) with e-mail opt-out mechanisms.

It's well known CAN-SPAM requires a functioning opt-out mechanism and a physical contact address in all commercial email. Yet in recent months, I've seen a significant number of emails from legitimate senders who may unwittingly be failing to meet these requirements.

What seems to have been lost on some senders is that the opt-out mechanism must be "clear and conspicuous," and that what works in one email client may not work in another. I'm not a lawyer, but the term "clear and conspicuous" is pretty clear to me. There are a number of ways in which email opt-out copy can end up being neither clear nor conspicuous. I've seen examples of all the following problems.

Using Images

In an attempt to avoid content-based spam filters, some senders are placing opt-out copy in images. The problem is that many email clients and Web-based email providers, including new versions of Outlook, Hotmail and Yahoo, do not load images by default. If the image isn't loaded, effectively the opt-out copy doesn't exist.

Tiny Text

It's not uncommon for commercial messages to include a footer with disclaimers and opt-out instructions in very small print. Opt-out copy buried within pages of hard to read small type disclaimers isn't clear or conspicuous. When font-size and screen variations are factored in, the copy may actually be illegible for many recipients.

HTML Rendering

While some of the most common email clients use Internet Explorer to render HTML, many do not. These may not support all the latest HTML formatting capabilities. In addition, many Web-based email systems alter the HTML in messages by applying their own style sheets, layout and redirection.

The result is that fancy formatting and layouts may be lost on some systems, with unfortunate results. If you use white text on a black background, for example, it may display perfectly in your system while in another environment that white text may end up on a white background and be rendered invisible.

Non-Functioning Opt-Out

Some spam filters disable hypertext links. This can result in the opt-out mechanism not functioning for some recipients, even if it's working.

Another example I saw was a client-side imagemap. It made only a portion of the image clickable. Unfortunately, a number of email clients don't support imagemaps, which makes the link unusable for those recipients.

So What?

You may be thinking these cases are all marginal. If your message contains an opt-out mechanism, who's going to split hairs over the definition of "clear and conspicuous" or "functioning" when there's so much outright spam on the Internet?

There are two answers to this. The first is I doubt you want to become the test case for these definitions. Given how hard it is to track down spammers, I wouldn't be surprised to see prosecution of a high-profile organization that believed it was CAN-SPAM compliant. The second is it's really about customer service and public perception. If your subscribers can't find or use the opt-out link when they wish to stop receiving your messages, they'll to be unhappy -- and much more likely to complain to their ISP.

Recommendations

Make sure you comply with the CAN-SPAM requirements. At the same time, keep your subscribers happy by making opt-out copy:

  • Easy to find. Don't bury it deep in a set of terms, conditions and disclaimers. Recent studies indicate commercial messages are viewed for as little as 15-20 seconds. If the real estate at the top of the message is too valuable, place it further down, but make certain it's easy to find when quickly scanning the message.

  • Easy to read. Use text rather than an image for this copy. Use the standard font size and color. Don't rely on the style sheet to keep the text visible. Keep copy short and to the point. While some content analyzers do look for opt-out copy, many of those same analyzers also look for heavy use of images to avoid content filtering, while using small print and hard to read copy.

  • Easy to use. Provide at least two on-line ways to opt-out. Commonly, this is a link to click on, along with replying with "unsubscribe" or "remove" in the subject line.

I recommend the first option. For most recipients it's easiest, and if the link is customized to include their subscriber ID or email address it's not prone to error. Supporting the latter approach works for two reasons. Some anti-spam tools disable links, and this mechanism continues to work in such a scenario. Also, even with messages that specifically ask the recipient not to reply many subscribers still use the reply mechanism.

Resist the temptation to ask for a password in order to opt-out. It's very uncommon for someone to opt someone else out due to message forwarding, and the frustration when you can't remember your password is exactly what you wish to avoid.

Until next time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Derek Harding

Derek Harding is the CEO and founder of Innovyx Inc., a member of the Omnicom Group and the first e-mail service provider to be wholly owned by a full-service marketing agency. A British expatriate living in Seattle, WA, Derek is a technologist by background who has been working in online marketing on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 10 years.

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