Beginning of the End for Double Opt-In

There was life before September 11, and there is life in the aftermath. The Internet business existed in one world before the April 2000 stock market crash; a wholly different philosophy embraced it thereafter. Online publishers’ attitudes toward intrusive ads leaned one way before the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) endorsed bigger, flashier creative. Another mindset has prevailed since.

As we look at the past and try to gain a perspective on change, sometimes we can pinpoint a moment at which the tide began to turn. Such a moment may have quietly occurred a few weeks ago, when the email marketing world’s staunchest, most adamant, and righteous defender of double opt-in agreed to manage single opt-in lists.

“We don’t want to make these statements in a vacuum. No one has jumped on the double opt-in train,” said Michael Mayor, president and chief operating officer of NetCreations, which runs the service. “We have an obligation to be where the market is.”

It’s a sad day for Internet idealists like myself. I’ve written editorials in the past advocating quality over quantity. Maybe you’ll lose a few names in the double opt-in process (only about 40 percent confirm), but you’ll have a better list as a result.

Such ideas seem to be losing currency in this difficult economic climate. Pinching pennies is how marketers prove they’re fiscally responsible. Perhaps it’s a good thing, as experience may prove (though opinions are mixed), that other factors are more important than the level of opt-in. Obviously business considerations — the market, effectiveness, return on investment — are prevailing over misty-eyed idealism in a more mature industry.

“Clients are not willing to pay a premium for double opt-in over single opt-in,” said John Rizzi, president and chief executive officer of email marketing firm e-Dialog. charges about $0.15 per name for single opt-in lists versus $0.35 to $0.40 for double opt-in names (which are, bear in mind, mostly business-to-business names). The company says its single opt-in lists generate around 1.5 to 2.5 percent click-through, while double opt-in lists are twice as responsive, generating a 3 to 5 percent click-through rate (though it’s difficult to compare apples to apples in the list world). Still, at that price, you pay more than twice as many bucks for just twice as much click-through. So, the numbers favor single opt-in. These days, the numbers are all that matter.

Over at Bigfoot Interactive, Michael Della Penna, the vice president of marketing, is in charge of list acquisition. He says he hasn’t seen a dramatic difference in effectiveness between single opt-in and double opt-in lists. What’s more important has been how often the list is mailed to, whether it contains fresh names, and whether the collection site is a good match for the marketer’s offer.

Jason Heller, chief executive officer of Mass Transit Interactive, agrees: “Double opt-in versus single opt-in versus opt-out means little if the user who signs up at checks off that he/she is interested in computing and technology and then receives IT offers on a regular basis. We tend to pick lists for our clients that are contextually relevant to what we are offering. Over the years, we have found that the response rates are exponentially higher this way.”

The means of name collection is important, but it’s much more complex than a matter of double or single opt-in. Marketers should look for a number of factors:

  • Does the sign-up page clearly indicate what people are getting into when they provide their email addresses?
  • Is there a prechecked box or preselected button (negative opt-out), or does the user select it himself?
  • Is the list provided by a reputable source?

Della Penna recommends that marketers examine the specific page used to gather names to get a real sense of what people who sign up are expecting.

To be fair, NetCreations hasn’t given up entirely on championing double opt-in. Mayor says its new position is that lists gathered solely for the purposes of rental and third-party mailings should remain double opt-in. Single opt-in is acceptable for house lists (newsletters and the like) that receive “partner offers.”

For publishers and others collecting names, this shift may be confusing. “How should I be collecting names?” you may be wondering. If you currently use a double-opt in method, consider holding onto the names of people who opt in once, but not twice. Change the language on the subscription page and confirmation email accordingly. Keeping single opt-in names will give you the option of mailing to that list in the future. Make sure they can easily opt out, of course.

Such a hard-nosed, unsentimental view of gathering names saddens me, somehow. After all, don’t you want the people on your list to really, really want to receive offers? If it makes that much of a difference, double opt-in will win in the end. If more carefully gathered lists actually do perform better — and are priced accordingly — the numbers will speak for themselves. Things have changed, but are they getting better or worse? Only time, and testing, will tell.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, ClickZ has a double opt-in policy. Feel free to view our subscription page and corporate privacy policy.

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