Complying With CAN-SPAM: Optimize Your Unsubscribe Process

Last time, I gave a quick reference version of a report I put together for myself and my clients based on my reading of the CAN-SPAM Act. Today, tips for the unsubscribe process.

Having a working unsubscribe mechanism in your email is not only a key provision of CAN-SPAM, it’s always been a best practice in email marketing. Are you taking full advantage of the opportunity? Some marketers view unsubscribe as their nemesis. But if you optimize the process, you can not only make leaving easy for readers, you can gain valuable feedback and possibly get them to opt-in for different email communications, or plant a seed for them to resubscribe.

The four common unsubscribe mechanisms:

  • Reply/remove. Subscribers reply with “remove” or “unsubscribe” in the subject line.
  • General link. Subscribers click to land on a page where they enter their email addresses.
  • Customized link. Subscribers click a link coded with your email address and land on a page confirming the remove.
  • Subscription management system. Subscribers click and land on a page with personal and email subscription information, which can be modified.

Tips for Optimization

Unsubscribe mechanisms. I always recommend my clients incorporate at least two unsubscribe mechanisms into their email. This gives some insurance should one not work (an even more important consideration now that CAN-SPAM rules the land). It also makes getting off your list easier. I further recommend one of the mechanisms be what I call “reply/remove.”

You should all be familiar with reply/remove, so I won’t say too much. It was one of the first unsubscribe mechanisms available. In the early years, we really trained people to do this to get off a list. For that reason, I want to ensure the method works.

Your IT group may try to talk you out of using this method. Don’t let them. Some IT groups prefer to use a “do not reply” address for the send. This eliminates the need to sift through replies (in addition to unsubscribes you may get feedback you must read and perhaps reply to, not to mention out-of-office messages). From a customer service perspective, it’s better to keep this channel open for unsubscribes and other communications.

General/customized links. These are also pretty straight-forward. I prefer customized links. It’s one less step for the reader to take to be removed. One caveat: a custom link may allow the actual subscriber to be removed by someone the email was forwarded to. I haven’t seen this happen with any frequency, but you should be aware it’s a possibility.

As insurance, always send an email confirming the unsubscribe. That assures people aren’t removed from your list without their knowledge. Another safeguard: Password-protect the system (and don’t include the password in the email) so only the actual subscriber can make changes.

Subscription management systems. I love subscription management systems; they offer the best opportunity to make the unsubscribe work for you. They can also save administrative time and are a tremendous tool in complying with CAN-SPAM.

A subscription management system gives subscribers access to their account information. They’re able to update personal information (email address, name, etc.) and view/change subscription options. If you offer more than one email newsletter or type of email communication, you can list them all on the system. Subscribers can opt in or out at will.

Some marketers fear subscribers will opt out of everything. Smart marketers realize giving subscribers options and allowing them to make their own choices about what they want to receive results in a more engaged subscriber base. They may unsubscribe from newsletter A but opt in to receive newsletter B.

The other huge benefit is something subscribers don’t see: the back end. That’s where a list of unsubscribes, segmented by list, is kept. You may need the list as a suppression file to comply with CAN-SPAM.

It’s also where you’ll have a record of all opt-ins, including date, time, and the IP address they came from, to use as proof of affirmative consent. Having a list that can be proven to be affirmative consent may get you out of some potential CAN-SPAM requirements going forward, including the Scarlet Letter: adding “ADV” to the subject line and (already written into the law) a notice in the email body that it’s a commercial message.

Does subscription management sound expensive? It doesn’t have to be. E-mail vendors at all price points include subscription management capabilities in their standard offerings.

Other Quick Optimization Tips

  • Tell them which email address you’re sending to. Always include a note in the email footer that lists the email address you send to. This is especially important if the recipient’s email doesn’t appear in the recipient line (e.g., if you use the BCC line or a hidden address distribution list for the send). Many people use email forwarding. If they try to use a reply/remove mechanism, it probably won’t work. The email it’s sent from isn’t the one in the list owner’s database.
  • Include unsubscribe URLs. Just in case links aren’t live (a common feature in many new spam filters), include the actual URL of the unsubscribe or subscription management link in the email body. If the link doesn’t work, subscribers can still copy and paste the actual URL into their browsers and get to the subscription management system or off the list.
  • Unsubscribes don’t just happen online. CAN-SPAM requires you to have a process to fulfill unsubscribe requests within 10 days, no matter what channel they come through: online, USPS mail, telephone, and so on. Be sure people at each contact point knows how to handle the requests.
  • Send an email confirming the unsubscribe. You should always send an email confirming the unsubscribe. An autoresponder including the address removed and the date is the best way to go. You won’t be in violation of CAN-SPAM in so doing. You have 10 days to remove them from your list, so one more email within that period is covered.

    The smartest organizations use this message as an opportunity. They gently invite readers to resubscribe at any time, include a link to do so, and ask them to save the email for their records. Even smarter: Ask people to tell you why they’re unsubscribing. Few will respond, but you may get some information you can use to improve the content, frequency, or focus of your email messages. Often, you’ll get assurances they aren’t really leaving, just changing email addresses or going on vacation.

Unsubscribe Is for the Long Term

Keep a suppression list of your unsubscribes. According to CAN-SPAM, you cannot mail them again unless they provide affirmative consent, that is, opt back in to your list. This is especially important if you rent third-party lists. You must suppress anyone who ever previously unsubscribed from your lists.

Some discussion with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests this could apply to one-on-one email sent by your sales force. You may need to suppress these names from your sales force management system, too.

Thinking strategically about unsubscribe mechanisms can help keep your email lists engaged, encourage growth, and keep you in line with CAN-SPAM regulations.

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

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