Marketers Unsubscribe Practices: Good, but not Great

The unsubscribe function in commercial e-mail is too often treated like the black sheep at the family reunion: they have a right to be there, but nobody wants to deal with them.

That represents a major loss of opportunity. The unsubscribe can provide a wealth of knowledge for marketers, who can use what they learn to improve their e-mail marketing programs’ efficiency and productivity, as measured by better deliverability, higher ROI (define), and lower list churn. Besides that, getting unsubscribe right, like communing with the family black sheep, is just the right thing to do.

Marketers are beginning to take unsubscribing more seriously, according to the newest “Retail Email Unsubscribe Benchmark Study,” which my company published recently.

This is good news, because unsubscribing should be, as study author Chad White puts it, “friction-free,” to reduce spam complaints.

Only a minority of marketers are taking advantage of all the options and alternatives they could offer to retain customers, either in a different channel or a different configuration, or to learn what their disengaged subscribers are telling them.

Encouraging Signs: “Opt-Down” Growing, More Options Offered

I’m encouraged to see that twice as many marketers offer the option to reduce message frequency (“opt-down” instead of “opt-out”). Of the 100 major online retailers tracked by the Retail Email Blog in 2010, 35 percent provided this option compared to only 16 percent in 2008.

This positive step can help marketers reduce unsubscribes and potentially spam complaints. As Chad notes in the survey, too-frequent e-mail is one of the main reasons people want off a mailing list.

I also noticed more retailers are fine-tuning their unsubscribe process to make it more flexible than just opting off the list entirely:

  • Alternatives. More retailers offered alternatives to unsubscribing like opt-down, preference changes, or address changes (76 percent in 2010, 56 percent in 2008).
  • Surveys. More retailers are surveying unsubscribers to find out why they left (20 percent in 2010, 11 percent in 2008) or offering feedback forms at opt-out (9 percent in 2010, 1 percent in 2008).

Negative Signs: Too Many Clicks, Too Few Alternatives

Despite these gains, most marketers still aren’t taking advantage of everything the unsubscribe process has to offer.

For example, even though 20 percent of marketers post surveys on confirmation pages or in e-mails, that means 80 percent aren’t. Why not? The best way to know about what’s not great about you is to listen to the “break up speech.” When someone leaves you, it is when they are most apt to tell the truth, even when the truth hurts. (This is true with consumer, customer, client, employee, and personal relationships.)

Further, more marketers are apparently making it more difficult to unsubscribe by requiring more clicks to complete the process. Nearly 40 percent required three or more clicks in 2010 (up from 6 percent in 2008).

The one-click unsubscribe has fallen from favor (3 percent in 2010, 9 percent in 2008), which is actually a positive trend, because it implies that marketers are leveraging opt-down and other techniques to retain customers or learn from their departure.

However, drawing out the process in three clicks or more makes it more likely impatient people will skip it and click the “report spam” button instead.

Some other places where marketers are missing opportunities to retain, reengage, or learn from dissatisfied subscribers:

  • Opt-over. A small, but growing trend is to provide an alternate communication channel once someone unsubscribes. Only 7 percent reminded unsubscribers of other messaging channels subscribers could use to receive information (2 percent in 2008). These include RSS feeds, direct mail/catalogs, Facebook/Twitter/MySpace/YouTube networks, mobile/SMS messages, or a desktop application. Think of it as “opting over” instead of “opting out.”
  • Thank you. Fewer marketers offered “good-bye” or “thank you” messages to unsubscribers (16 percent in 2010, 18 percent in 2008). A polite break up is better than an impolite one.
  • Stop means stop. Thirteen percent of marketers (8 percent in 2008) sent two or more e-mails after receiving the unsubscribe but before removing the address within the 10-day window allowed by CAN-SPAM – the U.S. regulations governing commercial e-mail. Legal or not, every e-mail that goes out after the subscriber opts out can increase the likelihood of a spam complaint. Think about it. If you unsubscribe and still get two or more e-mails, would you hit the spam button? I’d bet yes.

Why Focus on Unsubscribing?

A subscriber who wants to leave a mailing list is signaling that something has gone wrong:

  • Too many e-mails
  • Too many irrelevant e-mails
  • The subscriber’s interests changed
  • The subscriber wanted to change an e-mail address but didn’t know how

What’s Next?

If you are part of the majority not innovating in your unsubscribe processes, do some experiments. Listen to why people don’t like you or don’t like your actions.

One of my favorite ratios is the number of buyers divided by the number of unsubscribers: how many people today thought you hit the mark versus totally missed the mark? Are you hot or not?

Did our report miss any trends you are seeing? Let us know! Thanks.

Ed Henrich is off today. This column was originally published April 1, 2010.

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