The Confirmation Quandary

When was the last time you sat on an airplane and listened, word for word, to the safety instructions? What if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) changed its policy without telling you, requiring each air traveler to ring the call button to get the plane to take off? You may not know it, but one major ISP is requiring its email users to press that call button for every list they subscribe to. They must reconfirm all email subscriptions prior to delivery.

The ISP is Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner. Terms of use state “Permission of new subscribers must be fully verified before mailings commence.” Yet Road Runner has never explicitly told users this is the case, nor does it publicize the policy to emailers, except on a security Web site. If users happen to label a message as spam to Road Runner, the emailer is blocked. The sender receives an error message containing a link to the policy Web page for resolution.

ISPs are entitled to their terms of use policies and should take appropriate actions to enforce them. In this case, Road Runner has taken a step beyond what the majority of permission emailers practice.

Road Runner refers to this as “confirmed” or “verified” opt-in. There’s a terminology discrepancy between its view and that of the rest of the industry. Here are the general industry definitions:

  • Confirmed opt-in. A user elects to receive email newsletters or standalone commercial messages. A confirmation email is sent to that user, who is not required to take further action to be included on the list. The confirmation email includes an opportunity to unsubscribe or opt out.
  • Double opt-in. A user elects to receive email newsletters or standalone commercial messages. A confirmation email is sent. The new subscriber must reply (either by replying to the message or clicking a link) before she can be added to the list.

In both cases, the emailer verifies the subscriber email address is valid, and subscribers have the option to either receive or unsubscribe from future mailings.

Confirmed opt-in’s advantage over double opt-in is no subscribers are lost during the confirmation process, except bounces. Although there are no formal industry studies on double opt-in loss, the general assumption (depending on the list) is confirmation loss could be as high as 50 percent. (Double opt-in also offers marketers strong advantages).

I mentioned to Mark Harrad, Time Warner Cable’s VP of communications, some emailers feel it’s a burden to require confirmation and subscribers are lost in the process. His response, “It’s not a burden to users if they truly want the email. It becomes their protection.”

That said, here are some measures emailers who practice, or are considering, double opt-in can take to reduce confirmation drop-offs.

Acquisition Notice

When a user enters his address, mention an email will be sent to him and include its estimated arrival time. Indicate the user is required to respond to that message to receive subsequent mailings. With transactional customers, consider placing this information on the page with order confirmation.


Ideally, a confirmation message is sent immediately. It should be sent while the subscription is fresh in subscribers’ minds and they’re still engaged in an online session. If you notify them it will be within a day or two, make sure you follow through on that promise. If your systems are slower, then requirements related to message content are even more relevant.

Subject Line Urgency

I don’t advocate “URGENT MESSAGE: PLEASE REPLY.” Users will think some foreign dictator’s daughter is calling. Instead, establish the brand and clearly describe the message’s purpose. For example, “Subscription Confirmation From COMPANY: Please Respond.”

Content Credibility

At issue is engaging users and getting their response. Regardless of the type of email relationship they request, the emailer is now officially a direct marketer. Direct Marketing 101: Keep it short and clear, and make the response mechanism simple. Do not, under any circumstances, send a commercial offer in a confirmation message. If you need a confirmation, that’s the only thing you should ask for. Explain to users they will not be added to the list until they take the necessary action.

Most desirable is a one-click confirmation link embedded in the message. Giving users a reply option with subject line intact is another good approach. Requiring them to write something in the subject line or body of the message or asking them to forward the email on to another address is not as effective.

Ensure the brand is clear, the list subscription is identified, and contact information is included. It’s also a good idea to link to your privacy or email policy.

Subsequent Messaging

With moderated discussion list subscriptions, the traditional practice is to send a post-confirmation message welcoming the user to the list. Usually the recipient is asked to save the message as a reminder of instructions for posting to the list or changing preferences. With most other subscriptions, it’s rare a subsequent message is sent other than regular list communiqués. The exception is if a password is involved. In that case, a follow-up message might include that information for future reference. Subsequent messaging can include commercial offers, including incentives for referrals or fulfillment of an incentive for subscribing.

The majority of permission emailers don’t practice double opt-in. As a result, when the majority of users subscribe to an email list, they don’t receive anything or are sent an opt-out confirmation. Many users habitually disregard confirmation messages.

Will Road Runner enforce a double opt-in policy? Will other ISPs follow suit? I asked Derek Harding, CTO of RappDigital Innovyx. He eloquently responded, “The reality is that ISPs are getting killed by billions of spam emails a day, and the companies who have less certain opt-in practices are not so much an issue as the truly bad emailers sending messages by the millions each hour. You can’t prosecute jaywalking while someone gets shot dead on the street.”

Should ISPs create and enforce double opt-in policies? Is double opt-in too much of a burden for emailers? Send me your thoughts!

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