Unsubscribe Best Practices and Beyond

I haven’t written about unsubscription since shortly after CAN-SPAM came into effect in the United States. In the interim, although I’d heard of a few problematic practices here and there, I’d believed them to be few and far between and only really present in the margins. Recently, though, the Online Trust Alliance (OTA) released its “Email Unsub Best Practices & Audit.” For the audit they analyzed the email programs of the top 200 e-commerce companies and while generally quite heartening, some of the results showed significant executional shortcomings.

The OTA lists 10 unsubscribe best practices, all of which are valuable, but I want to highlight three areas that stand out for me in light of the survey findings. The most startling, though not exactly surprising, finding is that more than 10 percent of the top 200 sites either failed to include an unsubscription link or failed to honor the request within the prescribed 10 days.

1. Always Include an Unsubscription Link, Not Just When Legally Required

In my experience, failure to include an unsubscription link can be caused by a simple functional error, but more frequently it is due to classifying a message as transactional and therefore not legally required to include an unsubscription link. This is something that I’ve come across on numerous occasions and my advice to clients is almost always the same: Include the unsubscription link even if you’re not legally required to do so. Also, honor unsubscriptions even when you’re not legally required to do so. What I mean is that even if your transactional notices are technically permitted despite an opt-out, honor that opt-out all the same.

I make this recommendation because email is a permission-based medium. Recipients are not required to accept your email and you cannot force them to do so. If you remove the unsubscription link and they want to unsubscribe, they’ll find another way. Either they’ll hit the spam button or they’ll block you (in today’s world the two are often synonymous), a far worse outcome than having them unsubscribe through your own process. The same holds true if you send an email after someone has opted out.

2. Regularly Test the Process End-to-End

The faulty unsubscription link is unfortunately an all-too-common issue with emails. Testing an unsubscription link is often difficult. Verifying not only that the link itself works but that the correct subscriber is successfully removed from the list without actually removing test users from the list takes effort. In many cases, the result is that the unsubscription process is not thoroughly tested end-to-end on a regular basis, and so when something breaks it can be some time before anyone notices. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts or easy fixes to this. Regular testing of unsubscription and profile management processes are an unfortunate necessity and neglecting them is not an option.

3. Use and Check Your List-Unsubscribe Header

This is a slightly less surprising, but equally important, finding related to the list-unsubscribe header. At this point, even though the header is technically optional, no email marketer should consider it to be anything less than mandatory. Email service providers first started to support it more than eight years ago and ever since Gmail began using it as its poor man’s feedback loop in 2012, no marketer should consider sending email without it. In the OTA’s analysis, though, almost a quarter of companies’ email did not contain this vital header.

Make sure all your emails contain this header and that it works, end-to-end.

In my experience, marketers are not enthused about unsubscriptions seeing them as losing a customer, or at least losing an opportunity. In a world where marketers often have performance objectives around list growth, this is understandable. As marketers, though, we need to move beyond this.

The always connected customer interacts across a range of channels with a variety of brands. They have choices about which companies they will do business with. They will choose the ones that respect them and honor their wishes. Therefore we should not view unsubscription as losing a customer but as an opportunity, recognizing that there will be other interactions and other times and in other channels.

The OTA describes this approach as moving from compliance to stewardship – going beyond meeting the minimum legal standards into stewardship of our customer data. As a marketer I see this stewardship as creating a great customer experience, which is vital in the age of the customer.

Until next time.

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