Why ‘Opt-Down’ Improves on ‘Opt-Out’ for Unsubscribers

Most e-mail marketers would agree that unsubscribing should be fast and easy. It’s the law, after all, in the United States, the European Union, and elsewhere around the world.

One click, and you’re off the list. That’s the best way to do it. Or…is it?

An “opt-down” procedure gives potential unsubscribers options to refine their accounts and could help salvage subscriptions without skirting either spam laws or triggering Internet service provider (ISP) delivery alarms. After all, you worked hard to acquire those subscribers the first time, and you should save what you can.

I’m not saying marketers should try every trick in the book to retain subscribers, like obscuring the unsubscribe, forcing log-ins or passwords, surveys, or viewing offers before processing the opt-out.

Those are illegal and unethical, a direct route to spam complaints, blocking by ISPs and, ultimately, a broken e-mail program.

However, an all-or-nothing unsubscribe seldom serves either your program or your subscribers’ needs.

‘Opt-Out’ Isn’t Always the Answer

Yes, an easy unsubscribe helps reduce your spam-complaint volume, for which your e-mail service provider’s deliverability guru thanks you.

However, not everybody who wants to unsubscribe really wants to stop all contact. The top two reasons unsubscribers want off a list, according to Forrester Research, are irrelevant e-mails (74 percent of responses) and too many e-mails (71 percent). Only 26 percent said they didn’t want to hear from the brand or company again.

So, for that 26 percent, provide a barrier-free unsubscribe process that uses a prominently displayed unsubscribe link and speeds them off your list in as few clicks as possible (one click to access the Web page, one click to submit the e-mail address that loads automatically in the address field). For the other 74 percent, the opt-down strategy can place control in their hands.

‘Opt-Down’ Puts Control Back in Subscriber Hands

On the same Web page as the opt-out form, present your multi-option “opt-down” process that lets potential unsubscribers change content, frequency, format, even the communication channel they want to use.

This doesn’t delay your true unsubscribers from opting out, but it can slow down those who just want a change.

When your subscribers can exercise choice, they also help refine your segmentation strategies. This increases message relevance (or, at least, reduces irritation) and doesn’t injure your sender reputation with increased complaints.

Here’s how this can work:

A women’s-clothing retailer sends one message in each of six standard message streams to its entire list each week: regular-price inventory, new arrivals, new markdowns, clearance, accessories and premium/designer fashions.

That’s six e-mails a week total from this company. Its most ardent fans might welcome this, but chances are that’s too much for the average shopper, especially for infrequent buyers.

With an opt-down strategy, a subscriber who clicks the unsubscribe link would be taken to a page that allows her to continue the unsubscribe process but also to consider other options.

She could choose just one or two message streams instead of being forced to accept the standard one-size-fits-all stream. The fashion-forward subscriber will likely choose the new-arrivals and premium categories that the bargain-hunter ordinarily deletes without opening.

The subscriber is happy because she ends up getting the e-mails she really wants, and the merchant has retained a subscriber.

Creating an Opt-Down Strategy

  • Use topic choice rather than cadence to reduce e-mail frequency. Limiting yourself to a set number of messages in a specific time period can tie your hands (“no more than one e-mail per week,” for example.) Nor does it build relevance, which is your ultimate goal. Also, topic categories will help you segment more effectively.

  • Define your message streams clearly. Just as you do when collecting subscriptions, define the types of e-mail you send in consumer-friendly terms. As in the example above, topic names can indicate both content and frequency: “Clearance,” “New Arrivals” or even “Special of the Week.”
  • Start with a survey. CAN-SPAM doesn’t allow you to require unsubscribers to fill out a survey on why they want out (that would be considered a barrier to removal requests), but an optional one, which you present on the same Web page as the unsubscribe, can help you identify options for improving your e-mail program. Keep the survey short, and allow for freeform responses. You’ll be surprised what you can learn.
  • Encourage subscribers to update their preferences regularly. This uses the preference form that new subscribers would be asked to fill out after confirmation. The unsubscribe form that includes both the opt-out and the preference options looks similar but places the opt-out more prominently.

    Promote its use in your welcome e-mails, with a special update message, and in your regular e-mails in the same place you put your unsubscribe link. “Click to manage your subscription preferences or to unsubscribe” tells readers they have the power to control their subscriptions.

  • Act on what subscribers are telling you. It’s not enough just to solicit information. You need to use it to improve your e-mail program and retain more subscribers, instead of losing them to unsubscribes, spam complaints and inactivity.

    Some e-mail professionals have mocked JCPenney’s practice of e-mailing an unsubscribe survey to people either after they opt out or when they uncheck a prechecked opt-in box during a transaction.

    While I agree, the real shame is that the retailer isn’t paying attention to what people are saying. I made several comments in its “survey” over a year ago about the same problems the experts have been pointing out, and the company never even acknowledged or changed anything. That can trash your e-mail program’s effectiveness just as much as a poor sender reputation.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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