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9 Ways to Let Go: Email Opt Outs

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 set the U.S. Federal standards for the transmission of commercial email messages, including giving recipients the right to opt-out. That may seem like old news but if you haven’t taken a serious look at how you handle email opt-outs consider that email marketers have developed a variety of approaches for carrying out this simple function over the last 10+ years. It may be time for an overhaul. 

These things are still true. You can’t:

1) charge a fee

2) require a recipient to provide personally identifying information beyond an email address

3) make recipients take extensive steps other than simply replying to an email or visiting a single page on a website to unsubscribe themselves from your emails

4) you must honor opt-out requests promptly by processing an unsubscribe request within 10 days and having the unsubscribe functionality in place for at least 30 days after the mailing.

Inside your email #1: the basic opt-out.

There’s been a good deal of talk in email marketing circles about whether or not the unsubscribe option should be placed at the top of the email. The thinking being that between the choice of “unsubscribe” or “marked as spam”, unsubscribe is the preferred. It may seem commonsense to us who live and breathe email / online marketing that people who receive email know how to manage it. But I was recently shocked to discover a savvy friend of mine had no idea that he could unsubscribe and was using the junk mail button to get off of lists that he opted into in the first place. It would appear that Google thinks  that there a good number of people like my friend. No longer willing to wait for marketers, Google has recently taken the bull by the horns by adding the “unsubscribe” to the “from” address (red circle is mine) for some portion of the emails that are going through their platform. It’s too soon to tell if Gmail addresses are shrinking greatly as a result of this change.

My take. If you're getting "lots" of spam complaints (keep in mind that ISPs have a much lower tolerance than you do) or feedback that it's difficult to unsubscribe than you may want to consider adding a visible unsubscribe at the top of your emails. Otherwise, keep the action where is has traditionally been placed at the footer of your email efforts; either baked into your ESP’s template or via additional mousetype in your creative.

You can go as simple as Dr. Weil which cuts to the chase.


Or consider something more like Consumer Union's belt and suspenders solution. A recipient can either reply to the email or click on a link that allows them to unsubscribe. One of those methods is all that is needed.


While either gets the job done by honoring the provision to allow someone an easy opt-out it, I don’t recommend it. Especially, if there is no attempt on the backend to try and win these people back to your list. NOTE: In both of the above examples, there is an attempt to keep the email name active which you’ll see a little further down.

Inside your email #2: tell us your preference.
The basic opt-out approach detailed above either opts people out immediately or tries to win them back when they hit the web page. Many email marketers choose to start the win back effort right at the beginning of the process.

Rodale’s Men’s Health offers a very straightforward and clean service center that encompasses a variety of things email recipients may want to do:


A simplified version of this idea keeps the recipient focused specifically on how they wish to manage their email:

GroupOn uses a wordier approach, plus a touch of humor to promote the same idea – namely to get the recipient to unsubscribe by list or by promotion type rather than globally.


Once you decide how you are going to incorporate the opt-out process in your emails the next consideration is how are you going to treat the person who is about to leave you on the opt-out page itself. 

The “fine, we don’t want you anyway” approach.
This may not be this list owner’s intent but it certainly feels like they are happy to see me go. I am often surprised at how frequently I still receive some variation of this basic idea. "You said you wanted to unsubscribe, so we unsubscribed you". There is no warm and fuzzy, no hope that I’ll return, and no easy way to get back on the list in case I just wanted to see what happened if I clicked on that link. It’s sort of like “opt-out” on steroids.


The “you very well may be sorry” approach.
As noted earlier, Dr. Weil may allow you to focus on unsubscribing in the email but his marketing team is quite aware that “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over”.



The “in case you change your mind or made a mistake” approach.
Consumer Union also begins the heavy lifting of getting former recipients to stay on board at the opt-out page. They take a little bit longer than some others to get there, waiting to the final paragraph to make the request. One thing this page does well is remind subscribers/members what emails they will continue to receive – often an area of confusion for people who opt-out.


Here’s a simpler treatment of that same idea:


The “humorous or we’re still friends (very much in love)” approach.

Reminds the recipient that there are human beings involved in the process and leaves you with a good feeling about the list that you are leaving. Not appropriate for every list but some version of this approach (without humor) is something to consider for your own opt-out - "sorry to see you go; hope you will come back; come back anytime".



The opt-down “Preference Center” approach.
This is particularly effective for organizations that send daily or multiple email messages per week. According to a Forrester Research study, 71% of unsubscribers state that they leave a list because they are getting too many emails, and 74% say they unsubscribe if the emails are irrelevant. However, only 26% reported that they NEVER wanted to hear from that brand or company again. 

That gives email marketers a good deal of opportunity to hold onto some number of these names. If you offer multiple product lines or types of emails (e.g. new arrivals, clearance sales, member discounts, etc..), Viv’s approach is one that may work well for you:


A variation of this idea (see below) works if you are essentially generating the same content in a daily email or newsletter. We saw very good success with this for one our clients who was receiving a large number of unsubscribes to their daily newsletter. We encouraged them to create a weekly version of it. It did so well in reducing unsubscribes that it is now marketed as a stand-alone email product.

In the example below, Tasting Table encourages reduced frequency as the primary option:

7x7 Magazine takes a softer approach, asking for your reasons for unsubscribing to the daily and encouraging the option to receive the weekly edition.


The “personal appeal / important work/did you call your mother” approach.
A variation of the Preference Center this approach reminds the recipient that there is still work to be done. This can work very well for nonprofits and other cause-related email lists. In this case, First Lady Obama reminds viewers of the good work that has been done and what remains to be done. While she doesn’t ask directly that someone stay on the list the complementary written message motivates (guilts?) the recipient to decrease emails rather than get off the list completely. Staying on the list keeps you involved in the fight.



Today’s opt-out is tomorrow’s opt-in.
Consider how you treat the people who opt-out of your list. Do you understand what it is they are trying to accomplish? Oftentimes, I have opted out of a list because it was the only alternative that was offered to me. I try to make sure as a marketer that I don’t make that mistake. If you are seeing a greater number of unsubscribes than you think you should and are constrained by your ESP’s or in-house programs capabilities in this regard find out if it can be changed or consider moving to a platform with more sophisticated capabilities for email management.

And, of course, no matter what you do. You will always lose some percentage of names to opt-outs, email address changes, etc…