People will unsubscribe from your email list – maybe 25% or more – accept it. Don’t fight it. If they want to leave, it’s probably your fault.

The penalties for making it hard to unsubscribe include damaging customer relations and brand reputation, getting reported to the authorities, receiving fines, but most likely and perhaps most dangerous of all – being marked as SPAM (unsolicited mail) by recipients.

In this article, I’ll give you 11 rules to help make it easy for email subscribers to opt out and keep you on the right side of customers, the law, regulators, ISPs and email providers. First, some perspective…

Let’s put this in perspective

A customer wants to leave your store / restaurant / office because you’ve tricked or forced them to come in or you can’t provide the product or service they want at the right price? How do you react? Do you lock your doors? Put obstacles in the way to slow them down? And if you do, how do you think they will react?

Why is your email marketing program any different?

It is clear to anyone who has conducted a purge of their inbox that few marketing emails share the same method for unsubscribing. On some the unsubscribe link is harder to find, on others the landing page (or series of pages) place way too many hurdles between the subscriber and the exit. We share a number of examples in this article.

So what are the rules of email unsubscribing?

John Mitchison, is head of preference services, compliance and legal at the Direct Marketing Association (DMA):

There should be a clear link at the top of the email message that takes the user to a dedicated landing page. Any necessary information should self-populate on this page, enabling the user to have a simple one-click ‘unsubscribe all’ option available. Businesses may ask for additional information from the person unsubscribing, but this should not get in the way of the one-click option either.

There is no specific rule about how companies should allow unsubscribing from email, but the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does state that removing consent should be as easy as giving it. This means that if businesses try to make it difficult or confusing they may find themselves receiving complaints.

The GDPR, comes into force in May 2018. If you send email to EU residents it matters to you. For the UK specifically, see the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and its guidance on consent.

The test: Is unsubscribing as easy as subscribing?

Whether or not companies are sending emails to subscribers in the EU, all companies should be applying the ‘is-it-as-easy-as-signing-up?’ test to their unsubscribe process.

  • Step 1. Sign up to your company’s email newsletter via a link on your website. How easy is it? (Learn how to improve sign ups)
  • Step 2. Sign yourself up to receive email marketing using the opt-in at registration or checkout. How easy was that? (Learn more about opt-in vs. opt-out)
  • Step 3. Wait for the emails to land in your in-box. Find the unsubscribe option and opt-out. Count the clicks involved.
  • Step 4. Compare with your competitors.
  • Step 5. Now user test with a real customer (just in case you’re not being objective).

Check out the results of the Litmus survey (October 2016) below. Forty eight percent of 1,300 respondents surveyed said it was very easy to opt in to brand marketing emails, but only 38% said companies made it very easy for people to unsubscribe. Vice versa, only 16% said it was very difficult to sign up, whereas 20% said unsubscribing was very difficult.

Would your email subscribers put you in the red zone (very easy) for your subscribe and unsubscribe processes?

It’s clear that many companies, even big household names, do not try very hard to make it easy for customers to unsubscribe.

The image below shows numbered screenshots from the unsubscribe process for McDonald’s UK.

  1. In the email footer, the subscriber clicks on “click here” in the sentence: “If you would like to unsubscribe from these emails, please click here.”
  2. The first web landing page invites the subscriber to enter their email address.
  3. A second page asks “Are you sure you would like [email address] to be removed?” with two choices “Yes (I don’t want to receive offers/promotions)” and “No”.
  4. When “Yes” is clicked, a third page loads. It asks “Tell us why you are leaving”. This forces a choice of four answers.
  5. Choosing one answer, we finally have a confirmation that “Subscription updates have been successfully made”. With a request for a follow on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

mcdonald's unsubscribe

A more user-friendly approach would be:

  1. Use a standalone, bolded and underlined link to “Unsubscribe”, as is the case with “Contact us”, but ideally at the very bottom of the email (and perhaps at the top also). Give the call to action a headline to draw attention to it (see Norstrom and Gap examples further down this article).
  2. Prepopulate the email address field (drop the “Are you sure?” page, it’s unnecessary).
  3. One click to confirmation page, with option to give feedback (don’t force it) and an invitation to follow on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube instead.

So why do companies make it difficult to unsubscribe?

Colby Cavanaugh, senior vice president of marketing at email service provider (ESP) Emma, explains:

It’s difficult to build a large email list – and lists churn about 25-30% a year on average – so many brands try to cling to the subscribers they already have by making it incredibly difficult or confusing to unsubscribe.

Cavanaugh remarks that “this is a bad idea on lots of levels:

a) Marketing to an audience who doesn’t want to hear from you isn’t likely to do you much good.

b) If you’re paying your email service provider based on number of contacts, you’re wasting money for the sake of a bloated list size.

c) Finally, people will be more likely to report your emails as spam, which can have an adverse effect on sender reputations with ISPs.”

Damned as SPAM

Forty three percent of email recipients regularly mark promotional emails from brands as spam or confine them to the spam folder according to the aforementioned Litmus survey. The main reasons they mark email as spam are that emails are irrelevant or too frequent (57% say this), the consumer is no longer interested in brand (53%), they didn’t knowingly and willingly subscribe to receive the emails (51%) or they couldn’t easily figure out how to unsubscribe (50%).

And yes this matters. Mailbox providers, such as Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo etc., do not want to send users spam, and one of the factors that helps the automated filters make this legitimate/illegitimate email decision is the level of spam button clicks or relegations to the spam folder.

Guy Hanson, is Chair of DMA Email Council and senior director, Professional Services International, Return Path, which runs a certified senders program (a whitelist of email senders):

If subscribers can’t find an unsubscribe link they are more likely to register a spam complaint instead and this is seen negatively by mailbox providers like Gmail and Hotmail and will ultimately result in reduced email deliverability.

So, what are the rules to make it easy for users to unsubscribe from email?

Rule #1. Face it, it’s your fault. Really

If someone wants to unsubscribe from your email it’s because:

a) They didn’t want to sign up in the first place.
b) They just wanted the freebie/discount.
c) Your emails are rubbish, or you oversold them.
d) You sent too many.
e) They just don’t like you that much.

Let them go. Maybe ask them nicely in a survey what you are doing wrong. Fix the email signup, the content and the frequency, and reward existing subscribers for their loyalty. This is the way to stop haemorrhaging subscribers.

Compare your numbers to industry benchmarks.

Becca Brennan, deliverability and compliance analyst at GoDaddy Email Marketing:

In terms of Unsubscribe rates, if a sender notices opt-outs over 0.30% consistently (3 unsubscribes for every 1,000 emails sent), this can indicate an issue with how the list was gathered.

Consistently high unsubscribe rates can cause issues with spam filters and ISPs, so if a sender notices this happening often, it’s a good idea to go back through the subscriber list and remove anyone who either hasn’t been a recent customer, or didn’t specifically request the content they’re sending.

(Note how everyone keeps mentioning the spam thing? It’s a big issue.).

Rule #2. Include an opt-out link in every marketing email

In all the major markets, it is enshrined into law – for example, CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003) in the US or PECR (Privacy of Electronic Communications Regulations of 2003) in the UK – that marketing messages must make it clear to the recipient how they can:

  • unsubscribe to this communication;
  • unsubscribe to all commercial messages from the company;
  • contact a return email address.

Rule #3. Don’t hide or obscure your unsubscribe link

Colby Cavanaugh, Emma, explains “Most people will expect to see the unsubscribe link in the footer of your emails. Attempting to bury it in the small print or hide it by using white, tiny, or broken text links (we’ve seen it all) isn’t a good idea.”

Unsubscribing from some companies’ marketing emails is a game of hide and seek. See two examples in the image below.

The first email is from Sumo, a supplier of email marketing tools. Note the difference between the eye-catching blue-on-green “List Builder” button above the footer, compared with the easily missed blue-on-blue “Unsubscribe” link below. This was one of six emails sent by the company in three days following the download of some content (there was no option to opt-in or out of marketing emails when downloading).

The second email is sent from (or on behalf of) the organisers of Modern Marketing Summit, a long-running series of mobile marketing conferences. This email also demonstrates the contrast between the white-on-red “Purchase your ticket” button and the grey-on-grey “Unsubscribe” link.

Whether accidental or intentional, this practice sets a poor example to either company’s clients.

Rule #4. Make the opt-out link prominent; put it front and centre.

Many email practitioners recommend making the email unsubscribe link prominent. Some even recommend putting the unsubscribe link at the top of the email (as well as at the bottom) or making it the focus of the email.

Emma’s Colby Cavanaugh says “There’s even an argument for placing it at the very top of your email; many brands are moving toward this practice, including Nordstrom Rack. A clearly placed unsubscribe link will reduce the risk of spam reports.”

The image below shows a marketing email from Nordstrom Rack with this prominent Unsubscribe link in the header of the email (it also has links to unsubscribe in the email footer).

Also note Nordstrom’s slick three-click (we’re being pedantic) opting-out process:

  1. From the email to the landing page;
  2. Switching the radio button from “Stay on the list” (default setting, arguably not best practice) to “Unsubscribe”. Note: the two options to unsubscribe from a) Nordstrom Rack; b) All messages from Nordstrom.
  3. Click “Update”.

Note: The process is completed with a confirmation – good – and a notification that it may take five to seven days to take effect – this is a bit of a wait but at least we’ve been told.

Return Path’s Guy Hanson also likes a bold approach:

I’m personally a big fan of email programs that have the confidence to make their unsubscribe links clearly visible and prominent. They are basically saying to their customers that they would like to be transparent, and while they never want to lose them, they don’t want to make it an unpleasant process if they do choose to do so.

Hanson also has a case study (shown below) that shows such policies pay off.

When realised it had missed some opted-in subscribers off its email list, it sent out an apology email as its first communication. The email made a feature of the unsubscribe link, placing it towards the top of the email, then backed it up with an offer of a one-off 10% discount. As a result, open rates doubled the retailer’s previous benchmark and spam reports fell from 50% to zero.

Rule #5. Keep the unsubscribe process simple – every click counts

Becca Brennan, GoDaddy says “The fewer steps it takes to unsubscribe, the better. The more steps it takes to be removed from the list (like logging in to update preferences, or clicking through several pages), the more likely it becomes that the recipient will just click the Spam button instead – which can do serious damage to your ability to efficiently deliver mail to your other subscribers.”

Are you sure?

Colby Cavanaugh, Emma, backs this up, saying “It should never take more than two clicks to opt out. One on the email, and one on the landing page.” She adds the following caveats:

  1. Offering alternative options is fine, but don’t ask subscribers “Are you sure?” once they’ve clicked “unsubscribe.” Yes, they’re sure, and belabouring the process will only irritate them more.
  2. Do not make people sign in to an account to unsubscribe. Keep it to the bare minimum.
  3. Make sure subscribers can unsubscribe from all your emails on the same page, not just that specific newsletter.

The Guardian email, shown below, doesn’t mess around.

  • Step 1. In the email footer is a “One-click unsubscribe” link. Note the clever positioning next to “Manage your preferences” and “Help us improve”, just in case you want to take less drastic action, plus the explanation of why “You are receiving this email…”
  • Step 2. One click opens a landing page with “unsubscribe confirmation” for the email. That’s it. It’s done.
  • Step 3. There’s also the option to unsubscribe from all Guardian emails. That’s another click. Divorced.

A couple of tiny quibbles, only, with this otherwise exemplary opt-out. a) The Guardian news emails are huge, so unsubscribe at the top would be an even bolder statement. b) It takes seven days to remove from all Guardian emails. O.K. there are lots of Guardian emails, but seven days?

Rule #6. When they say stop. Stop.

No one likes splitting up, so why drag it out?

Jennifer Watkiss, head of marketing communications at ESP, Adestra:

Laws in various countries handle unsubscribe requirements with subtle differences – the common thread should be an obvious and easy-to-follow process that has the subscriber removed quickly.

For example, CAN-SPAM stipulates 10 days. And depending on the underlying architecture of an organisation’s email and customer data system, it may take that long for all the different components to go through a full syncing cycle.

But, most organisations using an ESP should have their usubscribes processed nearly instantly.

Remember, it is not what the law says, but what customers expect that matter. Return Path’s Guy Hanson says “It should also be applied in as close to real time as possible, because that’s what subscribers expect these days.”

Why risk annoying your customers?

Rule #7. Own the unsubscribe landing page

Just because the customer has had enough of your email marketing doesn’t mean the customer relationship is over – far from it.

This is a great opportunity to remind the customer what they (used to) love about you. And the chance to suggest other ways to engage.

Colby Cavanaugh, Emma:

The best unsubscribe landing pages make it easy to opt out, but they stay on-brand, use friendly copy, and offer subscribers alternative options.

We love the way HubSpot handles unsubscribes: After opting out of their emails, people are directed to this video. Not only is it hilarious, it also directs you to different ways you can continue to engage with the brand.

If people do choose to unsubscribe from your emails, don’t miss out on the opportunity to engage with them via different channels. After all, marketing is all about creating multiple touch points.

Note: HubSpot’s unsubscribe landing page has moved on from this exit video. But it is still worth a look. See the screenshots below.

Notice how HubSpot uses empathy and puts the subscriber in charge, with these phrases: “You’re the boss.” and “We’re here to earn your love.”

Also note how HubSpot drives social media signups with: “Email not really your thing? Follow us on…” and “We already miss how close we used to be. How about a second chance?

If you forget for a minute that this is a blog with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, you might even think you really mattered.

Rule #8. Admit you’ve overdone it; give the opportunity to opt down as well as out

As long as it does not cause friction, irritation or delay to the unsubscribe process, give unsubscribing users an option to reduce the frequency, type or number of mailings. This is known as opting down.

Colby Cavanaugh, Emma, says “As long as the “unsubscribe” option is easy to find and process takes minimal steps to complete, adding a few other alternatives will only help save you subscribers.”

Huckberry (recommended by Cavanaugh), like HubSpot, plays the empathy card, with a Bruce Lee quote and “We totally get why you hit the unsubscribe button”.

Huckberry provides options to reduce mails to weekly, monthly or never. It also suggests people may want to “only hear from us on social.”

huckberry unsubscribe

Gap UK, as shown below, keeps the unsubscribe process tight and compact with two clicks:

Click 1. From the email to landing page.
Click 2. Submit.

But the option is there to change preferences, too. Once the “Change email preferences” radio button is clicked, the user sees a list of categories with checkboxes.

Rule #9. Find out what you did wrong

Exit surveys should only be used if you really care and, more importantly, can demonstrate to the subscriber that you care. Most surveys look and usually are generic which doesn’t help.

Surveys should be optional. The Wickes survey below, is optional, but it is positioned above the submit button, which give the appearance of being compulsory.

Points of note: “What needs fixing?” is a nice touch from a DIY / building store. Other than that, there’s just too many words and the requirement to enter an email address (it should be prepopulated) adds to the friction.

Rule #10. Don’t stick your head in the sand

The impacts of making it hard to unsubscribe may include:

  • damaging customer relations – Losing an email subscriber is one thing, but making unsubscribing a frustrating experience, means you could even lose them as a customer.
  • damaging brand reputation – Bad news travels fast. If customer frustration boils over into social media, customer reviews or press coverage, the damage could far outweigh the benefit of having a list swollen by people who aren’t interested.
  • damaging email reputation – ESP and ISPs are at war with spammers, if too many people report your mails as spam, you risk being blacklisted along with pornographers and fraudsters.
  • being reported to the authorities, receiving a hefty fine and a public rebuke.

Aside from the possible fines involved, obstructing people from unsubscribing defies business logic. The last word goes to Jennifer Watkiss of Adestra:

“People who want to unsubscribe will always find a way to stop receiving your emails; the danger is, if you don’t make that easy for them, they’ll mark your email as spam, annoying them and harming your sender reputation with those who actually want to receive your email.

Remember that some list attrition is natural, and focus on engaging with subscribers who really want to hear from you.”

2018 Email Marketing Industry Census (subscribers only)