No matter how well implemented your email marketing campaign is, there will always be those recipients who click on ‘unsubscribe’. 

Whether your subject lines are written to be as persuasive as possible, your content has been optimised to the very last character, you’ve segmented and tested to within a gigabyte of an email’s resilience, someone, somewhere will think “not these guys again” and hurl your present and future endeavours into the trash, or even worse… mark it as spam.

Using Econsultancy’s latest Email Marketing Best Practice Guide, I’ll be taking a look at the best practice methods of managing your unsubscribers, with an eye on trying to retain those who do click the ‘unsubscribe’ link by offering them more relevant communication.

What makes people unsubscribe?

Our own head of social, Matt Owen discussed this topic in his article Email marketing: what makes people unsubscribe? earlier this year.

Matt is the ‘lucky’ recipient of over 20,000 marketing emails, mostly containing messages from voucher companies, social apps and blog logins that he’s long forgotten ever using.

It’s this oversaturation that compels most people to hit ‘unsubscribe’. It’s not even necessarily the marketer’s fault. As with all of us who work in digital media, the likelihood is we’re signing up to multiple websites, companies, ecommerce sites and apps everyday, so no wonder we’re being bombarded with so many of them.

The most 'unsubscribed-from' emails tend to be from services used for a one-off purchase. 1800 Flowers has a 52.5% unsubscribe rate, Ticketweb 47.5%, Expedia 45%. Holidays, flowers, gig tickets… these are all purchases done for specific reasons, with forethought and planning. Generally speaking, not on an impulsive whim. 

‘Rolled Up’ emails are ones that users don’t want to unsubscribe from, but also don’t want to read that often.

Voucher companies like Groupon, LivingSocial and AmazonLocal offer daily deals, and generally fall into the category of white-noise, but every so often there will be a relevant bargain that you’ll likely snap-up, therefore keeping you subscribed.

Email frequency

For email marketers, getting the right balance between overexposure and underexposure is absolutely vital to a campaign. 

With overexposure, the recipient receives emails from the same company too frequently and they unsubscribe or hit the spam button.

To counter this, the trick is to send one less email than one too many, but you need to establish how many is one too many. It is more than likely that for most companies, they are sending too many.

Most recipients understand they can choose what emails they want to receive, from whom and that legally, unsubscribing is a clearly defined option. Therefore it can be argued that if they haven’t unsubscribed then they definitely want to hear from you.

Even if a recipient isn’t interacting with your email, they are still seeing your brand name multiple times in your inbox. This can be a powerful influencer.

Unsubscribe best practice:

Legal compliance

The first vital thing you need to be aware of is unsubscribe compliance according to the law.

For your own safety and for the benefit of your email subscriber you need to comply with the following four factors:

  • A visible and operable unsubscribe mechanism is present in all emails.

  • Consumer opt-out requests are honoured within 10 days.

  • You keep opt-out lists and suppress against these for all future sends. 
Enable opt-out of email communications with a single click. 

One-click unsubscribe

Make unsubscribe as uncomplicated as possible with a one-click button. 

However do try to gain some feedback or insight as to why they’ve unsubscribed. This feedback should never be forced though and before the feedback is requested it should be clear that the recipient has been unsubscribed from the email.

Position of unsubscribe

You can choose whether to include the unsubscribe button in the header or footer of your email. There is no strict mandate on this.

Common sense dictates that placing the unsubscribe button at the base of an email theoretically means ‘hiding’ it and therefore discouraging its use. 

However, in not making the unsubscribe link completely visible at the top of the email will lead to a higher chance of a recipient marking your email as spam. A black mark against your marketing effort that you definitely don’t want.

Communication preferences

Rather than just offering a one-click unsubscribe button, which is legally required, why not also offer a link to a communications preferences centre. 

Many subscribers can be convinced to stay subscribed if they’re given the option to change the topics they receive emails about, the frequency at which they receive emails, or the address at which they receive email.

There’s less of a chance that the subscriber will opt out of all communications and more chance of them just varying their selection.

Removing inactive addresses from your list

After an address has been inactive for over a year, you may consider removing the contact from the list. Before you do this, a single email or series of emails offering the option to continue receiving emails should be sent. 

However it is possible that the subscriber who hasn’t interacted with your emails for a length of time is merely ‘emotionally unsubscribed’.

The emotionally unsubscribed

Up to 50% of an email subscriber list can be considered emotionally unsubscribed. Those that do subscribe but rarely ever open an email. However it can be argued that they are still valuable recipients that should be spared the cull. 

Perhaps these recipients just don’t need your offer or content yet. They initially signed up for your emails and even though they haven’t interacted with them at all for 12 months, they have still yet to click unsubscribe.

Perhaps it’s easier to ignore your messages until the right one comes along or the consumer is ready to act, rather than unsubscribing and having to remember a URL or search for your service at a later date.

There is much more information on inactive subscribers, including ways to benchmark, minimise fall-off in engagement and maintain dialogue in our full 200 page Email Marketing Best Practice Guide

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 24 March, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (10)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Purely as an experiment, I opened the email sent for this post, entitled "Managing email unsubscribes: best practice tips" in Gmail and looked for the unsubscribe link.

And, inevitably, there wasn't one, because the email is quite long and ends with "[Message clipped] View entire message".

Only when I click the "View entire message" link, do I get the additional content at the bottom that includes the unsubscribe link.

This doesn't bother me at all, but I can imagine literal-minded people claiming this is actually two-click unsubscribe.

What should email marketers do in this situation?

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

Hi Pete - did you open on a mobile?

I guess the obvious solution is to have the unsubscribe link at the top.

over 4 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Errata: actually the email I clicked was "The Daily Pulse - 10 interesting digital marketing stats we've seen this week". Bother! But the rest of my comment is accurate.

over 4 years ago




Regarding "Unsubscribe" button - it definitely should be well seen and marketers shouldn't think about how to hide it or make complicated.
I think that nowadays, when email marketing is dying (ok maybe not dying but changing) there is no point to try keep your email subscribers and sending spam for them - it doesn't matter how good or valuable your content is.. if user wants to unsubscribe and can't do this easily he starts thinking about marking it as spam.

Maybe it would make sense add some alternative ways to get info about your business/company next to "Unsubscribe" button like:

"Keep with us on our page", "Get the best offers from us on " and etc.

over 4 years ago


Ryan Biddulph

I like the 1 click unsubs; quick, easy and painless. People will find contrast; make it easy for them to let go.

Smart post!

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at SaleCycle

@Pete - we do have a 'change contact settings' link at the top, but not the best wording. A new email design is planned though.

over 4 years ago

Parry Malm

Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee Ltd.

Id suggest every email marketer read the book "Nudge" which talks at length about one click opt outs. And more importantly, don't waste too much time worrying about them; instead, focus on customers who want to hear from you :)

over 4 years ago



@Pete - You bring up a good point, but I think Gmail is the only ISP that clips messages like that. Of course, if the majority of their subs are Gmail users, then perhaps they should account for that to happen and format accordingly.

I too am a fan of the one-click unsubscribe and making it visible, rather than buried in a bunch of footer copy that most people never read or even see. Having an alternative CTA such as the "change contact settings" mentioned in this article is more ideal when placing at the top. Offering frequency and/or content options is key, if it's available. Our current email program, for example, only goes out once every other week. I'm in the process of getting us to once a week, but it's an uphill battle internally. Once we get there, though, we'll have the preferences section updated to include a frequency option.

over 4 years ago

Jordie van Rijn

Jordie van Rijn, email marketing specialist at emailmonday

A one click unsubscribe isn't legally required or even best practice.

You will click unsubscribe in the email and then once more on the page behind it. So it is two clicks.

Adding unsubscribe to the top is also not best practice in most cases, diverting attention from the main message.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Christopher,

Thanks for sharing.

In my experience "Removing inactive addresses from your list" is often missed entirely leading to a clogged up database. A sensible route is to create an activation and purge stream as part of your overall email program.

The activation stream is a multi-phase campaign designed to motivate new subscribers to being active email customers and nudging them into your retention cycles in a more engaged mindset.

The purge stream is designed to trigger reactivation emails to encourage lapsed or silent subscribers to open/click/complete goals etc. The business sets criteria that when met, trigger the purge of an email contact to the 'dead' list and these addresses are no longer mailed.

It's sensible to purge - not only do you focus efforts on people who actually give a toss about your email campaigns but you also keep the database clean and reduce costs.


over 4 years ago

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