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Janet Roberts

Audit Your Unsubscribe System
By Janet Roberts

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How easily can someone get off your newsletter or mailing list and stay off it? Your answer will predict how well you comply with the new U.S. federal regulations on commercial email.

I'm still sifting through the law for all of its implications, although it's clear that those most affected will be email marketers and publishers who rent out their subscriber lists, depend on affiliates to promote their products or publications or have other complicated business arrangements that involve third-party promotions or opt-out for list-building.

The law further clouds the use of co-registration, which is an issue I'm researching now. If you have any insights, send them along.

(For more particulars, see a list of links below.)

The easiest provision to meet, however, should be the one requiring a working opt-out link in each email. Related issues, such as suppressing each unsubscribe request from future mailings and removing the address within 10 business days make the process more complicated, but for today, we're going to help you audit your unsubscribe process.

Complying with the law will mean more than just sticking a link in your newsletter if you don't have one already. How fast does a request get to your list-management system? How many hoops does somebody have to jump through? Is a fully automated system the answer?

See how your unsubscribe system stacks up against these criteria:

  • A subscriber should have to take no more than two steps to exit your list, and one is best.

  • You can ask unsubscribers using a Web form to check a box confirming the request while they're already at the site. You can send an email message confirming a successful unsubscribe. Don't require them to respond in order to complete the transaction. (I know, Yahoo! requires this; avoid if you can.)

  • Back up your unsubscribe process.

  • If you use a Web form, have someone review the logs to spot any troubles, such as pages that don't load, and include an email unsubscribe address to use if the Web form fails. If you use email unsubscribing, monitor all reader-contact emails to catch unsubscribes that go awry or come from people who don't follow the process.

    Email marketers will in many cases have to list working postal addresses in their newsletters. Include unsubscribe directions on paper mailings such as catalogues and billing statements.

  • Remind people what address they used to request the newsletter.

  • Gear your email unsubscribe links or Web forms to capture that address. Don't force people to remember which address they used in order to unsubscribe.

    For an example, look at the bottom of this newsletter. You'll find text telling you which address you used to subscribe (that information is also in the return path at the top) and giving you the unsubscribe link that is tied to a member number, not the specific address.

  • Automate your subscribe and unsubscribe process, but don't use unmonitored mailboxes.

  • You might think manually unsubscribing people will solve the problem, because then you know you've done it. Unless you're prepared to live your life online 24/7, you're better off using list software that automates the process. You still have to monitor it, though.

    No matter how easy, fast and understandable your unsubscribe process is, people will mess up. You or someone else should monitor every mailbox you own for unsubscribe requests. Train your staff to remove addresses AND pass that information along if necessary as soon as the requests come in.

  • You can put the unsubscribe information along with other regular text, such as your contact information, at the end of each email. However, include a visual cue at the top, such as a graphic (not clickable) or brief note pointing to the unsubscribe information at the end.

  • Test links regularly to make sure they work, especially if you are planning any operational changes, such as moving servers or changing list hosts, and monitor any catch-all mailboxes that collect email undeliverable to any other destinations.

Many other factors go into creating a useful, usable unsubscribe process. Ezine-Tips contributors have written extensively on the topic. Search our archives and type "unsubscribe" or "unsubscribing" into the search blank.

Several organizations have scrambled to produce white papers or seminars on meeting the new U.S. requirements. Here are two new links:

Jeff Finkelstein of Customer Paradigm is offering an analysis in PDF.

Privacy advocate TRUSTe has published its own analysis aimed specifically at email marketers.

Ezine-Tips for December 23, 2003

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