Stonie Clark

The Upside of Opt-outs: Refining your email list with a preference center, opt-downs and unsubscribes

August 10th, 2012

“This never would have been attempted with a film camera,” posted Tom, one of my Facebook friends, in response to a recent status update. He was referring to a posted image of photographer John Baldessari’s “Throwing Three Balls in the Air to get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts).”

I guess 36 attempts sounded like a lot. However, what Tom didn’t know was the photo was taken in 1973 – before either of us was born, and before people were bombarded with information in the form of images, advertisements and email.

The point is that digital media continues to rapidly change people’s expectations. We (speaking as both marketers and consumers) know how little effort it takes to shoot 36 or even 3,600 digital images, or send the same amount of automated email messages. But that doesn’t mean marketers can (or should) give up on such forms of mass communication.

I’m talking about that oh-so-familiar marketing tactic that precariously sits somewhere between your outbound and inbound campaigns – EMAIL. We need every possible approach to draw customers to our company sites and storefronts. So why ditch email? Why not instead create emails that customers crave?

According to “How to Improve the Value of Your Email List,” a recent webinar led by MECLABS Senior Research Analyst W. Jeffrey Rice, marketers can work to develop this desire in customers – not by coercion, but rather by engaging customers in a two-way communication.

During the webinar, Jeff explained how we can transcend the broadcast, scattershot model of advertising from the Mad Men days, and treat email like the nuanced, targeted digital platform it is:

1.  Offer an Email Preference Center

I don’t know about you, but I have to confess to a tiny semblance of delight when I receive an email from my favorite contemporary online home furnishing store advertising 40% off bedding, complete with crisp color scheme and subtle typography.

Sure, I fit the company’s target demographic (a fact made obvious in the second sentence of this post), but there’s more … the company knows I’m in the target demo, because I said so.

Way down at the bottom of its emails, the company features an opt-out button. Yes, an opt-out button: “If you prefer not to receive promotional email messages from us click here.”

Well, I do prefer to receive promotional emails from them, but being a savvy email recipient, I followed this link to a preference center where I was able to select whether or not I wanted to receive:

  1. Special promotions and sales
  2. In-store events
  3. Content and information specific to my interests
  4. General email

So, I marked the content types I’m interested in, receive the emails I want, and I’m happy. But the company did something wrong here. They made me search for the link. Rather than making this a seamless, voluntary process, the company made me hunt for what I wanted, potentially increasing my frustration and anxiety, or, worse, decreasing my opinion of the company.

Again, my age and educational background give me a bit of an advantage when it comes to these sorts of idiosyncratic digital media, so I knew where in the email to look for the little-known preference feature.

However, before I got into marketing, I’m not sure I could have told you what an email preference center was, much less where to find it in a mass-produced HTML email. I think most readers would have the same reaction I did – to click the spam button.

Before I entered the marketing field, whenever I felt a company was cluttering my inbox with unwanted emails, I sent them to the spam folder. A single click and your prospects are one step closer to a cleaner inbox – an inbox free of your all-important deals and promotions. There’s no harm in that, right?


According to Jeff, these sorts of unnecessary spam complaints can not only hurt your company’s reputation, but they also cause deliverability problems that prevent your emails from making it to targeted recipients … which leads us to Jeff’s second piece of advice:


2.  Encourage opt-downs or pause subscriptions

The best way to prevent emails from being filed in the spam folder is to create emails that go down smoothly. Your prospects already feel overloaded by constant streams of email messages – online retailers, bank statements, social media newsfeeds, concert listings, etc. And, they’re likely to delete anything that seems like mere fluff.

Consider how you can improve the value of your email to the customer (and save it from the dreaded spam folder) by increasing the relevancy of your email content. Focus on seasonal sales, limited-time promotions or even local weather changes, if they make a difference to your business. Better yet, you may choose to appeal to different prospect types by segmenting your email marketing campaign.

Then, after the proper weight is determined, don’t send more email than necessary. As Jeff told us in the list building webinar, “The definition of spam is no longer shouldered by the permissibility of the sender.”

Even opt-ins tire of receiving emails from the same sender each day, if it’s not what they feel they bargained for.

Over sending email can lead to opt-outs or, as you saw in the example above, spam complaints. So, before you reach the point-of-no-return, give your customers a less severe option. Let them take a break, or simply reduce the amount of email they receive from you.  For example, you may give your customers the opportunity to limit the frequency of emails they receive from you to once a week or even biweekly.

Of course, sometimes opt-downs aren’t quite enough, either. This is where we reach Jeff’s final piece of advice:


3.  Let customers opt out

OK … correction: don’t just let them, encourage them. Display your opt-out button prominently, where customers can see it. This will improve your organization’s spam-complaint percentages (calculated as: [spam complaints / messages sent] x 100).

More importantly, it will provide an opportunity for you to gather insights about your customers’ preferences. You want to know why your customers are dropping out of email communication, so ask them. This can be as easy as providing a few tick boxes for customers to check as they exit the relationship.

For instance, you may want to ask them whether they’ve decided to leave the brand because of major life changes (e.g., marriage, a move or a recent graduation). This can tell you a lot about where your company can learn to accommodate long-term customers as they enter new life stages.

Alternately, you may want to find out if the customer was somehow dissatisfied. Then, you can fill in the gaps in your products and services to hopefully prevent future losses. Sure, you want to keep your valued customers, but the knowledge you gain during this email “break-up” might just help you win a few back from the brink of unsubscribe.

The point is, it’s time for email marketers to let go of control. Whether your prospects fall into the category of savvy, mid-twenties, digital-media-centric readers or less tech-savvy but self-determined boomers, they want to exert their own choices.

Don’t bombard potential customers with emails they may or may not read. Let your readers judge when and what they want, and let go of them when they’re ready to leave.

Your organization will come out in the end with a lot more dignity, and, even better, an improved send rate.

Image provided by tongue depressors


Related Resources:

Email Deliverability: 5 tactics for 99% (or greater) delivery across millions of subscribers

Email Marketing: Good preference centers can hold onto subscribers even as they change

Email Marketing: Three lessons learned at the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing LEAPS Advanced Practices Workshop

Email Deliverability: Riddles answered on spam complaints, feedback loops, and dedicated IPs

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: , , ,

  1. August 14th, 2012 at 23:23 | #1

    i had really cut down my email subscribers by offering them an opportunity to sign out of my list. i saw the stats and could see that many of the subscribers haven’t even opened a single mail, forget about clicking. so it is better not to retain these on your opt-in list.

  2. August 17th, 2012 at 13:28 | #2

    Thanks Stonie for your excelent article, however Another important question to mention, is : are your emails being delivered to your customers existing preferred email addresses?

    Sending the best emails on this planet won’t generate any response when they land in inboxes no person ever reads.

    My advice is to regularly ask your subscribers to update their details emphasizing on the name text of the email adresse, like “Your best email address”.

We no longer accept comments on the MarketingSherpa blog, but we'd love to hear what you've learned about customer-first marketing. Send us a Letter to the Editor to share your story.