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Email unsubscribes: Top tips for getting the user experience right

6 minute read

Have you ever found yourself opening yet another email from that store you barely remember subscribing to, scrolling and searching to find the “unsubscribe button”? If you, like many, have spent more time unsubscribing from an email list than you ever spent subscribing to, then you’ll know just how frustrating it can be.

But as an online business, it’s not good practice to overcomplicate this process for your customers. After all, if consumers intend to unsubscribe then you’ve lost them already, so what good is it to make it as hard as possible to leave?

More than this, written into the new GDPR regulations is clearly stated that “the data subject should have the right to withdraw his or her consent at any time… (and that) it shall be as easy to withdraw as to give consent” (Article 7[3]).

We’ve gathered together some tips to help you make the process straightforward, so you don’t find yourselves at best further alienating your customers, at worst receiving a fine.

1. Don’t hide or omit the unsubscribe link

The cardinal sin of unsubscribes. Simply put, if you fail to provide people with the option of opting out of your correspondence, not only is it highly irritating but it’s also illegal.  

Trying to get around this by obscuring the unsubscribe link is just as bad. Amazon goes to great lengths to bury their unsubscribe link in reams of copy, in grey text against a white background, and without using the word “unsubscribe” altogether. You’d be a genius to spot it straight away.

Best practice:

The unsubscribe link should be given visual weight, being the most visible item in the email footer (some marketers suggest putting it at the top and bottom of the email).

  • It should be in a colour that stands out against the background
  • Use a font that’s large enough so people don’t have to squint to see it
  • You should use the word “unsubscribe”, not vague terms such as “click here”
  • The unsubscribe link should be in every email you send.

2. Don’t make the unsubscribing process too complicated

The reason people want to unsubscribe is, let’s face it, because they’re no longer interested in your brand, products or services. Making the process hard is likely to put you straight into their SPAM folder plus you won’t benefit sending communications out to people who are no longer interested anyway.

Do your customers the decency of allowing them to unsubscribe with minimal work. As the GDPR guidelines state, it should be as easy to unsubscribe as it was to subscribe in the first place.

Best practice:

  • Don’t expect people to log in to unsubscribe
  • Don’t expect users to enter more than an email address to unsubscribe
  • Don’t charge a fee
  • The fewer clicks the better, ideally a one-click process
  • Let your unsubscribe link allow people to opt-out of all your mail, not just that specific newsletter
  • Your unsubscribe link should be live for at least 60 days after the email was sent

3. Don’t send an email notification to confirm

Usually, a “thank you” notification is a courtesy when people interact with your site. But in the case of unsubscribing, the last thing people want is yet another mail from you. Especially if it’s asking them to rethink their decision.

Best practice:

  • Ditch the email notification, and trust that should they want to connect with you again, they’ll know where to find you.
  • A simple “thank you for unsubscribing” pop-up on the landing page will give them sufficient confirmation.

4. Remind people how and when they first subscribed

Sometimes people unsubscribe from mailing lists simply because they can’t remember when or why they signed up in the first place. A quick reminder on each email you send out will jog people’s memories and hopefully remind them why it was they wanted to hear from you in the first place.

Best practice:

  • Make sure in the footers of all your emails you have the stated what the recipient did to receive this mail.

5. Ask for brief feedback after they’ve unsubscribed

A bit of feedback goes a long way to finding out where you’re going wrong with your email marketing. There’s nothing wrong with asking for it when your users unsubscribe.  A simple check box form asking for reasons why they unsubscribed will help you to improve your email marketing in the future.

However, asking it before the user has finished unsubscribing is only going to annoy your customers further, especially if it’s mandatory:

Best Practice:

Three golden rules apply if you’re going to get any kind of feedback from your customers.

  1. Ask for it after they’ve completed unsubscribing
  2. Make it optional
  3. Keep the feedback form simple

6. Give people another option other than unsubscribing altogether

Not everyone will want to unsubscribe completely, so it’s worth giving people the option to change their subscription level, change their email address and communication preferences. They might, for example just prefer to be contacted on a different address, or just receive your monthly newsletter rather than all your promotional offers.

Best practice:

  • Your “unsubscribe down” option should not replace your “unsubscribe” option, but go alongside it
  • Include a simple “manage preferences” link either alongside your unsubscribe link in your email footer, or within the unsubscribe landing page.

7. Make the un-subscription happen immediately

When customers choose to unsubscribe from a mailing list, they expect it to happen right away. However, if you know that it cannot happen immediately, then let your customer know and give them an exact timeframe. But be warned: as a rule, a delay of more than 24 hours is unacceptable, so keep the delay minimal.

Best practice:

  • From the moment your user unsubscribes, they shouldn’t receive any further emails from you. However, if a delayed un-subscription is unavoidable, then give a timeline and stick to it.

8. Mind your tone!

Just because your customers have chosen to unsubscribe from your mailing list, it doesn’t mean that they’ve finished with your business altogether. Be careful not to get hot-headed and use language that will put them off ever returning.

Many companies make the mistake of using their unsubscribing process to be patronising and defensive, demanding to know “what did we do wrong?”. Some even assume the customer is incapable of making a rational decision, only letting them unsubscribe if they tick the box that reads something along the lines of “I’m sure I don’t want to save money”.

A negative attitude at this stage in your customer’s journey will simply offend their intelligence and will risk you losing them for good.

Best practice:

  • Keep your tone straightforward and professional
  • Your messaging should simply be to inform your customer how to unsubscribe and to confirm when they have successfully done so
  • However, a simple link to re-subscribe or manage preferences is perfectly acceptable

9. Don’t make the process too easy either!

It’s highly unlikely that users will unsubscribe by mistake but it’s still worth considering how you prevent this from happening. It takes a lot of effort to get people to subscribe in the first place, so losing them unnecessarily is something you’ll want to avoid.

Whilst it’s important to adhere to GDPR guidelines and ensure you provide a clear unsubscribe link in all your communications, there are ways in which you can encourage people to unsubscribe without their meaning to. For example:

  • Your unsubscribe link is too close to other CTAs
  • Your unsubscribe link is too big and bulky
  • Your unsubscribe link is the only option, i.e. there’s no alternative such as “update your preferences”

Best practice:

  • Make the unsubscribe link clear but not too large
  • Keep the link away from other CTAs
  • Put the link alongside an option to “update preferences”
  • Use double opt-out, i.e. users click to unsubscribe and then must retype their email address to confirm they want to unsubscribe
  • Or use single opt-out (a one-click unsubscribe) and offer a clear link to re-subscribe for those who may have made a mistake

Final thoughts

At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the storage and acquisition of consumer data online, it’s imperative that businesses adhere to the new GDPR guidelines.

When it comes to designing how customers opt out of your emails, your job is to make the unsubscribing process as easy as signing up. This means giving your customers the option to opt out in every email you send, making the link easy to find, and the process simple to perform.

It’s also important, however, to make sure you find the right way of communicating with your customers at this delicate point in their journey. After all, they have decided that they don’t want to hear from you again, so you must be careful not to harangue them into changing their minds.

But this is also a prime opportunity to leave them with a good impression, gain a bit of feedback, and leave the door open for their return in the future.

Charlotte Jenkins is an Oxford-based content marketer. She has several years’ experience in content writing, editing and digital marketing, helping clients communicate their businesses online.

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