No man is an iland

Feed | marketing advice, info and tips by Mark Brownlow

Why is there no S in iland?

January 20th, 2012

legislationSometimes it helps to have a “fact” sheet to whisk out when making an email marketing case to colleagues (or yourself).

Today’s post fills that role for an issue that often confuses those not directly involved in email marketing…

Does compliance with anti-spam law confer immunity from being filtered, marked or even perceived as spam?


Now for the summary and the evidence…


Legal compliance is not the main factor used by those who manage incoming mail (ISPs, webmail services and IT departments) to decide if your email should be delivered to the inbox or cast into the nine circles of email hell (the junk folder).

Neither is legal compliance a key factor used by recipients to decide if your email is spam or a legitimate communication.

So if it’s legal, you can indeed send it…but it’s not in itself a guarantee of either delivery or a positive reception.

Most people in email marketing understand that legal compliance is just one of the prerequisites required of a successful email campaign.

If you focus on legal compliance as the only pre-requisite, then you can easily push for email practices that drift into spam territory, with all that implies for brand damage and deliverability troubles.

This is particularly likely in the USA, where the law does not require recipients to opt-in to emails. So unsolicited email (seen by most individuals and ISPs as spam) is not intrinsically illegal.

Here some relevant facts and expert opinions:

ISPs and webmail services say…

Compliance with email law is commonly just one point in a long list of sender recommendations and requirements given by ISPs and others managing incoming email for their users.

Yahoo! Mail and Gmail, for example, both link delivery success to user perceptions:

Yahoo! Mail:

“To ensure that your email gets delivered to the inbox, simply send emails that users want”


“The way Gmail classifies spam depends heavily on reports from our users. Gmail users can mark and unmark any message as spam, at any time.”

Speaking at an FTC spam summit way back in 2007, Miles Libbey (Senior Product Manager at Yahoo! Mail) said:

“Operationally, we define spam as whatever consumers do not want in their inbox.”

The law says…

Anti-spam law defines how the authorities distinguish between legal and illegal email. It does not tell individuals and ISPs how to judge email.

US federal anti-spam law (CAN-SPAM), for example, makes the distinction very clear:

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed to have any effect on the lawfulness or unlawfulness, under any other provision of law, of the adoption, implementation, or enforcement by a provider of Internet access service of a policy of declining to transmit, route, relay, handle, or store certain types of electronic mail messages.”

In other words, an ISP is not obliged to deliver email just because it complies with the CAN-SPAM Act.

Experts say…

Laura Atkins, founding partner of Word to the Wise (a consulting group for ISP abuse desks, ESPs and email marketers):

“CAN SPAM lists the minimal standards an email must meet in order to avoid prosecution. CAN SPAM does not define what is spam, it only defines the things senders must do in order to not be violating the act.”

Chris Kolbenschlag, Director of Deliverability at ESP Bronto:

“Simply showing you are compliant with the rules set by the CAN-SPAM Act isn’t enough to get your email delivered…ISPs block and place in the bulk folder huge amounts of emails that are CAN-SPAM compliant each day.”

Al Iverson, Director of Privacy & Deliverability at ESP ExactTarget:

“ISPs block millions of CAN-SPAM compliant messages daily. They do not care that your messages are compliant with CAN-SPAM. They care only if your mail is desired by their customers, your recipients.”

Steve Henderson, Data and Delivery Consultant at ESP Communicator Corp:

“…email marketing strategy should be all about exceeding your customer’s expectations, not legal requirements.”

Consumers say…

Which brings us to the all important end user. What kind of email do they see as spam?

In twelve years in the industry, I’ve never heard any individual say they just want email that complies with anti-spam legislation. I’m not even sure too many people know or care that such legislation even exists.

  • An Epsilon Global Consumer Email Study found that 76% defined spam as emails from unknown senders and 73% as email not asked for. Even 39% simply described spam as any email they don’t want, even if they originally signed up for it.
  • In a MAAWG consumer survey, 60% defined spam as email I didn’t request, while only 24% defined it as email that violates the CAN-SPAM act.
  • In a UK DMA survey of email habits, respondents were asked what is most likely to prompt you to mark email as spam: 22% said “don’t recognize sender”, 9% said “too many (frequency)”, 8% said “don’t remember signing up”

Clearly, then, expecting email to land in a welcoming inbox just because it’s legal is like turning up to a Viennese ball in underpants: you might not get in and you can expect mixed reactions if you do.

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Permalink | January 20th, 2012 | 9 Comments »
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December 22nd, 2011

As I close down for the holiday break, I though I’d leave you with some lighthearted statistics about email. Something to impress the relatives with.


beer 1. According to Google Trends, email is more popular than Elvis, the Beatles, chocolate, beer, Justin Bieber and Harry Potter…but not sex.
globe 2. Say you printed out each non-spam email sent in the world on a single piece of standard A4 copy paper:

  • One day’s worth of emails would produce a stack of paper 2,159 times taller than Mt. Everest
  • It would take just over 20 days for the stack to reach the moon
  • In just under 2 hours, you would have enough paper to cover the continental USA
  • Around 4 days later, you could cover the earth’s entire surface area
china 3. If email accounts were people, the email population would be:

  • 2.3 times the size of China
  • 9.9 times the size of the USA
  • 38 times the size of Germany

Happy holidays and thank you so much for blessing me with your attention in 2011. See you next year!

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Permalink | December 22nd, 2011 | 10 Comments »
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December 20th, 2011

money springSpiders, scorpions, snakes…and popups.

Improvements to browser security largely killed the popup window, but the fear and loathing remains.

As a result, email marketers have been reluctant to use “in your face” website sign-up forms that in any way resemble those popups of the past.

But times and technology have changed.

Is this reluctance to consider more brazen approaches to sign-up forms still relevant and reasonable?

With marketers reporting huge sign-up lifts from using them, what are the impacts on user experience?

Are there any recommended techniques in this field?

I have no idea.

So I put together a panel of experts to answer a few questions on the potential and practices behind successful “popup” subscription forms. Here’s what they told me…

Popovers, lightboxes, sliders, hovers etc.

First of all, these sign-up forms are not popping up as new windows or browser tabs.

They appear as a box that fades into view or slides in from one side of the screen, usually overlaying a central part of the current web page.

This format is commonly known as the “popover”. If the page being viewed is darkened to highlight the popover box even more, then people often talk about a “lightbox”.

You can see demonstrations of these concepts here.

You’ll find other terms used, too, but let’s stick with these two.

Bottom line – are popovers leading to higher sign-up rates?

Interruption has become a dirty word in marketing, but as Martin Weigel wrote in a critique of “engagement”:

“The difference isn’t between stuff that interrupts and stuff that doesn’t. The real difference is between stuff that’s a relevant (i.e. useful and/or entertaining) and timely interruption, and stuff that isn’t.”

Normal inline subscription forms and links are easily glossed over. The premise behind the popover is that its “sudden” appearance draws attention to the subscription offer.

If relevant and timed right, it can become a useful and successful interruption.

Justin Premick, Director of Education Marketing at AWeber says:

“A visitor who overlooks your inline form (scrolling past it, for example, to read the on-page content) may be inclined to subscribe when presented the opportunity in a more forward way.”

But does it actually improve sign-up rates?

Obviously a lot depends on context and application (when doesn’t it?) but our experts report many websites seeing significant sign-up rate increases after implementing a popover.

Ernests Vaga, Product Chief Developer at Mailigen, has seen clients getting 200% to 400% increases, noting:

“Results are different from case to case, but the positive difference is obvious in all cases.”

Mac Ossowski, Director of Education at GetResponse, cites recent FMCG clients who were unhappy with sign-up rates from simple inline forms or an opt-in at checkout.:

“After implementing popovers on the home pages, the average subscription rate increase was between 250% and 300%.”

AWeber’s Premick has seen anything up to a nine- or ten-fold increase. He adds:

“…even a “mere” (by these standards) doubling of the number of interested subscribers added to your list per day would make most email marketers’ year.”

Premick also notes that the popover is a complement, not a replacement, for inline forms. After all:

“…a visitor who immediately closes a popover (as many claim to do) should still be given an opportunity to subscribe.”

So where’s the downside?

Well, there’s clearly a balance to be found.

Our fourth expert, Jim Davidson, Manager of Marketing Research at Bronto Software, says popovers can be very effective at list growth, but also “an intrusive and unexpected interruption breaking the fourth wall and blatantly exposing your marketing efforts” for the site visitor.

As a result:

“Popover implementation should be controlled, calculated, and used with caution.”

Managing that balance is the key to accelerated list growth without negative side effects. That begins with defining scenarios where popovers are particularly effective.

What scenarios are they best suited to?

Bronto’s Davidson highlights  the popover as a quick start mechanism for new lists:

“New brands or companies that are just launching an email program will commonly use popovers to quickly grow their subscriber lists. Sweepstakes are often combined with a popover form softening the blow of interrupting the user’s shopping experience.”

The idea that the interruptive nature of the popover needs compensation through a sizeable sign-up incentive is echoed by GetResponse’s Ossowski:

“I’d say popovers are suitable for every scenario in which the party that’s capturing the data can offer a tangible incentive for leaving the email address.”

He cites coupons and discount codes as good examples.

Another popular option is using popovers with search engine traffic. In particular, given the costs of pay-per-click search engine advertising, it makes sense to capture email addresses on landing pages to market to those who don’t convert immediately.

Mailigen’s Vaga has found popovers perfect for search visitors to sites that regularly publish fresh content.

If they’re looking for topical information, the option to receive content updates is a strong one:

“Popovers are a little like squeeze pages and work well if the content is worth returning for…places like blogs and news sites are perfect places to use the popovers.”

Premick suggests popovers as an approach for capturing the address of any engaged visitors before they leave the site. The caveat is that your emails must be relevant to the pages they were actually engaging with.

Equally, the popover is perhaps unnecessary if visitors are already getting a clear opportunity to subscribe anyway, such as when purchasing or registering online. And he warns against using popovers to try and compensate for a poor website or email program:

“…popover forms are a way to improve an already effective list-building and email marketing program. They will not make up for shortcomings in your traffic generation, landing pages, or email campaigns.”

He also cautions against using popovers as soon as a visitor arrives, before they’ve “…had an opportunity to read or watch the content on your page.”

Which leads us to the critical question: just when should a popover sign-up form appear on the page?

When should a popover display? How often?

The challenge is to find the point of time when a popover is most valuable and least disruptive. For example, you don’t want to distract visitors from completing an important website task.

So the right timing is, inevitably, dependent on context. As Premick says:

“The specific conditions that should trigger a popover form will vary for each business and require consideration of what your form will offer, who it will make that offer to and when is an appropriate time to do so.”

So testing is going to play an important role when implementing a popover for specific pages on your site. Nevertheless, our experts highlight good approaches to take as a starting point.

For content sites, visitors first need a chance to grasp the value of the content. So the popover should not appear immediately. Vaga recommends trying a 10-30 second delay, saying:

“…if it appears too early, the visitor wouldn’t have yet familiarized himself with the content and may not be as highly motivated to sign up for updates.”

For those wondering where to start, Premick suggests a pragmatic approach based on the average amount of time visitors spend on the page in question. Then:

“…set your popover form to appear shortly before the average visitor leaves the page – for example, if your average visitor leaves the page after 45 seconds, you might trigger your popover to appear after 40 seconds. From there, you can split test shorter and longer delays.”

Alternatively, you can use display criteria other than a time delay.

Premick suggests, for example, triggering the form when visitors scroll to a particular page location. This was something Ossowski did on GetResponse’s own blog:

“…the popovers were displayed to users that spent at least 30 seconds reading a blog post OR scrolled down to the very
bottom of the page.”

For retail sites, time delays make less sense, because they can then interfere with the buying process. Davidson explains:

“Delaying the popover means that a visitor could have already started to digest the content on your site and is prepared to shop or has already clicked through to a product page and is further down the purchase funnel.”

If they’ve started the purchase process, then the popover would get attention, but:

“…likely result in frustration rather than enthusiasm about signing up for an email program.”

He suggests displaying the popover form immediately upon arrival to your homepage for a new visitor. Equally:

“Avoid using popovers on product landing pages or interior pages of your site.”

It’s also important to avoid over-soliciting the sign-up.

A typical implementation would see a popover appear once per visit and repeated on subsequent visits if enough time has elapsed in the meantime. The definition of “enough time” depends on the average frequency and regularity of visits.

Vaga, for example, broadly recommends displaying the popover every 14 to 30 days:

“If the sign-up form appears too often, it may interfere with the regular site visitors…the month long interval would be advisable to re-invite those who refused first time, but are still returning and reading your content.”

Davidson also makes a key point:

“Definitely deactivate the popover for any links coming from your emails.”

Alternatively, deactivate popovers for existing subscribers. After all, they’re already signed up.

Inevitably, there are still going to be some visitors who find the popovers overzealous or unnecessarily intrusive. Rules on frequency rely on cookies, for example, which can be deleted or rejected.

But is this a serious issue, assuming you’ve taken care with your implementation?

Are there negative impacts?

There are actually two issues here: the impacts on website behavior and the impacts on list quality.

GetResponse’s Ossowski tells us:

“I have a quite solid hands-on experience with implementing popovers and I have to say that I never noticed any significant drop in the number of visitors, time spent on a website or a soaring bounce rate.”

Intelligent implementation keeps negative responses down and he suggests the wariness about such responses is largely historical:

“I really think there are many myths surrounding popovers that go back to 1998 when they were not only aggressive, but also stood on the verge of blackhat gimmicks (we all remember pop-ups jumping right in your face making it nearly impossible to leave a website).”

Mailigen’s Vaga agrees:

“Testing a popover lightbox that is easy to close in case the visitor doesn’t want to sign up has not shown any negative behavior from users”

But he recommends testing how the popover, display frequency and “time delay before displaying” affects visitor stats before committing.

And list quality?

AWeber’s Premick says he’s not heard any marketer using popovers claim that list quality declined after implementing them.

“It seems to me that if you’re providing valuable emails to subscribers, and setting expectations properly, a popover form will lead to similar quality subscribers as any other on-site form would.”

If you’re concerned about list quality, Bronto’s Davidson recommends adding subscriptions obtained from a popover form to a separate list or creating a new source associated with an existing list:

“…monitor their performance over time to create baselines for their performance, including bounce rates, abuse complaints, and unsubscriptions as well as the standard performance metrics like opens, clicks and conversions.”

If the popover relies on sweepstakes to collect addresses, then higher unsubscribe rates are likely. Davidson suggests using a series of welcome messages tailored to this specific audience to:

“…help to communicate additional information about your brand and the value of being part of the email program. This will be important since the limited space of popovers provides little opportunity to communicate this value initially.”

Which brings us to another issue…form design. Any advice from our experts?

What about the popover form itself?

The popover form needs different treatment to a standard inline form.

First of all, you need to allay the potential fear that the popover form has taken people to an unrelated destination. Bronto’s Davidson says:

“Make sure your brand name is still visible when the popover is displayed so visitors know they are on the right site.”

Since you can determine how big the form is, you typically have  a little more space to work with than an inline form. Mailigen’s Vaga says:

“It’s like a mini landing page.”

But he warns that time is not on your side:

“…it should be possible to understand the offer and be able to sign up within few seconds”

As Premick says:

“As with any opt-in form, a popover should clearly communicate the benefits of subscribing.

The onus on the marketer to do this succinctly is higher for popover forms than for a typical inline form, since popovers are by nature interruptive and will cause many visitors to react by looking for the “close” button before reading anything more than a few words.”

Vaga recommends a banner or image supporting the content, a title or call out text, a couple of bullet points and a simple form requesting no more than email and name.

Davidson echoes this advice on not asking for too much information in the popover itself:

“Popover forms should be succinct, easy to read, and require minimal effort to complete. Remember, these forms are better suited for list growth and not customer profile data.”

Both Vaga and Davidson suggest you collect more details later via welcome emails and subsequent communications, if they’re not already available in a customer database.

Ossowski cautions against the trap of using aggressive copy to match the interruptive nature of the popover:

“I believe that transmitting a positive message in the pop-over also has a big impact on it’s eventual success rate.

So, instead of yelling at the visitor: “Give me your email address”, tell them gently: “You are the chosen one! Here’s your coupon, we’ll just need your email address”.

Popovers are technically aggressive in comparison to inline sign up forms, but their CTAs don’t have to follow suit in tone.”

Davidson also has detailed advice on layout and copy, particularly for commerce sites:

  • Form Fields: Make them large! The overall theme for the form should be big, bold, and obvious.

Having larger than normal input fields will provide an immediate visual cue to the visitor that you are asking them to opt-in.

  • Large Close/Exit Button: Let people abandon your form quickly and easily if they choose to. Remember, they will still be on your site and may be clicking down the purchase funnel when you jumped in with an email sign-up form.

In addition to the inflated size of the button, use a contrasting color that makes it easy to identify. Make sure that the button is easy to click on mobile devices as well.

You also use a “no thanks” button in the body of the form to position the opt-in more as a quick question rather than a roadblock to the shopping experience.

  • Copy: Keep it brief. Find the shortest way to get your point across and potentially make the copy into a bulleted list and bolding key phrases such as “exclusive offers” or “10% off your first purchase.”

This will help the visitor to more quickly understand what you are trying to communicate.

  • Clear Call-to-Action: Yes, the visitor is enrolling in your email program, but are they also signing up for a sweepstakes? Make sure that both calls-to-action are clear for the visitor.

The form should be quickly read, completed, and submitted. You need to avoid any confusion along the way.

  • Submit Button: Make it stand out.

Use contrasting colors from the rest of the form and include some distance from the other form elements. Do not include a “reset” or “clear form” option. While this may be helpful for longer forms, there is no value added here.

  • Post-Submit Page: You can test having the form close after it has been submitted.

If you do choose this option, make sure that your opt-in language is clearly stated on the first page of the process and that you title your submit button “submit & close.”

If you do have a post-submit thank you page, keep the copy brief and, in addition to the prominent exit button, add a button to the main part of the page to “close this window and continue shopping.”

Final thoughts

I’m kind of convinced and will start testing popovers on certain areas of Email Marketing Reports in 2012. As Premick says:

“If you have created an effective email program and are looking for ways to accelerate your list growth, popover forms are an avenue worth testing.”

The key is in the testing.

What do you think?

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Permalink | December 20th, 2011 | 18 Comments »
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December 2nd, 2011

learningSo in a terrifying moment of weakness I found myself saying:

“It would be nice to get 3000 Twitter followers by the end of the year”

Oh dear.

Why 3000? Why by the end of the year? Why focus on THAT metric? Why, Mark, why?

I’m only human. The seductive appeal of using a random number of followers, likes, +1′s or subscribers as your measure of success is a tricky one to resist.

But the mistake led me to ask whether I’ve learned anything over the past 13+ years of online and email marketing.

Cue a brief period of panic…followed by a longer period of reflection.

Here’s what popped out: six approaches and principles that have stood the test of time.

1. Understand the true meaning of value

Well, it didn’t take me long to come up with the principle of “delivering value” as an email must.

You have to give to get: give value and it comes back in return…as opens, clicks, conversions, loyalty, word of mouth etc.

But there are three traps we commonly fall into.

Avoid one-way value

It’s important to ask how different email approaches, content and offers might address business needs.

But the result depends on the recipients reacting the right way.

And their reaction depends on how these different email approaches, content and offers contribute to their needs.

So the real question to ask is how email can help our subscribers, and in doing so help us.

Don’t over-estimate value

We’re all (probably) passionate about our products and services. Readers usually aren’t quite so excited.

Our enthusiasm can blind us to the true value of what we offer through email, leading to unrealistic expectations of response and sending email to people who maybe shouldn’t be getting it.

Don’t misunderstand value

So what is “value” anyway?

Yep, for a lot of people it’s discounts, coupons, savings, free shipping, or a bonus lollipop if you register by Friday.

But it’s also helpful information, feeling appreciated, feeling understood, a story, entertainment, humor, a sense of community or just a simple reminder that the sender is still open for business…

I’m not a psychologist, but the potential value you might deliver via an email message covers a lot more than “20% off your next purchase”.

2. Be willing to tweak and change

Once something works at least reasonably well, we’re reluctant to change anything.

The fear of making things worse often overwhelms the prospect of making things better.

This inertia is combatted by testing: you can make changes without “exposing yourself” to the whole email list. If it makes things better, great. If it doesn’t, no harm done.

Equally, it helps to understand that most readers aren’t evaluating your emails with the intensity of a marketing blogger. When you change the colour of the “shop now” button to blue, readers are unlikely to storm your headquarters in protest. (Unless they’re Liverpool fans.)

Each new email is an opportunity to test a tweak, and each tweak can have surprisingly positive impacts:

  • Subject line tests that double open rates over time
  • Changes in link wording that produce over 50% more clicks
  • From line tests that pull over 20% more clicks
  • Link format tests (button vs text) that increase clicks 67%

The flipside is that sustainable, long-term improvement needs more fundamental or innovative change to email design, tactics and strategy. Morgan Stewart once wrote:

“If the best idea your creative and/or testing team can come up with for improving your creative is to test the color of your links, then fire them.”

3. Respect the basics

Much of the media and event talk around email marketing focuses on the new and cool: tactics that can be difficult (or expensive) to implement for many (most) marketers.

We don’t all have customer databases that can easily integrate with 87 different types of trigger email. We can’t all serve thousands of list segments with on-the-fly customization.

Nor do we have to.

Fact is, professional basic email marketing is still a winner. If you set expectations correctly at sign-up, then your subscribers should have enough in common so that “one size” of email can still “fit all”.

Of course advanced tactics will improve results. But don’t focus on what’s next before ensuring you have the basics covered.

Forget the thought leaders and experts for a moment and dig into the FAQs and introductory articles that lay out some of the email marketing basics. For example:

  • A recent survey found that 60% of top UK retailers don’t send welcome messages to new subscribers. There’s an easy win for a start.
  • When you ask people to sign-up for emails, do you give them a compelling reason to do so? If not, why should they?
  • Are you using the cheap, but effective, design preview tools to make sure what you send is what people actually see in their inboxes?

4. Be unique

Valuable content and offers, permission, creative design, relevancy, timing, personalization, customization etc. are important factors that can take your email marketing amplifier all the way up to 10.

What takes it up to 11?

What makes your emails irreplaceable?

What makes them immune to the vagaries of delivery demands, soporific subscribers and the claws of the competition?

What do people get from your emails that they can’t get from anyone else’s?

Uniqueness can come through what you send: the unique nature of your content or offers. Or you can achieve it through how you say and present it (voice, style, creativity and personality).

Personality, in particular, turns words and pictures into communication. It helps avoid the natural drift to mediocrity. And it compensates for offers or content that can’t compete so well in their own right.

5. Use common sense

There’s a lot of great information out there on email marketing, but a moment’s thought tells us it can’t all be true all the time. For example:

  • Those producing information are all “biased by their biases”…by overt and subconscious agendas, by beliefs, by personal experience.
  • There are many issues in email marketing that are by no means clear cut.

Much advice also needs adapting in the light of personal and organizational circumstances: business goals, target market, industry sector, etc.

Making sense of information can be a challenge, but you can go a long way with common sense and a healthy dose of critical thinking.

For example, everyone preaches that you should avoid sending emails that are essentially one big image.

How’s your work-of-art going to look when the image is blocked (the default setting for many email software clients and webmail services)? And spam filters don’t like them much, too.

That’s the official line, anyway. So why are they used by, for example, large multinational fashion retailers with decades of email marketing experience behind them?

Because it works for them: some offers work better with the visual impact of a large image. Learn to distinguish between best practices and safe practices that can be broken in the right circumstances.

6. Dig deeper into the numbers

Perhaps the most tedious and underestimated marketing skill is analytical.

The online marketing world is drowning in data and driven by data. But data without wisdom is just stamp collecting.

Don’t take things at face value and don’t assume your preferred explanation is the right one.

Some examples:

  • The last campaign got the highest open rate ever. Hey, our subject line was a winner! (Or maybe you just solved a deliverability problem that was seeing half your emails dumped in spam folders. Or one of a dozen other factors.)
  • Most people who open email on a mobile device are using iPhones. Hey, our audience is full of Apple fans! (Or maybe it’s because the iPhone displays images by default – including the tracking image that records an open – while Android devices block them. Android smartphones actually have three times the global market share of the iPhone.)

For more inspiration on intelligent analysis, look at Kevin Hillstrom, the Ad Contrarian and others who avoid bandwagon explanations and approaches.

OK…anything you’d add to the list?

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Permalink | December 2nd, 2011 | 10 Comments »
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November 8th, 2011

goodbyeAll your calls-to-action are happily driving sales, searches, downloads, donations, phone calls or Facebook love.

But not the unsubscribe link.

No indeed.

This sniveling wretch spends his days sucking subscribers out of your database. (And his nights cavorting recklessly with dental appointments and taxes down the “Needed but not Nice” gin and whisky joint.)

As we’ll see, however, unsubscribes are not all bad. And there are good ways and bad ways to manage them.

Make it difficult?

One school of thought says the best way to keep people on your list is to make it as difficult as possible for them to get off it.

Supporters of this approach apply various techniques.

There’s the Al Capone fear-based option:

bad unsub example 4

The James Joyce confuse-them-with-language tactic:

bad unsub example 5

The King Eurystheus method, involving a few Herculean unsubscribe tasks:

bad unsub example 2

The Monty Python technique:

bad unsub example 3

And finally, the Harry Potter “cloak of invisibility” unsubscribe link:

bad unsub example 1

The problem with any “make it difficult” approach is they can easily become illegal. Under US Federal law, for example, the unsubscribe process is subject to the following rules:

“Neither a sender nor any person acting on behalf of a sender may require that any recipient pay any fee, provide any information other than the recipient’s electronic mail address and opt-out preferences, or take any other steps except sending a reply electronic mail message or visiting a single Internet Web page”

More importantly, making unsubscribes difficult treats the symptom, not the problem. When you refuse to acknowledge a need, it doesn’t go away.

If you’re lucky, your next emails do indeed pique the interest of the would be ex-subscriber and they return to the fold of satisfied list members.

Much more likely, the next emails simply add to their frustration and drive them to unsubscribe using other means (if they haven’t already). For example:

  • Setting up a filter to automatically delete your messages (you pay to send email that is never opened or clicked)
  • Setting up a filter to send your messages to a folder that’s never read (ditto)
  • Marking your email as spam (ditto, plus it hurts your sender reputation)

As a result, I sit in the other school of thought, which is to make the unsubscribe process painless for the user and helpful for the marketer.

You first need to evaluate why people unsubscribe…

The three kinds of unsubscribers

There are three main groups of would-be unsubscribers: the unavoidables, the switchers and the dissatisfied.

Even the best emails in the world will get unavoidable unsubscribes.

People change interests, jobs, locations and needs. My children grew up, I bought a house, I left the industry: I no longer need your baby clothes promotions, real estate alerts or “Wiring World” newsletter.

Such unsubscribes are a natural part of any list.

Another group aren’t actually unsubscribing from your brand or organization as a whole, or even from your emails.

The switchers simply want to change their email address, take a break (e.g. while on an extended vacation) or get your messages through another channel of communication.

The third group – the dissatisfied – have a fundamental interest in you or what your emails could contain, but your actual messages are not doing the job for them.

Commonly this is because they find your emails are not targeted, relevant or valuable enough, they simply come too often or they don’t display properly on whatever device is used to read them.

Understanding the needs and characteristics of all these groups leads automatically to insights into what a good unsubscribe process looks like.

1. Surprise! Make it easy to find and use the unsubscribe link in each email.

Typically, users will expect an appropriate link in the footer of an email. Make it visible (no sneaky use of light grey-on-white text, avoid images that might be blocked) and use words that people will understand. As I’ve written before:

“What’s intuitive and obvious to the people who design emails and list management processes isn’t intuitive and obvious to those who just read them and use them.”

I’m not even sure every email user knows what the word “unsubscribe” means.

The concept of usability and clarity carries through to the subsequent landing page and the actual unsubscribe form.

Is it blindingly obvious what you have to fill in, check, uncheck or click to unsubscribe?

Is the action then confirmed clearly on the page displayed after they submit the form? If people are left in doubt that their address really was taken off the list, they might resort to the alternatives (see above).

Particularly, if people are mildly unhappy about your emails before they unsubscribe, they can become spitting balls of demonic vindictiveness if they get one after they unsubscribed. Which is why the process needs to work and delays in processing the request are best avoided.

The law may allow a number of days to suppress an address from future emails, but that doesn’t interest (ex-)subscribers. They assume an instant reaction. If a delay is inevitable for purely technical reasons, it needs to be communicated clearly.

2. Monitor replies

However easy it is to unsubscribe using the appropriate link, some people will still prefer to simply hit the reply button and ask to be taken off your list. This is another compelling reason to monitor replies to your campaigns.

If manual processing is not practical, many email marketing services have automatic reply monitoring that can flag incoming emails for appropriate review based on the content.

3. Reconsider the one-click unsubscribe

The one-click solution is where a click on an email’s unsubscribe link automatically unsubscribes the recipient without them needing to take any further action. This has the advantage of simplicity and is largely failsafe.

The downside is that people can click experimentally or accidentally and find themselves off a list they never wanted to leave.

You also have no chance to engage and manage the subscriber on the unsubscribe landing page.

4. Consider an additional unsubscribe link at the top of the email

Adding a second unsubscribe link to the top of an email was an issue I first examined three years ago. Some senders have found it reduces spam reports significantly:

“We have found that customers who place the unsubscribe link at the top of the email and make it very prominent and easy to see, often reduce their spam complaints by 75%”
Source: StreamSend

“I have personally been associated with numbers ranging from 15%-45% reduction of spam complaints”
Source: Andrew Kordek

“We have had few clients who were seeing high complaint rates try this, and the simple act of moving their opt-out link to the pre-header area of their email significantly cut down on their complaint rates.”
Source: WhatCounts

Others suggest it only makes sense in specific circumstances. It does, after all, take up valuable space in a key area of your email. It may also affect people’s perception of messages.

5. Pre-fill forms on the landing page with the recipient’s email address, or display that address on the unsubscribe page

This saves the user time and ensures the right address gets unsubscribed. Your email marketing service or software should support this feature.

If you can’t do this, it can help to list the recipient’s subscribed email address somewhere in the email: with automatic forwarding, email aliases, etc., the email account subscribed to a list isn’t necessarily the account where the email is actually read.

Listing the subscribed address in the body of the email helps subscribers find the “right” email address quickly. It also helps you unsubscribe the correct address when people forward the email and ask to be taken off the list.

6. Give users the option to change address or pause their subscription

These kind of subscription management options are often included on their own web page or as part of a preference center. Regardless of how the changes work in practice, subscribers at least need to know how to access the feature.

Consider adding appropriate links and copy to the email footer. If there are space constraints, then mention the option on the unsubscribe page.

7. Give users the option to change frequency, format, channel and/or content preferences

If the functionality is available, then the unsubscribe landing page can present people with alternatives to unsubscribing that address their reasons for doing so. For example:

  • Allow people to “opt-down” to less frequent mails. Discussion lists, for example, typically allow subscribers to choose between receiving each email separately or collated within a daily digest.
  • Allow people to switch to a text-only or mobile-friendly version of your email (if this happens a lot, the underlying problem might be design issues with your HTML email)
  • Allow people to switch to another list or refine content preferences

Alternatively, point them at other ways they might keep in touch with your promotions or content, like through your blog feed, Twitter account, Facebook page, Google+ page, SMS, etc.

8. Collect feedback

Another option is to include a form field or drop-down menu where subscribers can tell you why they no longer want to get your emails.

This feedback can highlight problems (like design issues) previously unknown to you. Frankly, it’s also quite reassuring to learn that many people are unsubscribing through no fault of yours.

9. Monitor unsubscribe patterns

Finally, while the unsubscribe rate has never been a great measure of email marketing success, unexpected spikes are a definite warning signal. Such spikes can come about through, for example:

  • Inappropriate content
  • Inappropriate tone
  • Inappropriate expectations among new subscribers (perhaps you just added a new source of addresses)
  • Design problems

Any kind of significant change to your emails can prompt people to unsubscribe. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ten years ago I wrote:

“If you lose 10% of your readership by changing your newsletter, but your impact and influence on the remaining 90% has improved tremendously, then the loss is a welcome one.”

OK…any unsubscribe tips yourself? Have you seen any good unsubscribe pages? (After reading through my post, mine needs some serious work!)

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Permalink | November 8th, 2011 | 17 Comments »
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