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To Email or Not to Email?

Keep your brand off the spam list through best practices in honoring unsubscribes. Email marketing remains a vibrant channel to interact with customers, and the better you respect customers’ wishes, the better engagement you’ll have. Last December, the Online Trust Alliance (OTA) published its second annual Email Unsubscribe Audit, tracking the unsubscribe practices of the top 200 online retailers. The audit criteria were developed via a public call for comments and include worldwide feedback from the email marketing community and consumer advocates. Overall, retailers fared better in 2015 than 2014 – 98% complied with CAN-SPAM in honoring unsubscribe requests (versus 90% in 2014), and 75% made the “Unsub Honor Roll” (scoring 80% or higher) compared to only 70% in 2014.

The Signup Process
The audit tracked both the signup/welcome process as well as the unsubscribe process and results. The following practices were tracked during the signup process:

  • Double Opt-In. In this practice, which ensures accuracy, subscribers are asked to confirm their subscription before receiving any promotional email. Adoption grew from 8% in 2014 to 13% in 2015. OTA continues to advocate all marketers adopt this best practice.
  • Confirmation Email. A simple confirmation lets subscribers know you’ve received their request and provides an opportunity to set expectations and engage them early. Though widely adopted (84% versus 85% last year), there is still room for improvement.
  • Promo Offer in Confirmation. This is another way to engage customers early, and adoption grew rapidly, from 29% to 42%. The most popular offers were free shipping and a discount off the next order.

Surprisingly, nearly 9% of retailers never sent a promotional message (even after repeated attempts), though nearly half of those did send a confirmation. This points to the need for ongoing monitoring to ensure that your subscription mechanisms are operating properly. After promotional messages were received, unsubscribe requests were sent and the following best practices were tracked.

Within the Message

  • Clear and Conspicuous. Don’t hide the unsubscribe link – it should be visible from the last line of body text and clearly formatted as a link rather than buried in lines of legalese. Adoption rose from 80% in 2014 to 97% in 2015, a significant improvement for leading commerce sites.
  • Commonly Understood Terms. Plain language such as “unsubscribe” or opt-out” should be used rather than vague references such as “click here to modify your subscription preferences.” Adoption of this practice rose from 86% to 94%.
  • Easily Read/Size. While “clear and conspicuous” deals mainly with placement, this practice deals with formatting – ideally the unsubscribe link should be no more than 2 points smaller than body text, not less than 8 points, and in a contrasting color to make it stand out. This is widely adopted and grew from 97% to 98%.
  • Unsubscribe Header. Inclusion of an unsubscribe header allows many mailbox providers to present an unsubscribe button to the user and ensures accurate handling of the request. Adoption grew from 76% to 85%.

The Unsubscribe Process

  • Opt-Out of All Email. Though other options can be presented, there must be a choice (explicit or implied) to opt-out of all email. Adoption grew from 94% to 97%.
  • Confirmation Web Page. Customers should get some immediate feedback that their request has been received, and the most common method is to take them to a web page stating that fact. This is also an opportunity to provide alternate communication choices (social media, different frequency/content) and get feedback about why they’re leaving. Adoption stayed flat at 95%.
  • Branded Unsubscribe Page. Though the unsubscribe process is often handled by a separate system (in many cases the ESP), customers should know that the page they’re presented with ties directly to the request they’ve made, and branding the page provides the bridge. The audit revealed a wide range of practices here, from crude to sophisticated and elegant. Adoption is still relatively high, growing from 86% to 90%.
  • Preference Center / Opt-Down. As part of the process, customers can be given the choice to modify the frequency or content of communication rather than go all-or-nothing, possibly retaining them as a subscriber. Due to more stringent scoring criteria (choices must be presented as part of the unsubscribe process as opposed to being available through any means, adoption of this practice fell from 91% to 62%.
  • Optional Customer Feedback. Once the opt-out choice is made and confirmed, it can be useful to get feedback from customers on why they’re leaving – it allows programs to be refined and improved. Surprisingly, only 24% of the top retailers utilize this practice (down from 25%).


  • Unsubscribe Confirmation Email. Though not necessarily a CAN-SPAM or CASL violation, this practice is frowned upon – why send an email to someone who just asked you not to send any more email? Retailers improved in this area with only 3% sending such messages (down from 5%).
  • Immediate Removal. CAN-SPAM allows 10 business days to stop sending, but again, why push it? The best practice is to stop immediately and 83% of retailers did so (same as the previous year).
  • Honoring the Unsubscribe. This reflects the compliance element of CAN-SPAM – did you stop sending within 10 business days? 98% of the top retailers did (compared to 90% last year), though interestingly, 100% had stopped for a period of time and then a few started creeping back after a few months of dormancy. This likely reflects back-end systems ignoring or overwriting suppression lists, emphasizing the need for ongoing monitoring.

The Bottom Line
The vast majority of top retailers have moved beyond mere compliance to a stewardship approach in dealing with their customers’ unsubscribe requests. It is clear that the trend is moving toward early engagement of customers, making the unsubscribe process clear and efficient, and providing a rich, branded process on the back end that gives customers layers of choice and control over their interaction. OTA applauds these efforts and encourages all retailers to do the same. We are currently in the planning stage for the 2016 audit and methodology. Share your thoughts, email us at admin@otalliance.org.