Reducing the number of people who unsubscribe from your mailing list is one of the key ways to minimize list churn and in turn make it easier to grow your list.

That doesn't mean you make it harder for people to leave, however. Instead, learn why people leave, offer them other ways to remain in the relationship, and make the process a great customer experience.

Unsubscribes: A Fact of List Life

Email consumers control their destiny—choosing when to opt in and when to say adios. But, unsubscribes can also be a good thing. The alternative is a poor brand experience for the subscriber and spam complaints or deadwood on your list that masks true performance.

Make the process easy. You'll minimize spam complaints and likely retain the customer relationship through another channel.

Why People Unsubscribe

According to JupiterResearch:

  1. 53 percent say they unsubscribe when the content is irrelevant.
  2. 40 percent say they unsubscribe when email is sent too often.

How to Optimize the Unsubscribe Process

1. Make the unsubscribe and alternatives links stand out in your emails

Display a clearly labeled unsubscribe link prominently in your email message, in an easy-to-read font size, style, and color that match your email design. Don't try to hide it by blending it in with the background color, shrinking the type size, or moving it around each time.

Put it in both your primary or secondary navigation below the fold and near the bottom or in your email administration area if you have one. However, if you have a high spam-complaint rate, add it to the very top of your emails.

2. Deploy a combination unsubscribe/preference page

Create a well-designed, branded page that explains exactly how to unsubscribe, thanks the user for his/her patronage, and offers alternatives to unsubscribing but completes the unsubscribe process quickly for those who really do want to leave.

Test it for ease of use. Check it and the email unsubscribe link regularly to be sure they're working correctly.

A. Unsubscribe function

This page should make it easy and obvious how to unsubscribe. In fact, a ruling in May by the Federal Trade Commission prohibits requiring logins or passwords, surveys, or the viewing of offers to complete the unsubscribe. The entering of an email address is the only requirement allowed.

Pass the subscribers' email address and preferences through to this unsubscribe page. They won't have to enter any information; they'll merely check or uncheck boxes or select radio buttons.

After completing the unsubscribe or preference changes, launch a thank-you page that confirms the action(s) and again offers ways to continue the relationship via other channels, such as RSS or catalogs.

B. Suggested alternatives

Many of your subscribers who click the unsubscribe link just want some aspect of the relationship to change.

Retain these subscribers with an unsubscribe/preference page that allows them both to change preferences and to opt out. Include these alternatives:

  • Changing their email address. Best practice: To reduce mistakes, load the form with the address they used to subscribe.
  • Changing the frequency. Offer some appropriate options, such as a weekly or monthly digest of daily or weekly messages.
  • Changing the format. Let users switch from plain text to HTML or vice versa, as well as a "mobile" version—a shortened HTML format minus images—if you offer it.
  • Changing the channel. Show users how and where to sign up for your RSS feed(s), SMS messaging, or direct mail, if you offer them.
  • Changing their profile or preferences. People's needs and interests change over time. Present their profile/preferences this page or link to your preference page.
  • Subscribing to your other lists/emails. You may have other emails or newsletters of more relevance to the subscriber. Present a list (with descriptions, if possible) of the emails you offer and highlight those they are currently receiving.

C. Alternate contacts

Always provide your customer-service phone number and email and postal addresses in case the subscriber has problems, such as when a page is not loading or in case of error messages.

D. Exit survey

Try to capture why subscribers are opting out. Use radio buttons listing the top five or so reasons you know why people are unsubscribing. Then, provide a comment box for people to elaborate or list other reasons, and study what they say. Make it clear the survey is optional.

E. Timing statement if the unsubscribe is not immediate

Consumers expect your emails to stop as soon as they unsubscribe, even though in the United States the CAN-SPAM Act allows up to 10 days to remove someone from a list. If, for whatever reason, it takes you several days to process an unsubscribe, include a statement such as the following: "When unsubscribing, there may be a delay of up to seven days. We apologize in advance if you receive further emails during this period."

Other Best Practices

  • Launch a thank-you page that confirms the actions the subscriber took and thanks that person.
  • Track your unsubscribe rate over several campaigns to spot trends, correlate with spam complaints, and analyze to find patterns.
  • Test different unsubscribe formats to find one that works best.
  • Minimize the need for unsubscribing by optimizing your opt-in procedure and following email best practices throughout your relationship.

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Loren McDonald is vice-president of industry relations at Silverpop, an email service provider for B2C marketing initiatives and B2B lead-management processes. Reach him via