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Abiding by anti-spam law is your responsibility as a marketer. Claiming ignorance is a gamble in today’s litigious society and such an approach can end in a hefty fine for your company.
So what do digital marketers have to understand about enabling opt-out from their commercial email messages to have both a smooth unsubscribe process and to stay on the right side of the law?
Guide to the opt-out process
Bear in mind that although this article is designed as a guide to help ensure your email marketing activities comply with the law, it’s still important to check with current legislation as laws change every day.
- Is it mandatory to provide the ability to unsubscribe to my commercial messages?
Yes. As a sender, you are obligated to give recipients the ability to opt out from your mailing lists at no cost, easily, and in each advertising email.
- Which unsubscribe mechanism do I need to implement?
There are plenty of different ways to enable your users to unsubscribe. Whichever you choose, it’s important to make sure that you don’t put any unnecessary obstacles in the way.
The easiest and most user-friendly way is to add an unsubscribe link to each email you send. This link is usually at the end of the email in its footer. Make sure that after clicking the unsubscribe link, the user is taken to a page confirming they have been unsubscribed successfully.
This automated unsubscribe mechanism should be functional for at least 30 days after the email is delivered to the recipients. Broken links and a non-functional unsubscribe can result in penalties.
If unsubscribe links are not a viable option for you, you can provide other ways to unsubscribe. Typically, you would ask the subscriber to unsubscribe by replying to the email.
Here is an example of an email footer instructing users well on what to do in order to unsubscribe, and which means of communication not to use.
Don’t forget that unsubscribe requests you receive via phone or direct emails also need to be processed, even if it means doing it manually.
- After clicking the unsubscribe link, can I direct people to a preference centre? What information can I ask for before they are unsubscribed?
Preference pages are a great way for marketers to learn more about why users are unsubscribing. They are in compliance with the law unless they require information other than an email address or opt-out preferences in order for the user to unsubscribe.
Here are some examples:
- A preference centre will help you understand WHY your subscribers decided to opt out
- A preference centre can also allow the subscriber to specify from which mailing lists they want to opt out. This way, you are letting the users decide what they want to hear about
- A preference centre can allow you to influence the user’s opinion by offering a different frequency for sending commercial emails
- What about the double opt-out confirmation process? Is it something that is allowed?
So what is meant by the ‘double opt-out process’. After clicking the unsubscribe link, the user receives an email with a link that needs to be clicked for the user to be unsubscribed.
Now, what all anti-spam laws have in common is the requirement for the unsubscription workflow to be as easy as possible without any unnecessary barriers along the way. Enabling double opt-out will add an additional and painful step for the user which is why it’s not recommended. Furthermore, if people start reporting you as a spammer, it can end up harming your sender reputation.
- Can I ask users to log in to unsubscribe?
Plenty of you know what I am talking about. You click the unsubscribe button in the email and expect to be unsubscribed. Instead of that, you get to a page requiring you to log in . . . and what if you’ve forgotten your password? Arrgh! So many steps for just one simple request!
Now, requiring users to log in to unsubscribe is very controversial, because nobody is really sure whether it complies with the law or not.
According to the US CAN-SPAM act , it seems it is not permitted to require a login to opt out. On the other hand, there are still plenty of companies that claim there is nothing bad about this, and they are only trying to protect their users.
One of the most criticised companies that requires login details as a part of their unsubscribe workflow is LinkedIn. Once you click the unsubscribe button under their email, they take you to a page that allows you to unsubscribe from the mailing list that the particular email came from.
But if you want to unsubscribe from all mailing lists (and you click on Manage other email preferences), you first need to log in.
Whether this approach is allowed or not, keep in mind that your task is to make it as easy as possible to opt out as it was to opt in. Not only is it the law, but your subscribers will appreciate it.
- Do I need to grant an unsubscribe request immediately?
International laws slightly differ from each other in this matter. Some of them require that you honour the opt-out request within five days (New Zealand, Australia), some of them say that you need to do it no later than 10 days after your received the opt-out request (United States, Canada), and some of them don’t put any timeframe, even though they specify the request should be honoured without any delay (Germany, Japan). EU laws do not specifically address the unsubscribe timeframe, but it’s good practice to do it immediately to prevent user frustration.
Imagine that you just requested the opt-out from a mailing list. To your surprise you have not been unsubscribed immediately and instead you see a page with an ambiguous ‘Your unsubscribe request will be honoured as soon as possible’. This uncertainty drives people crazy, are they going to do it in 2 hours? 2 days? And, what’s more, during the interminable wait you receive another X number of emails from the mailing list you just unsubscribed from.
- Is it necessary to confirm the unsubscribe request by sending another email?
No. No law requires that. It is redundant and can be considered harassment. It should be enough for you to take the user to a page confirming successful opt-out, as this one does:
As you can see, there are plenty of things to keep in mind when implementing an opt-out process and handling unsubscribe requests. A good test is to go through your current unsubscription process and see for yourself how easy or difficult it is for your subscribers to opt out. This is often a revealing exercise. Are there any unnecessary steps that you can avoid? Have you seen any obstacles that your subscribers may not be able to overcome? Get rid of them! Optimise the process and make it as easy as possible for your subscribers. You never know, they may come back to you again later on.
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