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5 Reasons List-Unsubscribe Concerns Are Overblown


One of the many changes made to iOS Mail with the release of iOS 10 Mail was that Apple added support for list-unsubscribe, which is coding that marketers add to the headers of their emails to enable native unsubscribe links offered by inbox providers. While some native unsubscribe links are somewhat subtle, Apple’s “easy unsubscribe” banner appears prominently at the top of emails.

Some marketers are now concerned that Apple’s native unsubscribe link has made it too easy and enticing for subscribers to opt-out. Research from Yesmail shows a dramatic rise in unsubscribes from iOS 10 devices in the weeks after the rollout.

Native unsubscribe link in iOS 10 Mail email client

Should marketers panic? Should you disable list-unsubscribe on your emails?

No. And here’s why:

1. Unsubscribes are not inherently bad, since they don’t harm deliverability and may not harm revenue. [Tweet this →]

First, unsubscribes are infinitely better than spam complaints, which hurt your deliverability, unlike unsubscribes.

And second, who is unsubscribing is critical. Are your best subscribers opting out or are they your inactive and marginal subscribers? While the research we’ve seen hasn’t answered this question, the chances are high that it’s the latter.

After all, your best subscribers are the best because they’re happy, engaged, and valuable. A prominent unsubscribe link is unlikely to make them suddenly abandon a relationship that they’re getting value out of.

On the other hand, inactive and marginal subscribers who haven’t been seeing value in your emails—nor generating value for your brand—are much more likely to jump at the opportunity to unsubscribe using Apple’s unsubscribe banner. That’s because…

2. Brands have made it too difficult to unsubscribe and don’t honor opt-outs quickly enough. [Tweet this →]

Use of “clear and conspicuous” unsubscribe links plunged to 81% from 97% the prior year, according to the Online Trust Alliance’s (OTA) 2016 Email Marketing & Unsubscribe Audit. The OTA also saw a four-fold increase in the number of retailers in the study that failed to honor unsubscribe requests within 10 days, which is the legal requirement in the US, Canada, and some other countries.

Time Allowed to Process an Opt-out Request

[Tweet this chart →]

Our Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam research found that nearly 40% of consumers find unsubscribing difficult—and that percentage is even higher among Baby Boomers.

As a result of this…

3. Email users trust native opt-out mechanisms more than the ones supplied directly by brands. [Tweet this →]

When marketers don’t treat their subscribers well, inbox providers step in to keep their users happy. This is especially true when it comes to respecting permission.

The one-click, never-fail “report spam” button stands in sharp contrast to many brands’ unsubscribe processes. Having an overly difficult unsubscribe process is a risk to your deliverability, as half of consumers say they’ve junked emails when brands make opting out too hard, according to our joint research with Fluent.

Difficulty Unsubscribing Leads to Spam Complaints

[Tweet this chart →]

If you accept that senders’ less-than-friendly unsubscribe processes are driving spam complaints up and that email users are turning to inbox provider-supported opt-out mechanisms like the “report spam” and native unsubscribe links as a more trusted alternative, then…

4. Enabling list-unsubscribe reduces spam complaints, which in turn improves deliverability. [Tweet this →]

Making it easier to unsubscribe clearly decreases spam complaints, and adding an inbox provider-supported opt-out mechanism like list-subscribe increases that effect because it’s more trusted.

Publicare did some research that backed this up and summed up the issue by saying:

“Whoever feels at home in a shop will not leave it just because the exit is broad. And most certainly they will not boycott the shop. The same goes for email subscribers: the fear that interested subscribers opt-out just because it has become so easy is misplaced.”

It’s also worth noting that…

5. List-unsubscribe isn’t new. Apple’s adoption follows Gmail (2009) and Microsoft (2007). [Tweet this →]

This is not a new disruption and is not a mechanism that consumers are unfamiliar with. Microsoft debuted list-unsubscribe functionality way back in 2007, followed closely by a limited rollout by Gmail in 2009.

At that time, Gmail said, “Searching through individual messages for little unsubscribe links is too big a pain.” Clearly, Gmail didn’t feel that things improved, because they rolled their native unsubscribe link out to all accounts in 2014 and moved the opt-out link right next to the sender’s name in the viewing pane.

List-Unsubscribe Functionality Across Email Clients

[Tweet this →]

With Apple joining the bandwagon, the majority of emails are now opened in email clients that support list-unsubscribe. It’s a trend that’s more likely to gain momentum than lose it.

Mitigating the Downsides of List-Unsubscribe

Marketers should absolutely ensure that list-unsubscribe is enabled on their emails to give disinterested subscribers another deliverability-neutral mechanism through which to opt-out. However, there are two significant downsides to list-unsubscribe:

First, it circumvents any alternatives to unsubscribing on the brand’s unsubscribe page or in their preference center. While the Online Trust Alliance’s research shows that the use of preference centers among retailers has fallen to 38% and that only 33% offer the option to opt-down and receive emails less frequently, these can be powerful ways to reduce list churn.

And second, it circumvents any post-unsubscribe messaging, such as “Why did you unsubscribe?” surveys and promotions of other channels like social or mobile. Even if a brand is merely saying, “Thanks for having been a subscriber,” list-unsubscribe denies that opportunity.

Brands can boost the chances that their subscribers will use and trust their unsubscribe process by:

  • Providing a prominent unsubscribe link at the top of your first-touch promotional emails like your welcome email, in addition to including the usual opt-out link in your email footer.
  • Not hiding your unsubscribe link in a sea of small, grey text in your footer. Separate it out, make it bigger than the surrounding text, and use a non-grey color.
  • Making your unsubscribe link into a bulletproof button.
  • Not making subscribers login to opt-out or access their email preferences. Not only will this frustrate some subscribers into using the “report spam” button to unsubscribe, but it’s also in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act and other email laws.
  • Ensuring that your unsubscribe process requires no more than one click in the email and one click on the landing page.
  • Honoring unsubscribes immediately. While brands legally have up to 10 days to honor unsubscribe requests in the U.S., subscribers expect opt-out requests to be honored immediately. And thanks to technology advances since CAN-SPAM’s passage in 2003, all but the most distributed organizations can live up to those expectations.

Instead of seeing list-unsubscribe as a threat, see it as a call-to-action to make your subscribe process friendlier.

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