Assumptions And Opt-Out: A Deadly Combination

Like many topics in the world of email marketing, one seems to be rearing its ugly head quite a bit lately: opt-out.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post disagreeing with the notion that opt-out was the best policy for B2B marketers. I followed that up with another post that flat out said the Harvard Business Review was dead wrong when it published a blog post arguing the same point. I still stand by my assertion that an opt-out policy is not the best option. The problem is simple: An opt-out strategy makes the assumption that the person wants to receive email communications from you. We all know what happens when we assume, right? (hint: break down the word assume into 3 words).

With assumptions and opt-out on my mind lately, I dug this email out of my inbox (KSL is a local Salt Lake City media company: TV, Web, radio, etc).



As a valued user of we are required to inform you of changes to our account policy and email services. As a part of's efforts to bring our customers the latest information we will be sending our emails from our new email service at Also as of July 2010, all accounts will be subscribed to our new group deals email. We are excited to offer all of our users these exclusive great deals. If you do not wish to receive our new deals just click this link to Unsubscribe . If you would like to receive them you do not need to do anything, but will have the opportunity to unsubscribe at anytime. As always our users' privacy is important to us, and we will not sell or rent your information to any third party.

Let's break down the email above and discuss the many reasons why this was a poor decision by

1.     "Valued user of" Maybe this is just a pet peeve of mine, but every time you tell me that I'm a "valued user" I think just the opposite. Are every one of their users valued?  I hope so, but do they really mean it? What makes me so valuable? Truthfully, I can't recall the last time I visited

2.     "...efforts to bring our customers the latest information." Ah. There is the assumption piece. What makes think that I want the latest information from them? They have a wonderful classified section much like Craigslist; however, that doesn't mean I want "the latest information."

3.     "...all accounts will be subscribed to our new group deals email." Boom. There it is. just opted me in for their new group deals email - an email that I never asked for, never said I wanted, never opted in for. Not good.

4.     "We are excited to offer all of our users these exclusive great deals." Now here is the rub. This is where I think many marketers fail. It's not about you. It's not about what is best for you, what gets you excited. It's about me. I'm your "valued customer." I'm the reader, listener, watcher, and/or subscriber.

5.     "If you do not wish to receive our new deals just click this link to Unsubscribe. If you would like to receive them you do not need to do anything, but will have the opportunity to unsubscribe at anytime." This is the opt-out. Note that this is not illegal. They are not violating CAN-SPAM. However, they are basically saying that if I want to stop receiving these emails, I need to take action. It's on me. This is opt-out.

6.     "As always our users' privacy is important to us..." This one always makes me laugh. Privacy may be important, but certainly my permission is not, right?

Did have sneaky, malicious intent when they sent me this opt-out email? The answer is likely no. Maybe they read that Harvard Business Review blog post. Maybe nobody every told them it was a bad idea. The bottom line is this. When it comes to email marketing, making assumptions and sending customers emails they have not asked for (opt-out) tends to be a combination that can be deadly.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Or as Ron Burgundy said, agree to disagree?

16 comments about "Assumptions And Opt-Out: A Deadly Combination".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Gretchen Scheiman from Alchemy Worx, July 13, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

    Hi DJ, I'll bite and play devil's advocate on this one: while I agree that KSL could have done a much better job portraying this change to their customers, ultimately if they had asked for permission they would have lost a tremendous amount of value from their accounts. So I don't disagree with what they did, more with how they did it. That said, I'm making a few more assumptions here (dangerous!): 1. KSL had something, somewhere, when you signed up for an account that let you opt-out of email; 2. They're still respecting that original opt choice.

    No, it's not ideal, but neither is telemarketing, direct mail, or any number of other marketing tools which we have come to terms with as marketers who want to drive value and revenue for companies (and ultimately customers of those companies).

    Should I duck and run for cover now? :)

  2. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, July 13, 2010 at 11:45 a.m.

    Well hello there, Gretchen! Thanks for taking the devil's advocate side - that's how good dialogue starts.

    re: "ultimately if they had asked for permission they would have lost a tremendous amount of value from their accounts." - I would agree 100%. That's certainly a risk. I'd also agree that I likely signed up for emails at some point. That's cool, but maybe they should have been clear about these emails up front. Then again, they'd need to have KNOWN that they would be sending offer emails at some point in the future. Tough one.

    No need to duck and run. You make some valid points for sure.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  3. Liz Lynch from Demandware, July 13, 2010 at 11:49 a.m.

    Hi DJ,
    Great article.
    I think KSL is viewing their e-mail subscriber list as an asset, both in a good way and a bad way. It is an asset, because obviously they did something right convincing people that there was value in subscribing, so they have an audience that opted in and is interested in the content they send.
    But, in launching this group deals e-mail, I bet they are using their list as an asset by charging companies to be included in the e-mail. So basically, they're selling your opt-in. That's fine if it's an option at registration, but it must be explicit. In this case, they are actually devaluing their list by using opt out.
    IMHO, the better tactic would have been to introduce this group deals e-mail, promote the benefits, and let people opt in. The list may be smaller, but it will be better because the people receiving it actually want it.

  4. Charlene Simmons DeSmet, July 13, 2010 at 11:55 a.m.

    DJ, I'm playing on your team. I completely agree with you! #3 is the invisible "checked box" ~ they made that decision for you, and I am sure like others I am capable of making my own choices. Also, using the opt-out vs the opt-in method will produce a large database of members but opt-in will give you a loyal smaller base of members. Its similar to having thousands of followers in Twitter just for the sake of having them, just to say you do, for the ego payout.

    This tactic reminds me of a recent online purchase I made at L'occitane. As part of the transaction they forced me to enter my email address. Of course, they immediately started sending me offers and I opted out.
    Did I ask you to sell me more products? Do you think I don't know how to shop online myself?

    Totally irritating, and I don't stick around long enough to read their email. The way I see it, is that I was not offered a choice, and pushing more offers at me is not going to make me buy. Quite contrary.


  5. Rob Noyes from US Agency for International Development, July 13, 2010 at 12:32 p.m.

    You missed the opportunity to show us how it could have been done properly.

  6. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, July 13, 2010 at 12:49 p.m.

    Liz - After reading Gretchen's comment, I'm actually a bit torn now. I can see both sides. While my gut/heart tells me they should have asked, I find myself actually reading the emails. So. Yeah.

    Then again, if they are truly "selling my opt-in" I'm not thrilled. Tough one, huh?

  7. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, July 13, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.

    Charlene - Thanks for your comments! I think that is what rubbed me the wrong way. I - the subscriber - should have the choice, right? You are also correct about opt-in/opt-out tradeoff. I wonder if they considered that in choosing to go that route (there's that word choice again!).

    Great example with L'occitane. I'm okay with a company "forcing" me to enter my email address during the purchase process - only if they send me a transactional message. The following page can then give me options (CHOICE!) to sign up for more.

  8. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, July 13, 2010 at 12:54 p.m.

    Rob: Fair enough. Duly noted. I'd be happy to write a follow up article on how to do it correctly (MediaPost has a limit on word length!). Short story is they could have send me an email - maybe even one w/ similar copy - that included an opt-in link. This would have been a true opt-in. Ask me, don't assume. Agree?

  9. Frances Dugan from Permanent General Companies, Inc., July 13, 2010 at 1:07 p.m.

    Agree! Instead of KSL (or whoever) deciding for you, how about sending an email with:

    1. info about the new group deals email
    2. a sample Group Deals email
    3. a "Click here to sign up" call to action

    I'm betting this approach will garner *much* better results for the Group Deal emails.

  10. Kylee Kipper from TicketNetwork, July 13, 2010 at 1:52 p.m.

    I agree with this article, but agree with Gretchen as well. What about those customers who only read a select few emails from KSL? I know that when I sign up for email newsletters, I don't have time to read every single one they send me so I find myself not opting out but just skipping over a few every now and then. Those customers who actually do want to be on the list but chose to not read that email for one reason or another would end up getting opted out and KSL would lose "valued customers" that didn't truly want to stop receiving emails. I find this a risk that KSL isn't willing to take.

    I think KSL's clear statement about choosing to opt out of this new email if they want to is fair. Current customers are given the option to take or leave this new type of email. KSL could either assume they want out (by offering an opt-in link that they'd have to click on to keep receiving these emails) which would risk losing a lot of customers who chose not to read the email, or assume they want in (by offering an opt-out link customers would have to click on).

    So the more I think about it, I find myself agreeing with Gretchen. But it is a tough one!

  11. Jim Scova from MeritDirect, July 13, 2010 at 3:40 p.m.

    I think the difference between the two is the difference between the ideal world and the real world.
    In the ideal world - get the permission, this is how you would like to operate.
    In the real world - there are CEO's or other bosses getting folks to squeeze every ounce of revenue they can for the firm. Or even ambitious marketing people trying to show their worth to their bosses.

    IMO many more companies have done it the KSL way than truly asking. (And not as obnoxiously as Gretchen's example from L'occitane)
    It is all about the math. One subscriber that asks for it may be worth more than one who doesn't opt out. But when you add up all from the latter category, the dollars coming in are much larger.

  12. Rob Noyes from US Agency for International Development, July 13, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.

    @DJ - agreed. Thanks for the reply.

    Because you write well and you know your stuff, I'd really like to read your version of how it could have been done better.


  13. David Newberry from Portrait Software, July 15, 2010 at 3:44 a.m.

    Great article, DJ, and I agree that when it comes to email marketing, too many marketers make the assumption that their customers want to receive emails they have not asked for.

    While the email you mention provides its readers the opportunity to “unsubscribe,” an option that requires the receiver to take action by manually clicking on something, chances are, many customers won’t need to take this extra step if they’ve already mentally opted out by filing these emails into their spam folders or automatically deleting them upon seeing them.

    Mental opt-out, when a consumer simply ignores and deletes marketing emails instead of physically unsubscribing, is not recorded on any lists or databases and is difficult to detect. As a result, companies often continue investing time and money in reaching out to customers who have already opted out mentally.

    Even if companies are emailing only customers who have asked to receive emails, it’s possible that their messages are being dismissed or deleted. For a more in-depth look at mental opt-out and some of the ways companies can avoid it, feel free to check out my blog post on the Portrait Software site.

  14. Cece Forrester from tbd, July 19, 2010 at 7:45 p.m.

    DJ, you are so right. Unfortunately, some marketers live by self-deception, kidding themselves that everyone in the world just craves to receive their "information"...much like the dude who whistles a random tunes in a public place. And the marketers will cover their ears and sing "La La La" when anyone brings up this subject, because the truth is something they'd rather not know.

    But, yes, as David Newberry points out, the customers are still free to "mentally opt out" with all that it implies--including taking a dislike to the sender. Just as we can vow never to vote for a political candidate who robo-calls us. Even though the Do Not Call law has a loophole for them, the law can never make us like it.

  15. Daniel Coburn from Deseret digital media, December 8, 2010 at 10:51 p.m.


    Old post, but just met DJ this weekend, so to clarify a couple of things from the otherside/backend.

    By way of intro I'm the Director of Operations and Support for Deseret Digital (we run

    The initial "opt-out" email was sent for 2 reasons.

    1. EVERYONE on the list I inherited were marked as "allow us to send you emails" and it was not a hidden option. So while it is being called an opt-out email, users had previously done two things. Signed up for an account with allow us checked, and had verified their account. So instead of assuming everyone on a sizeable list would want to receive the emails we decided it was best to say, "Hey you are already on our list, and we are going to start using it, are you sure this is what you signed up for?" And I personally responded to any inquiries we had about concerns, and yes we knew after that list was dark for a long while, we would get spam complaints.

    2. We were moving to Exact Target, so the re-engagement email was an opportunity to warm the IP.

    So when you inherit a list of over 1MM users and to some of the points above, you 1. Have explicit permission to send to, 2. Have a free service that everyone is using at no cost to them, 3. Have an exec team telling you to send out regardless

    You are put in a situation, how do I actually give my customer the respect to get off the list before they get bombarded, and how do you fullfill your other obligations to your company.

    And Finally. DJ was great meeting you and talking about this, I hope you enjoy the Star of India ;)

  16. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 17, 2010 at 12:56 p.m.

    Daniel: Great to meet you too! Thanks so much for reading the article and adding your insights. I'm actually writing a follow up article now!

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

Next story loading loading..