Is Double Opt-In Really A Best Practice For Europe?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, December 11, 2014
Let me start by saying I’m a big fan of best practices for email -- when they are actually useful. But over the years I’ve come to question some of the tactics touted as being best practices, as I feel they don’t reflect the current landscape of email marketing.

Best practices generally begin as a response to a challenging situation. The solution is then picked up as a trend -- and before you know, it’s been promoted as being a best practice.

In fact, one or two of today’s commonly accepted best practices actually have less than honourable beginnings.  These best practices weren’t created in order to solve a problem that marketers were facing, but were instead solutions to vendor problems.

Before using a best practice, I always advise my clients to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is implementing this best practice going to help me achieve my business objectives -- or hinder them?
  • How did this tactic come to be a best practice? Does the reasoning behind it still exist?
  • Does it help my customer -- or does it help someone else?

Let’s look at double opt-in as an example. My concern is that double opt-in is still cited as a best practice for countries that are governed by opt-in legislation such as the UK PECR Act. I feel that this tactic is unnecessary. By implementing double opt-in blindly, you stand a chance of losing up to 60% of subscribers who want to hear from you. And we’re not just talking size of database here, we’re also talking revenue.

A client of mine has an impressive subscribe-to-conversion rate of 40% -- so when you do the math, to lose 40%-60% of these subscribers would impact their revenue significantly.

But let’s start at the beginning and review how double opt-in first began as a best practice. Back in the old days spam was rife, everyone was emailing anyone they had an email address for, and deliverability problems ensued.

At that time ISPs couldn’t distinguish a permission-based marketing email from a non-permission based email, and therefore implemented “whitelists,” which ensured better delivery of your emails. In order to get accepted onto a whitelist, you had to prove that your email list was an opt-in list -- and the way to prove this was by using double opt-in.

Fast-forward to now. In Europe we have very stringent legislation that governs each of the EU states, and with only one exception (UK B2B), it’s an opt-in legislation -- meaning that you can only email recipients who have opted in to receive emails from you.

Because of this opt-in legislation, Europe has less deliverability issues than in the U.S., whose CAN SPAM Act is an opt-out legislation. Added to that, whitelists are no longer needed, as the deliverability community have implemented a far more successful way of determining who is a legitimate marketer using authentication and IP reputations.

I know many UK marketers feel guilty -- yes, guilty -- because they haven’t implemented double opt-in. Yet when they ask themselves the three questions above, more often than not they realize that it’s unnecessary to implement double opt-in -- and also that doing so could lose them revenue.

So my question to EU marketers is: Can you afford to lose up to 60% of subscribers and their associated revenue? Not many of us can -- yet this is potentially what’s happening when double opt-in is implemented without consideration in the EU states, simply because it’s touted as a best practice.

Take the following into account before implementing any best practice: the legislation of your governing country, the legislation of the countries you are marketing to, your business objectives, your customers’ expectations, and the quality of your email programme. Then make an informed decision, testing to see what works most effectively.

Best practices are not designed to be a one-size-fits-all solution. We as marketers need to take responsibility for choosing the best tactics for both our business needs as well as our customers’ needs.

5 comments about "Is Double Opt-In Really A Best Practice For Europe?".
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  1. Marcus Bointon from Synchromedia Limited, December 16, 2014 at 4:04 a.m.

    Normally I really like Kath's stuff, but this is complete and utter rubbish, and massively irresponsible. Yes, dropping double-opt-in can increase your subscriber count, in much the same way that you can increase footfall by inviting shoplifters in. "Back in the old days spam was rife" - you mean, like it was yesterday? Show me a single-opt-in signup form, and I'll show you a matching list stuffed with junk from spambots. Inviting a few hundred thousand spambots into your home-grown list is deliverability suicide.

    "Because of this opt-in legislation, Europe has less deliverability issues than in the U.S." - and guess what - if you stop doing it, you'll drop straight back down to their level, destroying all the value in your hard-won list. This is the same kind of argument the anti-vaccine crowd uses, and is wrong for the same reason. Exhibiting public disdain and disrespect for your customers has never been an effective marketing strategy.

    "ISPs couldn’t distinguish a permission-based marketing email from a non-permission based email" - and guess what - they still can't. The only way that you can is via double-opt-in records, something that the DMA has gone out of its way to do nothing to help codify. The only way a whitelisted delivery service can remain whitelisted is to consistently apply list hygiene (aka double-opt-in), and trying to hide your selfish, short-sighted greed behind their reputation is frankly despicable. Adding a single address from an unverified source can be fatal - we've seen a 200k list from an A-list national brand halve its open rate due to the addition of two spam traps, and that took about 6 months to recover, but somewhere, some marketeer thought that adding a few more addresses was more important than the 200k they already had. Authentication doesn't help either - it only confirms you are who you say you are - I see plenty of DKIM-signed, SPF-passing spam.

    Nearly everywhere in the EU double-opt-in is not just "best practice", it's a legal requirement, and for good reason. So your choice isn't "an informed decision", it's "do you feel lucky, punk?"

  2. Kath Pay from Holistic Email Marketing, December 16, 2014 at 6:17 a.m.

    Hi Marcus,

    Many thanks for your lengthy and emotive reply - it's good to see you have taken the time to consider at length whether DOI is suitable for your business. Which, by the way, was the message I was wanting to impart - not a blanket message that DOI wasn't any good - just that each and every marketer needs to review their own situation and determine whether it's suitable for them. The majority of UK and Australian students I've taught and clients that I've worked with over the past 5 years (numbering in the hundreds) have not used DOI and they've not had deliverability issues solely due to using SOI.

    It appears that your main concern is spambots and there are other options available other than DOI which will block the bots from subscribing (and no I'm not talking about CAPTCHA, as it's not a great experience for the subscriber/customer), such as the dragndrop game that ubokia have implemented. Not only does it stop the bots but it also gamefies the form and makes for an enjoyable experience for your customer. A win/win for all.

    With regards to DOI being legislative requirement within most EU countries, I'm afraid that you have been misinformed as this is not true.

    Finally, with regards to the customer experience and expectations, having questioned hundreds of email markers on this subject I am always surprised to discover that many of them are not familiar with DOI. They are not aware that they have to click the link in the email, otherwise they won't be signed up. So if this is the case with email marketers, then imagine the lack of knowledge within the average subscriber who doesn't perform email marketing as a living - hence why the loss rate of 40-60% is so high.

    So if we have a look at this, what in fact are the subscribers who need to fulfil the requirements of a DOI, but fail to, thinking? Maybe something along the lines of "Where are my emails from xx brand? I signed up and they're not sending me anything!" It can turn into being a frustrating and bad customer experience, especially when they (being very eager to hear from xx brand) go and re-subscribe again only to find that they're already on the database - yet are not receiving any emails.

    Again - all I am recommending is for the email marketer to take everything into consideration (including anti-spambot measures) before implementing DOI as I don't believe (based upon my lengthy experience of working with hundreds of UK, European and Australian clients and marketers) that DOI should be implemented simply because it is touted as being a Best Practice.

  3. Skip Fidura from dotmailer, December 16, 2014 at 3:46 p.m.

    Marcus, I echo Kath's compliment on your well reasoned and thought out response. As the Chairman of the Email Marketing Council and one of the drafters of the new DMA code, I wanted to point out some inaccuracies in your comment with regards to the DMAs position on DOI. Once upon a time the code was literally hundreds of pages and tried to cover every possible scenario. This was recently replaced with an outcomes based code based on putting your customers first, respecting privacy, being honest and fair in all of your dealings, being diligent in how you collect, store and use data, taking responsibility for your actions and following the laws and regulations governing the industry. This structure allows the code to change with the times and allows the DM Commission to rule accordingly.

  4. Greg Alvarez from iMeil, December 18, 2014 at 5:55 p.m.

    I have to differ with your statements. First and foremost, I'm not goint into the tech-spam-act aspects of this topic. At the end, its not double optin --or any other subscription process-- the one affecting your subscription/open/lead-gen/shared/CT rate... its the way you present and implement your tactics and strategies shown on your message's content. Yes, when you implement double optin you have "less" subscriptions, but not at the % you mention in your article, at least not so with my email service clients: most of them have less than 10% confirmation pending users. When you are not selling CPG --or any similar product-- the best way to get success is through double optin.

  5. Kath Pay from Holistic Email Marketing, December 19, 2014 at 4:48 a.m.

    Hi Greg and thanks for your reply. Congratulations on achieving a 90% subscribe rate with your clients' DOI - that's brilliant but unfortunately as compared to the majority of my clients here in the UK, not at all typical.

    I agree that it has much to do with the message (more on that later), but I also wonder whether it has something to do with 'trends'. For example, do the majority of subscriptions in Spain require a DOI? If so, then, as this potentially is the 'norm' and the customers are educated in what is expected of them - then combined with your excellent messaging skills - the results are impressive as you have shown. In the UK DOI is not a trend and as I explained in my previous reply many are unaware of the process.

    Back to the messaging side of things. I'm a big fan of crafting a compelling message. I'm also aware that first impressions are unbelievably important - and this includes emails. So when combining a carefully crafted message and a Welcome email together - then you stand a good chance of converting them -either immediately or in the future.

    The problem is that many DOI processes are neither welcoming nor carefully crafted and I believe this is where some of the problem lies....within the 'out of the box' solution that has not been customised. And this is where we as marketers need to take responsibility and ensure we create the most frictionless DOI process possible.

    One of the problems is that it is hard to calculate the 'loss factor' of using DOI and most marketers don't even try to do so and as such are not aware of how many subscribers they're losing to this process. As I said before, we marketers need to take responsibility and we should know what the loss factor is and not just blindly continuing to do DOI without understand the potential negative impact it can have on your business.

    The only point I would differ with you on is when you say "the best way to get success is through double optin." On the basis of my clients definition of 'success' as being increased revenue (and all that goes along with this - happy customers etc) and after calculating the 'loss factor', I've used their subscribe:conversion rate to forecast potential future conversions if we were to change over to being SOI. On the basis of this I've changed many of my clients from being DOI to SOI with great success.
    The bottom line is, the brand is happy because they have made more revenue because they used SOI and the customer is happy because they've been able to subscribe and been sent offers that they've taken advantage of.

    Success is two-sides of the same coin. The brand wants to achieve their objectives (sell, get downloads etc) and the customer wants to achieve their objectives (buy, read whitepapers etc). Putting it simply, one wants to sell and the other wants to buy, and as marketers it's our job to try and ensure this happens with as minimal friction as possible in order to enable both sides to achieve their objectives.

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