Unsubscribe Practices: They're Good Until They're Not

Retailers have become better at winning consumer trust.

Almost 95% are following best practices for handling email unsubscribes and authentication, according to the 2017 Email Marketing & Unsubscribe Audit, a study by the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), an Internet Society initiative.

Of the firms studied from March to August, 67% received a "best in class" designation this year. While that was down from 69% in 2016, it means they scored 80% or more in analysis of their email trustworthiness.

Indeed, nine sites had perfect scores, meaning that they followed all 12 of OTA’s best practices for email. They refrained from sending unsubscribe confirmation emails and from violating CAN-SPAM and Canada’s Anti-Spam Law, among other things.  

“Overall this year’s results were strong, with increased adoption of nearly all of OTA’s recommended best practices,” says Jeff Wilbur, director of the OTA.

The perfect entrants? Blue Nile, Home Shopping Network, Lands’ End, Musician’s Friend, Sierra Trading Post, Stitch Fix, Talbots, Toys "R" Us and Walgreens.



And how should firms confirm unsubscribes, if not through an email? By serving an unsubscribe confirmation web page, OTA says. They should also pre-populate the email address on the unsubscribe page to avoid mistakes. This is new this year, OTA says.

But now that the good news is out of the way, there are some possible issues.

First, it is slightly more difficult for consumers to find unsubscribe links. Their ability to find them dropped to 76% from 81% last year, and the OTA attributes this largely to presentation.

For example, 32% used low-contrast colors such as grey text on a light grey background, small text: 69% were under the recommended contrast ratio.

In addition, 6% used a font with less than 10 pixels, and 29% had one of 10 pixels — on the edge of readability, the OTA says.

What’s more, whereas 76% used the word “unsubscribe,” others said, “Click here” for the link, or other alternate wording.

The OTA also reports that 51% of unsubscribe links were put in a footer — the recommended practice. But 28% were placed in a separate sentence and 21% were buried in a paragraph.

Wilbur notes that "there does seem to be a divergence underway — while the vast majority of retailers are making the unsubscribe link easier to find and honoring unsubscribe requests immediately, others are making it even harder to find by using low-contrast text, burying it in long paragraphs or using vague language."

He adds: "Signups have less 'friction' than we’ve ever seen in the sense of requests for additional data. While this may streamline the process up front, it also may cause issues if retailers don’t know anything more about those subscribers.” In today’s regulatory environment, he said, it's important for marketers "to know which state or province and country a subscriber is from so they can abide by the rules in those jurisdictions.” 

In a positive finding, CTA determined that 88% stopped sending marketing emails to consumers immediately upon getting the unsubscribe request; last year, it was 86%.

Still, 6% were in violation of U.S. and Canadian anti-spam laws by not listing their physical address or by failing to honor unsubscribe requests, the OTA says.  

Then there is the issue of email security. The best firms prevented their emails from being spoofed or impersonated. 

Of those studied, 95% employed Sender Policy Framework, compared with 94% in 2016. And 99% utilize DomainKeys Identified Mail, up from 98% last year.

In addition, 60% have adopted Domain-based Message and Reporting Conformance (DMARC), up from 51% last year. And 90% employed Transport Layer Security, message-level encryption, up from 32% last year. 

Only 52% of unsubscribe web pages were encrypted using HTTPs. OTA sees room for improvement there.

Now for marketing. The OTA offers these findings:

  • Almost 80% followed the best practice of sending a signup confirmation email, followed by a newsletter. But 18% skipped the welcome and moved to the newsletter or promotion, and nearly 4% sent a confirmation with no follow-up.
  • Most firms went from four messages per day to once a month in a consistent cadence. But over a quarter reduced frequency over time, most likely following non-engagement.
  • Even without an unsubscribe, almost 19% stopped emailing after a period varying from four to 120 days. But this is down from 28% in 2016.

These findings can be used as benchmarks. Where does your firm stand?

OTA signed up to receive promotional emails from the leading 200 retailers, as defined by revenue in Internet Retailer Magazine’s Top 55 Guide. 

Next story loading loading..