Retailers Magnify Opt-In, Opt-Out E-mail Sub Processes

chartMarketers that are flippant about subscribe and unsubscribe Web site e-mail options that connect retailers one-on-one with consumers might want to take a closer look. Two benchmark studies released from separate trade organizations examine the process from opt-in to opt-out, shedding light on human behavior and making suggestions for ways to put the oomph back in campaigns.

The 39-page "Retail E-mail Subscription Benchmark Study" from the E-mail Experience Council (eec)--a marketing arm of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which estimates that companies will shell out $176.9 billion on direct marketing this year--suggests that retailers have become more focused on cleaning up mailing lists, asking subscribers to confirm subscriptions, and taking greater risks by integrating blogs, RSS feeds and social networks into the subscribe process.



Direct mail and catalogs historically have been promoted during e-mail sign-ups, but this year 6% of retailers plugged blogs or RSS feeds--up from 3% last year. Podcasts remain niche at 1%. The study also suggests that more retailers use SMS subscriptions (4%), social networks (3%) and widgets (1%). Nascent numbers signal a move toward building on these types of promotions during the next year, according to Chad White, the study's author and eec's director of retail insights.

Retailers also continue to move away from one-click sign-ups and toward landing-page forms that give subscribers more information and options. The one-click sign-up declined to 51% from 63% last year. Research also shows that the number of retailers providing a sample e-mail and the ability to choose topic preferences rose.

While 38% indicate that they now ask subscribers to confirm e-mail addresses by reentering them--up from 27% last year--5% use a double opt-in process to confirm subscriptions, up from 3% in 2007. White said retailers will likely see lower opt-out rates over time by following these minor process changes.

Among notable trends, more retailers are moving sign-ups below the fold on their Web site home page--36% in 2008 vs. 24% in 2007. E-mail sign-up incentives rebounded to 13% this year, after falling to 8% last year from 27% in 2006. Privacy issues remain in the forefront. Only 36% of retailers mentioned their privacy policy this year, down from 45% last year--suggesting that many follow the notion that making policies more visible during the process frightens away consumers. Nike requires subscribers to agree to privacy policies before permitting them to sign up for e-mail, which White said is sure to make people pause.

Aside from opting-in, marketers may also want to look more closely at the opt-out process, according to the recent study "Unsubscribe Me" from Return Path, a New York company that helps firms to use e-mail marketing more effectively. Using the "unsubscribe" process to offer innovative services could become the basis for change. For example, the ability to let consumers change an e-mail address without unsubscribing enables marketers to tie the new address with the old to retain transactional data history. Asking consumers to provide a reason for unsubscribing lets marketers learn what works and doesn't.

Bonnie Malone, director of strategic services at Return Path, said consumers who "unsubscribe" don't necessarily want to end the relationship with the company. "Marketers shouldn't view the process as negative, but rather an opportunity to learn what subscribers want and how they perceive services," she said. "One interesting fact we found while doing the study is the need for companies to immediately comply with unsubscribe requests because every message subscribers receive after they go through the unsubscribe process becomes an annoyance."

While 65% of the companies surveyed removed subscribers from their list immediately, 20% sent more than one additional e-mail message after confirming that consumers unsubscribed. In fact, most companies sent four or more additional messages. About 11% of the companies continued to send messages more than 10 days after the date of unsubscribing, a violation of the CAN-SPAM Act.

Most companies provided customers with immediate confirmation that their unsubscribed request was processed through a landing page on their Web site. Some, such as Tiffany & Co, went a step further by giving the consumer the exact date of removal in the unsubscribe confirmation landing page. A few companies sent and e-mailed confirmation of the subscriber's opt-out request.

Companies that took longer to process the request blamed the delay on their IT department or business processes. In some cases, retailers said subscribers were caught in the 30-day window between mailings, which took another month for them to fall off the list.

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