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I Want To Unsubscribe, Not “Manage My Preferences”

Spam is a huge problem. But my experience with the Gmail spam filter has been heavenly; it’s been years since I’ve seen spam in my inbox promising to enlarge my manhood with a Rolex.

The big problem today is opt-in email. I have been actively unsubscribing from email lists for more than a month. But newsletters, special updates, coupon offers, and other email marketing still arrive every day in droves. During the last seven days I have received 14 notifications from meetup.com, 6 Google+ friend requests, 3 Facebook event reminders, 2 notifications from job boards, 2 newsletters from services I’ve long since stopped using, 2 survey requests for services I’ve recently used, 1 LinkedIn update, 1 travel advertisement, and 1 airline advertisement. That’s 32 emails in 7 days. I never consciously opted into any of these emails and have tried to unsubscribe myself as best I can.

But increasingly, I see emails sent from large, respectable companies [1] that provide me with no unsubscribe link. Instead there is an insidious trend towards “Managing Preferences,” which invariably requires a log in, a brief search to find the unsubscribe option, and a form submit. And after all that am I unsubscribed? Apparently not because I keep getting messages. The companies assure that I’m off XY email list while seemingly putting me on ZQW list simultaneously. Perhaps most irritating of all, I am spending an increasing amount of time browsing and checking email from my phone, and elaborate unsubscribe workflows thwart my ability to quickly opt out.

As the founder of a web startup myself I do not believe there is anything wrong with emailing customers. I don’t even mind that I’m being opted into email lists by default; it actually makes a lot of sense. We did an A/B test a while back to see whether visitors to our site wanted to subscribe to five introductory tip emails [2]. Interestingly, we found that just putting the option to get email–we phrased the offer several different ways– decreased signups, even though 78% chose to receive them, and getting them vs. not getting them made no difference in conversion past the free trial. Users didn’t mind getting email, but they did mind being asked. We derive monetary value from sending customers email, and subscribing users by default causes fewer than 1 complaint per 10,000 emails sent. In summary, a website has every incentive to email its customers, and I don’t begrudge those attempts [3]. The problem is that these companies aren’t respecting my ability to unsubscribe.

Skritter newsletters go out to a lot of people every month, and folks seem to enjoy it. We easily get 10 positive responses to our newsletter for every request to unsubscribe. I suspect the reason is that we provide a one-click unsubscribe link that respects people’s time and privacy. If my company were 20x larger, we would probably want to send more and different email to customers. But complexity doesn’t magic away a company’s responsibility to allow innocents like me to easily opt out of their email presence. When a company asks me to “Manage my Preferences,” they disrespect my time and fracture my trust.

[1] LinkedIn and TripAdvisor spring to mind as companies that have foisted this on me just in the past 7 days. I still can’t figure out how to make the Trip Advisor emails to stop, even after wandering around the “My Account” section on my laptop for several minutes.

[2] The tip emails were a series of 5 emails sent to users during their trial periods that introduced them to site features. They were 100% instructional and intended to increase engagement. We didn’t put marketing or sales materials in them.

[3] In fact, in Fred Wilson’s recent 30-10-10 blog post mentioned that email is a very good way to increase engagement.

36 Responses to “I Want To Unsubscribe, Not “Manage My Preferences””

  1. July 31st, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Rhea says:

    My experience with unsubscribing from unwanted emails has been quite pleasant. I too have been unsubscribing from all the emails that I don’t want and it has made a huge difference. After unsubscribing to all the junk mail I realized that I don’t really get useful email much. It is kind of boring checking email several times a day and not seeing many new emails – lol.

  2. July 31st, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    anon says:

    I think I’m like you. I look for the unsubscribe button. I actually do try to manage the subscription if that is the only thing available.

    And if it’s too hard, the messages get marked as spam. Sometimes google will ask me if I want to let google try to unsubscribe me. Fine.

    I figure when enough of their customers using gmail mark them as spam, it will get through their thick skulls that they should figure out to be polite and respectful.

    I’ve actually seen opt-out pages that if you don’t read carefully, have the wording and the checkboxes all marked to send you more crap.

  3. July 31st, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Oisin says:

    checkout unsubscribe.com friends website that solves this problem for free

  4. July 31st, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    George says:

    Thanks for commenting Rhea, that exact realization is what spurred me to start unsubscribing in the first place. I kept getting alerts on my phone and I would think “I love getting mail! I wonder what it is? Oh. It’s a special offer on shoes from a store I once shopped at. Great.” I’m looking forward to the day when I only get a few notifications and they are real mail.

  5. July 31st, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    George says:

    I too have seen those tricksy opt-out pages, and they are reputation suicide. I can’t help but wonder if some of the mail I’m getting is from email consultants that don’t tell their clients exactly what they’re doing. In some of the cases, I know the business to be trustworthy and legit, but the way they treat me in their email correspondences says otherwise!

  6. July 31st, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    George says:

    Thanks for the tip Oisin, it’s a sad state that we have to have separate services to protect us from the people we pay for services, but I have to admit, unsubscribe.com has a very compelling value proposition.

  7. July 31st, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Mario says:

    Like you, I find linkedin’s constant reminders to connect extremely frustrating.

  8. July 31st, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Stacy says:

    “I don’t even mind that I’m being opted into email lists by default; it actually makes a lot of sense.”

    No, it doesn’t. We should be asked if we want to opt in. I’m sick of companies handing out my email and then other companies emailing me and acting like I chose to hear from them. F the marketers.

  9. July 31st, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Matthew Slight says:

    For the record: mail that has been subscribed to, like “semi-spam”, is called Bacn. Not quite as bad as Spam, by still unhealthy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacn

  10. July 31st, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Matt Ackerson says:

    Hey George, I completely agree with this post. I HATE that, I can completely empathize. Part of the reason I hate it is that I opt-in for one thing that I DO want to hear about, but then get messages for something else, e.g. a silly survey.

    For our email / social media marketing tool, SaberBlast.com, my team and I made sure to make it real easy and painless for subscribers to opt-out, none of that “manage my preferences” stuff.

  11. July 31st, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Bruce says:

    You do what I do: If I have to login to unsubscribe then I just tell Gmail it’s spam and move on with my life. Easier for me and not my problem if the sender starts having issues with Gmail.

  12. July 31st, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Bill K says:

    Check out Smart Labels in Google Labs in Gmail. When enabled it filters most all of this to a Bulk folder and skips your inbox. I had to tweak it a bit to still get things in my inbox that I actually wanted to see, but it works great.

  13. August 1st, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Artful Dodger says:

    Oh how I hate it when you have to click on manage your preferences then sign into a website you barely remember ever using or giving them permission to send you stupid emails.

    Not only that, you then have to navigate a labyrinth of menus to get to where you want to be only to click one checkbox to unsubscribe.

    On-click unsubscribes are the best.

  14. August 1st, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Mike says:

    I have been having major issues with LinkedIn and Facebook recently. I am completely opted out of every email in my profile, but still email comes through. I began setting up filters for those offenders

    As for “manage your preferences”, I was some how put on a list for a service I never used, bought anything from or anything and started to get emails. I tried every email/password combination possible with no luck. The reset password link wouldn’t work because it couldn’t find any of my addresses that were associated with an account. It took a few nasty Twitter messages to the company and the CEO (who was listed on the site) for me to be completely removed.

    I work in online marketing, and email marketing is a big part of my job. I know how annoying it can be to receive large amounts of unwanted email, whether you signed up for it or didn’t opt out when signing up for something. I keep this all in mind when consulting with my clients on email marketing and try to keep them from spamming their clients. It doesn’t help any one.

    The confusing opt out pages infuriate me to no end.

    One click unsubscribe for life.

  15. August 1st, 2011 at 12:39 am

    joe says:

    Yes! LinkedIn is the worst offender currently spamming me. Their “network updates” just end with “Don’t want to receive email notifications? Adjust your message settings.”.

    I’ve been through my message settings several times, and unchecked almost everything, but I still get this spam.

    I contacted them several weeks ago (via a web form) asking how to unsubscribe from these emails and pointing out that it may be illegal in certain jurisdictions to spam without an unsubscribe option. I did not receive a response.

    In the end, I just set up a server-side gmail filter to delete all emails from LinkedIn.

  16. August 1st, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Bisty says:

    I find it hilarious that you admit to sending your customers unsolicited email (which, by definition, is spam), but then say that you’re going to keep doing it because only 1 out of 10,000 people complain.

    Really? You are part of the problem here, dude. Ranting about being able to unsubscribe isn’t really a problem *if you never get the emails in the first place*.

    (Also, if letting people opt-out of your emails doesn’t impact conversion, why do you force people to receive them? Apparently the people that don’t get them are smart enough to figure out your product without getting 5 pieces of spam first.)

  17. August 1st, 2011 at 2:59 am

    George says:

    You have a good point Bisty, and it’s one that I considered when writing this piece. If I had a good rebuttal, I would have put it in the blog, but I wasn’t able to come up with something that made me satisfied, so I’m continuing to think about the conflict.

    I didn’t include the result of the A/B test, which was that we did in fact stop sending emails. The goal had originally been to see whether sending emails explaining what our product did created value for potential customers. It didn’t, so we stopped. There was, however, a very interesting caveat to the A/B test that I couldn’t work into the blog in a cogent way: people who were willing to receive the emails (the opt-in customers) converted to paid customers at twice the rate as those that opted out. Displaying the option to receive the emails at all reduced the rate of trial subscriptions, but when it came time to pay, those that were willing to get the emails were worth 2x as much to us.

  18. August 1st, 2011 at 3:01 am

    George says:

    Hi Joe, this is similar what I’ve experienced as well, and LinkedIn’s approach to unsubscribing actually inspired that last bit in the blog about wanting out and never really seeming to get there. I had hoped that perhaps I was just overlooking a setting, your comment makes me think I ought to bite the bullet and set up filters.

  19. August 1st, 2011 at 3:04 am

    George says:

    Mike, great to hear that there are email marketers out there convinced of the value of the one-click-unsubscribe. I’m curious if you read one my other comments on this thread: from where you are sitting, do you think that a lot of these emails I’m getting don’t include one-click-unsubscribe without the company’s knowledge? IE, that company X sends me a message with a “Manage your preferences” link, but that company X really just hired skeazy email marketing firm Y which has never brought up their unsubscribe policies explicitly?

  20. August 1st, 2011 at 3:06 am

    George says:

    It’s especially infuriating to me because I know that one-click unsubscribe is so easy to implement. It always galls me when I get to a site and they ask that “for security” I “verify my identity” by logging in. What a load of BS. It would be more accurately stated “we want to make it really hard for you to not get our marketing, see if you can remember you login from 4 months ago sucker.” :)

  21. August 1st, 2011 at 3:07 am

    George says:

    Thanks for the tip Bill, I want badly to make my opinions known to the companies sending me the content, but as I’ve mentioned in this thread, there are definitely some repeat offenders for which I’m expecting to use this blocking method in the future.

  22. August 1st, 2011 at 3:12 am

    George says:

    Hi Matt, I checked out Saberblast (nice logo by the way), I’m glad to hear that tools like yours, which are presumably getting used by other businesses, endorse one click unsubscribe. With all the legal issues with spamming customers, it’s surprising how common it is.

  23. August 1st, 2011 at 3:14 am

    George says:

    Thanks for that Matthew, I had been told it was “ham” but I couldn’t find that listed anywhere. It would have been really helpful to know that term before I started writing!

  24. August 1st, 2011 at 3:16 am

    George says:

    I definitely agree that selling addresses is unethical (to say nothing of the legal repercussions), but I stand by my original sentiment, I think every company has an interest in providing value for customers and email is a very good medium. I love getting instructable newsletters, even though I never opted in. I have a reverence for Postsecret and would love if they reached out to me via email. I believe it’s very much in the intent: if the contact is strictly sales, I couldn’t agree more that it’s not appreciated. But if it provides value that I might appreciate, I’m game.

  25. August 1st, 2011 at 4:08 am

    Toby says:

    I agree that it is rather annoying to have jump through these hoops. One amusing unintended consequence of making unsubscribing an account management task is that aside from unchecking all sorts of newsletters the sender would like to shower you with, there tends to be an ‘update my email address’ option… setting that to a bogus (or real!) address will stop the flow pretty much instantly.

  26. August 1st, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Click170 says:

    I don’t get a lot of email containing ‘Manage Email Preferences’ links instead of ‘Unsubscribe’ links, but whenever I do, I generally do 2 things. 1) Email the admin at the site explaining why I think *not* providing an Unsubscribe link *in the email* is a sleazy marketing ploy, noting that most respectable companies/organizations provide such a link, and asking to be unsubscribed manually. 2) If the emails persist, I setup an email filter to forward every one of them back to an email address at the company.

    Companies who don’t provide an Unsubscribe link in the emails are IMO sternly telling me they don’t want my business, and that’s fine with me.

  27. August 1st, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Paul says:

    “subscribing users by default causes fewer than 1 complaint per 10,000 emails sent.”

    The problem is that for each user who complains, there will be another 20 or so who now think badly of your company but can’t be bothered to tell you (I rarely bother to write a complaint email, I just don’t deal with that company again). Judging levels of satisfaction based on number of complaints received is a bit like judging crime based on reports made to the police.

  28. August 1st, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Gareth Thomas says:

    Facebook is a real problem, has anyone noticed how they seem to “forget” your mail preferences for notification every few months and start sending you stuff? Its another reason to loath FB and their dodgy practices, I’ve had no email from Google+ as yet…

  29. August 1st, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Rob says:

    Do what I do… When u get sick of the mailing list… Dump them into the spam folder… They go there ever after…
    8-)

  30. August 1st, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Mike says:

    I would agree that a lot of companies may not even know what their outsourced agency may be doing and that would include some black hat tactics. I actually had a client fire me because I wouldn’t send to his new and small email list multiple times a week.

    Some (maybe most?) small business owners don’t understand the ins and outs of email marketing, that is why it is important for any agency they hire to educate them; and a good agency will.

  31. August 1st, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    anonymous says:

    Pick better colors for your blog. I skipped it because the contrast was so poor that I couldn’t read it.

  32. August 1st, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Aximilation says:

    One thing I don’t think anyone mentioned, according to the can-spam act, it is not permitted to require a user to log in in order to unsubscribe. How the big companies are getting away with it, I don’t know, but I think this is fairly clear:

    “You must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days. You can’t charge a fee, require the recipient to give you any personally identifying information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request”

    (http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business #5/6)

    I’m surprised businesses aren’t getting hit due to these practices.

  33. August 3rd, 2011 at 5:00 pm

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  34. October 13th, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Jackson says:

    Too true. This is why I ALWAYS include an “Unsubscribe” link in my email templates for clients. “Manage my preferences” is also good to add, in case you have options/sub-groups for specific interests/topics, and to allow format changes, etc. But not including an EASY Unsubscribe link is bad form in my opinion.

    Preach on!

  35. November 2nd, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    definitely says:

    I’d need to test with you here. Which is not something I normally do! I enjoy reading a put up that may make folks think. Also, thanks for permitting me to remark!

  36. February 13th, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Jon says:

    I’m so sick of this. I just received an email (one of many over the past 12 months) from NBA.com advising me of their specials. I unsubbed from their service and won’t subscribe again because of their support of SOPA/CISPA. I’ve replied to the emails asking to be unsubbed in the past. These days, if there is not 1 click unsub, I just click spam on those fuckers.

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