Just Let Go! Why Unsubscribing is Critical to Email Marketing Success

Recently, a hunt to find ways to declutter my London shoebox room lead me to reading up on 'mental decluttering' (things like mindfulness techniques, if you're wondering). From there, I came across a service called Unroll.Me, which allows you to mass unsubscribe from marketing emails.

Judging by the close to 1000 upvotes on ProductHunt and (at the time of writing) is leading the voting for the Webby Awards ‘Productivity’ category, it’s a popular service. Yet, for every person talking about the virtues of Unroll.me for mental decluttering, there was a slew of comments, and articles, about how the service was used because of the difficulty of unsubscribing at source (i.e. in the email or on the company's website).

Unroll.Me's popularity is partly driven by the difficulty of unsubscribing from certain emails.

As someone with a passion for email marketing, it’s worrying that many users have had such negative experiences with subscriptions. It’s often touted that email marketing can be an excellent platform for a high ROI, but the industry will suffer if we start to view email as a spam tactic.

This post will run through some of the negative tactics surrounding email subscriptions.  It will also look at how those tactics can have an unseen impact on your marketing success. Finally, we will look into some ways to turn the unsubscribing process into a better experience, even if someone is leaving you for a while.

Signs of bad email unsubscription

If you’re reading this article, I’ll assume you care what your audience thinks of you and are so not using any tactics that are dishonest or spammy (so no white text hidden on a white background). I’ll focus on the well-meaning tactics that you’re using in good faith, which may be backfiring:

No unsubscribe button

This is the most obvious way to screw up unsubscribing, and it’s also illegal:

Every marketing email you send must give the person the ability to opt out of (or ‘unsubscribe from’) further emails. - Marketing and Advertising: the Law, Gov.uk

While it’s possible to send an email without an unsubscribe link by accident (I’m being generous here), most email marketing providers won’t let you send without it.

Are you sure? Are you really sure?

Another mistake made by well-meaning email marketers is asking something to the effect of ‘are you sure you want to unsubscribe?’ many times. It’s easy to understand why this is a common sight, because senders worry about losing a subscriber over an accidental click, but, as Campaign Monitor proves, this isn’t something you need to worry about. Upon hitting ‘unsubscribe’ at the foot of their newsletter emails, you’ll see this:

That’s a one-click unsubscription. However, you’re not likely to miss this page if you hit it by accident. You’ve been navigated away from the email, and shown a big message informing you of your decision to unsubscribe. Plus, there’s a link on this page to subscribe if you hit it by accident, with the following message to let you know that’s been successful.

Simple logic shows that this way of doing things works for both the majority of clicks who will be people trying to (and succeeding in) easily unsubscribing, while ensuring the few accidental clicks don’t lead to engaged readers leaving your mailing list.

A Caveat - Distilled and MailChimp

The reason for writing this post partly stemmed from analysing our own email process. In reference to the one-click unsubscription process I’ve just recommended, MailChimp has a slightly odd way of achieving this.  As Distilled uses MailChimp, so do we.

When you hit ‘unsubscribe’ in our emails, you’ll briefly be taken to a page that asks you to enter your email address. However, it will then almost instantaneously fill this in for you and you’ll jump to our ‘unsubscribe’ success page.

We haven’t yet found an easy way to remove this slightly jarring step in between, but any tips on how to would be welcome.

Anything ambiguous

If the wording of your unsubscribe button is unambiguous (which it should be), then the rest of the unsubscription process should be too. A user clicking 'unsubscribe' won't be click on the link looking for something else.

With this in mind, anything that makes the process complicated or unclear should be avoided. One example of this in action is Cath Kidston. For the record, I’m 100% sure that Cath Kidston are far from the only brand doing this.

At the bottom of the Cath Kidston email, I’m shown this:

The link to unsubscribe should be separate from the link to update preferences, but at least it’s clear where I should click if I want to unsubscribe.

This is where things start to go downhill. First of all, there’s no obvious unsubscribe button. The first thing I’m asked is to provide more information. If I’m unsubscribing, why would I want to do that?

This is further down the page. Now, if I was looking to update my preferences and not unsubscribe, I can see why this is useful to me, but with the lack of any actual unsubscribe button the only thing I can think to do is untick the box labelled ‘I’d like to receive Cath Kidston emails’. With this done, I hit ‘save changes’ at the bottom of that page and…

What does that mean?! Am I unsubscribed or not?

It’s at this point, a user may look for other ways to confirm their unsubscription. This leads us on to the next part of this post: the repercussions of bad unsubscription services.

Why your bad unsubscribtion process might be killing your email marketing

While the above tactics can have their obvious immediate downsides, a long-term negative effect can happen if your unsubscribe process is too complicated or ambiguous.

Can’t unsubscribe? Just hit the spam button instead

As I mentioned above, if a person doesn’t want your emails anymore, they’ll find a way even if they can’t unsubscribe normally. One way of doing this is hitting the spam button. And most email providers make this easy to do.Take Gmail for example:

In the top right-hand corner of every email is a drop-down arrow next to the reply icon. In that list is a ‘Report Spam’ button. If your spam count gets too high, email marketing providers, including MailChimp and Campaign Monitor, will suspend or even terminate your account.

The easy to find Gmail 'Report spam' button.

"Mental unsubscribing"

This problem, which I’ve coined as ‘mental’ unsubscribing, stems from a person’s ability to ignore your emails, and it’s compounded by the likes of Gmail including its tabbed email view. One of the tabs in ‘promotions’ and it’s also easy to ignore this tab, leading to your emails forever sitting in an inbox, waiting to be opened. It’s actually quite sad when you think about it.

While this might not be as bad as getting a spam report, it means you end up attempting to maintain and segment an email list that doesn’t actually reflect who might open your emails. For example, this mental unsubscribing will slowly eat away at your open rates, making you look bad in front of your boss.

Leaving a sour taste

As I mentioned in my introduction, the other side to Unroll.Me’s fan base appears to be those looking to declutter their mental workload. There are subreddits dedicated to minimalism, decluttering, meditation and more. With this in mind, there’s a reasonable chance that a subscriber will just be unsubscribing from all emails (or at least a large number), rather than your email, specifically.

This means that they may at some point return to your service. However, if your method of unsubscription leaves a bad impression, there’s a chance you’ll leave a ‘sour taste’, which will effectively kill your chances of one day getting them to re-subscribe to your email marketing. For example, if I was to unsubscribe from 20 emails at once, only to keep getting emails from one brand, they will clearly stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Farewell but not goodbye

Avoiding this awkward goodbye is exactly what brings us on to the final part of this post, turning the unsubscribing experience into a positive one.

Allow subscribers to receive different or fewer emails

Here at Distilled, we offer a few different email subscriptions. This includes our blog RSS feed, which usually sends subscribers emails once a week, to our free monthly videos, which are sent out once a month. With the right combination, you can receive emails from us on an almost daily basis.

For some people, this might be a bit too much, but that’s OK. Most email marketers would rather send subscribers one email a week they can’t wait to open than one every day they don’t care about.

In the Cath Kidston example above, this is likely what they are going for - as your email programme becomes more complex and segmented, it’s inevitable that subscribers will eventually want to update their subscription preferences. The problem is Cath Kidston put both the unsubscribe option and the option to change preferences in the same link.

Take the Distilled email template for example. On every email you receive, you’ll find this:

At the bottom. Next to ‘unsubscribe from this list’ you’ll find the link labelled ‘update subscription preferences. Clicking on this will take you to a page that allows you to tick and untick to subscribe and unsubscribe from some of your emails, but, crucially, stay subscribed to others.

Give the reader other ways to stay in touch

Ensuring you don’t put this step before the all-important unsubscribe step, you can give the reader options for getting content from you in a different manner. An obvious option is to provide your social media sites.

As detailed in this MailChimp blog post, Upworthy has had success doing exactly that. At the point of unsubscribing or updating your email.

This process also tackles what’s known as ‘subscriber engagement half-life’.  This suggests your subscribers will stop caring about your emails within four months, but that doesn’t mean they’re tired of the actual content. Giving them the option to follow on Twitter or Facebook instead, avoids them losing touch entirely. It can also actually give them a fresh view of your content.

Upworthy does a good job of offering social channels as an alternative to email.

The outgoing email

The idea of offering your audience a promotion when they’re about to leave you has been around for a while. From abandon basket emails to mobile providers offering you an amazing deal when you try to cancel, you can find them everywhere.

Your ‘unsubscribe successful’ page or outgoing email is a way to ask for that final piece of feedback or even give the reader a tempting offer to stay.

In the case of Distilled, for example, when you unsubscribe, you’ll see the following success page:

Importantly, the user has the option to ignore this page if they want, as they have already unsubscribed. However, if they choose to help us, it helps us make our emails better in the future.

Additional Resources


As you’ll see from the attached resources, there are a lot of ‘best practices’, most of which you should pay attention to. Yet, aside from the legal requirements, the most important piece of advice I can give is to remember that it’s an actual person attempting to unsubscribe from your email. In short, empathise.

That’s not to say you can’t get creative; turning the unsubscribing process into a positive experience (rather than a frustrating one) is a win-win situation.

Knowing that we won’t keep you prisoner if you ever decide to unsubscribe, why not sign-up to get our blog posts (just like this one) sent directly to your inbox.

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