People are struggling to maintain control of their inboxes. We are inundated with marketing email and newsletters from hundreds of mailing lists. We subscribed to some of these newsletters knowingly, but to other lists we were automatically added when we interacted with the corresponding company. The truth is, we can’t possibly pay attention to all those messages — thus, many of us seek ways to curate subscriptions and control the type and amount of email that we get.
That said, newsletters continue to be an important communication channel between organizations and their audiences. In our research, we found that recipients do value newsletters. They also value the ability to sign up and remain on mailing lists, but sometimes a newsletter that was once relevant no longer is. In this case, people want to be removed from the corresponding mailing list.
Although users no longer want to receive your emails, the opt-out experience is still important, and should still be designed well. It’s not in your best interest to make it difficult to unsubscribe, or use snarky language with recipients choosing to leave. Doing so is short-sighted. Users may still like your brand, they just no longer want to receive your emails. Keep in mind that, if people keep getting unwanted newsletters, the messages will start to backfire and become regular reminders that they’re annoyed with your company. It’s best to politely let them go and maintain their respect for the future.
Worse, if you make it too difficult for people to unsubscribe, users will report your emails as spam in order to no longer receive them. This is as easy as a click of a button in many email clients (and will reduce the deliverability of your messages to other subscribers). One user said, “If I can’t find the unsubscribe link quickly, I’ll hit Send to Spam. It’s easier — one click.” It’s much better to give your users an easy way out of their subscriptions.
One of our studies for the Sixth Edition of the Marketing Email and Newsletter Design report was focused on the unsubscribe experience. Nine women and seven men between the ages of 19 and 46 participated in this study. All participants were employed. We observed participants as they selected 3–5 emails from their personal inboxes and went through the process of unsubscribing or managing their subscriptions.
Here are the top takeaways from our newsletter unsubscribe research, in no particular order.
1. Email footers not optimized for mobile. A lot of email is now being read and managed on mobile devices. People reported using a few spare minutes here and there throughout the day to check email and clean up their inboxes. Email-footer areas that were not optimized for mobile screens made it difficult for users to unsubscribe. Fine print is difficult to see even on the desktop; imagine how much more difficult it is to locate and tap a tiny Unsubscribe link on a mobile device. One user said, “On the phone it’s challenging because the button is so small; it should be easier to do on phone.”
2. Unsubscribe links that are difficult to locate. A lot of companies hide the Unsubscribe link — some deliberately, others perhaps not. The link should be one of the most noticeable things in the email footer. Users have expectations for how this link will look and will scan the footer looking for something that fits those expectations. Specifically:
The link should have visual weight. Visual weight in design makes things stand out from their surroundings. It can be achieved in many ways — for example, by using a high-contrast color or font treatment or by isolating the link from the items around it.
The link should look clickable (or tappable). People look for visual cues that something is clickable. Give them a conventional link signifier such as an underline or the traditional blue color.
The link should be labeled Unsubscribe. This is what people expect the link to be called, so they are looking for this word. A different label is automatically more difficult to locate. Some companies use sentences like, To be removed from this mailing list click here. Others have more complex unsubscribe processes, so they label the link Preference center or Manage subscriptions. It’s best to name the link Unsubscribe regardless of the process to do so.
3. Too many choices and too much work to unsubscribe. People hate preference management. When they’ve decided to unsubscribe, they want off, and they want it to be a one click process. Countless participants in our research groaned with frustration when they clicked an Unsubscribe link that took them to a page full of checkboxes and questions. “I didn’t like this. I had to go to the screen and read and figure out what I’m doing. Am I checking or unchecking? If I wanna unsubscribe, I wanna unsubscribe, I don’t wanna go in and pick and choose different things.” These types of complex management pages are especially problematic on a mobile device.
If your subscription-management page is too complex, explore ways to simplify it. Determine if all preferences are necessary or if some can be grouped together or broken apart into separate processes. Group and format newsletters for scannability. Most importantly, always provide a clear and salient Unsubscribe from all option at the top of the page.
4.Confusing checkboxes. Some Unsubscribe pages made it hard to figure out what users were already subscribed to and how to remove themselves. Pages full of checkboxes can be confusing if it’s not immediately obvious what a checked box signifies. Typically, a checked box indicates you have opted into that edition, but some companies didn’t follow this standard.
Purewow.com offered 10 different newsletter editions. The instructions said, Please check the edition(s) from which you’d like to unsubscribe. When a study participant saw two prechecked editions on this page, she assumed that they were the editions she was receiving, saying “I’m assuming these are the ones I’m subscribed to because they’re already checked. There are like 8 things to choose from and you have to click whichever one it was and if you don’t know what you’re subscribed to, you’d still get those emails.”
Including instructions about how to interact with the page does not make up for a confusing design. Most people will not read the accompanying text and will assume your design works like they’ve come to expect.
5. Asking users to log in or provide personal information. Don’t make people go through extra work to get off your mailing list. Asking users to log in is a huge barrier, and is unnecessary. Newsletters and sites should be smart enough to know who clicked on the Unsubscribe link from an email message. Some companies ask for this information to ensure that nobody is mistakenly unsubscribed after forwarding an email to a friend. This scenario is rare and it is better to clearly display the email address that will be removed at the top of the Unsubscribe page to mitigate any accidental removals.
One user had to log in to Morningstar.com to unsubscribe from its newsletter. He said, “I don’t want to log in. I’m confused. I thought I’d hit Unsubscribe and it would do it. Why do I have to do all this? I want to get out. Now I’m aggravated. This is not what I want to do. I can’t remember my password.”
6. Asking for feedback before confirming the unsubscribe. Some people don’t mind giving feedback after they’ve unsubscribed, but they don’t owe it to you in order to get out. If you ask for feedback from users about why they are unsubscribing, do so only after they’ve unsubscribed. Make it optional and as simple as possible.
7. Annoying tone. Even though users may want to unsubscribe, they may still like your organization. Don’t use a tone of voice that is condescending, whiny, or offensive.
One user was happy with her confirmation message from Aesop, saying, “I am sensitive to the tone that organizations use when I unsubscribe. This one actually leaves you with a warm and positive tone: Thank you for subscribing for so long. Goodbye and a cute little quote. I don’t like organizations that put up something like `We are sad to see you go.’ OK, well, don’t subscribe me against my will in the first place, or don’t sent me content that is not relevant. So, I don’t care if you are sad to see me go. I don’t want this negative message on my screen like `are you sure… are you 100% sure?’ I’m already at this stage, do you think that type of message would really keep me from unsubscribing. No. It just makes me mad. The overall tone and clear message are two things I really like about Aesop.”
Some organizations can pull off a cute or clever tone on a Unsubscribe page if their brand identity is in line with this sort of approach. Companies that go down this path should tread cautiously, by not overdoing it and ensuring that the tone does not interfere with the task at hand. They should also know that users will have mixed reactions to this approach.
8. Pushing users to resubscribe. Not once did I see someone come to an Unsubscribe page by accident or decide not to unsubscribe based on the persuasive messaging from the company. Users have already decided to unsubscribe. It’s best to just let them go. Some companies prioritized the options to resubscribe or stay subscribed over the options to opt out. Others went so far as to make the option to stay subscribed the default. These design patterns are misguided and can paint your company in a negative light. Users don’t appreciate trickery and unscrupulous tactics.
It can be appropriate to offer unsubscribe alternatives such as options to receive less frequent messages or to curate the newsletter content to be more relevant, but these options should not be prioritized over the Unsubscribe option.
9. Email confirmations. Most of the time, users appreciate confirmation emails for recordkeeping and for reassurance that important transactions were completed. However, when people unsubscribe from your mailing list, the last thing they want is another email. Focus on confirming the change in subscription clearly on the website when they opt out, and forego a confirmation message in this case.
10. Delayed removal. Users expect to be removed from mailing lists immediately. If there will be any unavoidable delay, warn users accordingly by letting them know how long it will be before they’re removed from the mailing list. Make sure the delay is minimal. The longer the delay was, the more annoyed users were. Delays of 36 hours or less are acceptable. Beyond that, they are problematic.
Additionally, any delay makes users suspect that their request won’t be processed. 6PM.com warned users that their request would take up to 10 days. One user said, “You mean to tell me I will still be getting emails within the next 10 days?! 10 days! I’m not going to be counting until 11th day saying 6PM better not email me anything. I might still get it and not even realize it. It doesn’t take them 10 days to send me the first newsletter after I subscribe, so why would it take 10 days to take me off?!”
The Ideal Unsubscribe Experience
From a user’s perspective, the ideal unsubscribe experience takes one click. The link is labeled Unsubscribe, it’s large, and it’s easy to find. Once they click on the Unsubscribe link, users are taken to a confirmation page with a clear indication that they’ve been removed and a polite tone. This approach has zero overhead. There’s no hunting for a link, no typing required, no complex pages or checkboxes to tap. People were extremely happy with these one-click unsubscribe experiences and when asked how they would improve a more complicated process they would often say, “Just one click. That should just be it.”
The full report on email marketing and newsletter usability with 199 design guidelines for email user experience design is available for download. This report includes even more on the unsubscribe experience and best practices for many other areas of email design.