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5 Keys to an Effective Unsubscribe Program

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
08 May 2015

When it comes to the unsubscribe process, some marketers simply insert a link at the bottom of their emails, call it "Unsubscribe" or "Opt-out" and then suppress the email address in their database. That's all you have to do to comply with most email regulations around the world.

The downside, though, is that you’ll lose more subscribers than necessary, which could have a significant impact on your database growth. A better approach is take some time to create an improved and highly trustworthy unsubscribe program, one that's similar to welcome/onboarding or reactivation but with its own strategy and tactics.

Any contacts who really do want to opt out can do so quickly and without the hassles that damage your brand or violate the law. But, you also can retain more subscribers when you help them stay connected.

Here are five keys to an effective unsubscribe program:

1) A clearly labeled, functioning unsubscribe link.

This is the most important thing to get right. Email laws such as CAN-SPAM and CASL require that you provide a working unsubscribe function in each commercial email.  

Note the emphasis on "working." Not having a functional link is as bad as not having a link at all. Test your links regularly to avoid problems down the road.

Label your link according to what it does. Marketers have used everything from "Change email preferences" (not specific enough) to "Deactivate account" (huh?) to "Get me outta here!" (not specific and a little alarming).

Your label should reflect what the link does. Use "Unsubscribe," "Opt out," "Remove your name from our email list" or any other reader-friendly, plain-language wording.

If you offer preference changes or a form to update an email address as well as an all-out unsubscribe, label your links accordingly. Example: "Unsubscribe/Update email address/Change email preferences." See No. 5 below for more on this topic.

Tip: Test to see which language generates more clicks and follow-through actions.

2) Prominent location

"Prominent" means any place a subscriber is likely to find it. Most emails I see show the link at the bottom, either by itself or in an email administration center along with other important information such as customer support contacts, a postal address and account-management links.

If you're having deliverability issues, especially if you find your spam complaints are going up, consider adding an extra unsubscribe link at the top of your email.

Subscribers hit the spam complaint button when they don't know how to unsubscribe, can't find the link or just want your email to stop. Making the unsubscribe link more prominent might stave off some abuse complaints.

3) Attention-getting design

Besides location, you can give your unsubscribe link prominence by increasing the font size, surrounding it with white space to distinguish it from nearby copy and using a color that makes the link stand out.

Some Do's/Don'ts for the unsubscribe link:

  • DO place the unsubscribe link close to your regular body copy, but add an extra line or two of white space to distinguish it from surrounding copy.
  • DON’T hide it at the very bottom of your email template.
  • DO use the same font size for your unsubscribe link that you use in your regular body copy, or increase it.
  • DON’T shrink the font size to below 10 points.
  • DO use a contrasting font color to attract attention. Don't use a color that's just a shade or two darker than your background color.

4) Streamlined action

For more successful unsubscribes (and fewer spam complaints and inactive addresses), limit clicking and typing as much as possible. Auto-fill the subscriber's email address on your Web unsubscribe form, whether it goes to a single unsubscribe request, an address change form or a preference page.

5) Alternatives to unsubscribing

Not everyone who clicks the unsubscribe link really wants to leave. Some simply want to update you when they change their email addresses. Others want to receive fewer or different types of emails.

Whether you offer these options in a single or multiple preference center approach, use specific links in your emails that point to these pages with alternatives, including:

  • Update email address
  • Reduce frequency
  • Opt out of some but not all of your mailings
  • Pause ("snooze") emails for a period of time
  • Revise profile and interests
  • Add or change channel preferences, including direct mail, social media or SMS

Check out this video for more ideas:

Remember the Trust Factor

Another important issue is at stake here: Some consumers have been led to believe that clicking on unsubscribe links opens the door to more spam and phishing emails. 

For that reason, your unsubscribe process must be as trustworthy as possible to encourage more subscribers to use it instead of clicking the spam button or ignoring your emails.

To instill trust, make sure your unsubscribe links are easy to find and do not use words or terms that aren’t clear to subscribers. Also, don’t make the opt-out process confusing by using an unclear combination of checked or unchecked boxes and confusing copy.

A bad unsubscribe experience can affect how people view your brand, and nobody needs that.

Related Resources:

1) White Paper: “Unsubscribe Best Practices: How to Decrease Database Churn and Strengthen Your Marketing Program

2) Video: “Do You Have an Unsubscribe Problem?

3) Blog: "How an Effective Unsubscribe Strategy Can Make Your Email Program Stronger


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