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The Ethics Of The “Unsubscribe”

by David Brock on January 14th, 2022

Recently, I’ve had some “interesting” conversations with the CMOs about their email marketing strategies and the marketing messages they are inflicting on me. I

There are different laws, regulations and recommended practices on email marketing, both how one gets placed onto and email marketing list and how one “unsubscribes.”

The CAN-SPAM act is one of the simplest/most benign from a marketing point of view. Things like GDPR have some tougher conditions.

Somehow in the regulations, one can “subscribe” to email marketing outreaches simply through emailing a question, downloading a paper, or making a purchase. Even if a person is not intending to “subscribe” or expressing a willingness to be put on a email mailing list, marketers often classify these as “subscription requests.”

Marketers by list from many sources, some which people have legitimately subscribed to. In addition to getting email addresses, marketers put those people on their own lists, with thinly veiled reason that demonstrate their “compliance with the regulations.”

And there are those that put every email address they can on their email marketing lists, even if there is no semblance of a request or interest on the part of the victim prospect. At least within North America, enforcement of the regulations seems to be virtually non existent.

As a result, we find ourselves on dozens to hundreds of lists we had no desire to be part of.

When we find ourselves on lists we don’t want to be on, the regulations provided us the vehicle through which we can ask to be removed–and that request is to be honored.

We see this in the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of these outreaches. At least it’s supposed to be there, but too many fail to provide this. Perhaps you can send a response asking to unsubscribe, but those may not be honored.

Often, we do see unsubscribe links at the bottom of the email. They are tough to find. Often they are embedded in paragraph’s of disclaimers that accompany the message. Also, marketers try to find the smallest font possible to display the message. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a 1 point font, but I suspect marketers have developed these. And, while all other “links” are usually highlighted with a larger font and a different color, so people don’t miss the link. marketers make the unsubscribe link very difficult, it’s always a very small font, the traditional indicators of a link are disguised so you find it only by scouring each line with your mouse, cursor.

Should you be lucky enough to find these hidden unsubscribe links, you are taken to a site to unsubscribe. Sometimes it’s a simple, “Sorry to see you go,” sometimes you have to reenter your data, or they ask you if you really really want to leave, or they survey you about why you are trying to make such a dull choice.

But, hopefully, you’ve achieved success, you’ve unsubscribed. You will no longer get marketing emails from this company, perhaps there’s the final “sorry to see you go, and here in large font and bright colors is a re-subscribe link.”

It seems some small victory to get one less meaningless marketing email in your inbox.

Until the next morning…..

Sitting prominently in my inbox is a marketing email from that company! I thought I unsubscribed! Sometimes, they say, it takes several days to get you off the list. Even though all of us understand the technology, the marketing automation systems have the capability of removing you immediately.

But you let them give you the excuse, saying you will be patient for a few days.

And every day, you get another email from them and another and another.

When enough time has passed to cover the “several days to remove you excuse,” and you are still receiving emails, you call again. “How come I’m still getting all the crap that you think I’m interested in when I’ve told you I don’t want it??!!!”

Marketing has, it seems in the past year, discovered a new trick. When you unsubscribe, they do honor the unsubscribe request–eventually. They unsubscribe you from a list. What you never know until you start making nasty calls to CMOs is they have actually put you on several lists. Even though you never requested or knew about it, when you are put on a list, they now put you on several lists.

They comply with CAN-SPAM and unsubscribe you from one list. But you are still on a number of other lists, so they can “legally” send you more emails.

A few months ago, I bought something from a major retailer. I never asked to be on the list, but since I ordered online, I knew that order expressed my “interest” in they harassing me daily with more promotions. Having been through this before, I diligently searched for the unsubscribe and did just that.

But I continued to receive 1-2 marketing messages to buy something every day. I unsubscribed to each one, but they kept on coming.

Those of you who know me well, know that patience is not one of my virtues. I had been dealing with customer service, to no avail, so my next step was to call the CMO. At first, he tried to dismiss me, but somehow the topic that I’m a blogger on sales, marketing, and customer experience came up. And the possibility that I might write a post that could get exposure to over 300K people happen to come up.

He decided to help me. (Yes, I can be an asshole.)

In fairness, he didn’t know what some of the clever people in his organization had done. It turns out, my original order gave me the privilege to be put on 33 different mailing lists they had. So while I was diligently unsubscribing to each list, they put me on so many, that it would have taken me a very long time to get off their lists.

The CMO and I had an interesting discussion of customer experience. I told him, I liked the products they sold, but would struggle to buy again, because their system would force me to go through the same process again and again.

I don’t know if they have made any changes, he was going to have his team look into their practices. But I’ve found another source of the types of products they sell. And with them, I get unsubscribed on the first request.

This morning, I had another similar situation with a financial services company. Because it’s tax season, they are sending me, daily, all sorts of stuff on investments, creating taxe deferred income and so forth. My unsubscribe requests didn’t seem to be working.

I talked to another CMO, this time we found I was on 9 lists, which he was able to remove me from immediately.

As sales and marketing professionals, we wonder why customers and prospects don’t respond to our outreach. We send millions of messages to millions of people every day, yet we don’t get the responses we hope, so we send millions more.

People are drowning in email they never wanted in the first place. Then we game the regulations and what people want, with the tricks I’ve outlined—and I’m sure there are clever marketers coming up with more.

We may be doing it to ourselves. We may be doing the things and implementing practices that drive the customers away from us, rather than attracting them and inciting them to buy.

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