Email opt-outs and pop-up fails - a graphic display of missed opportunity

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 14, 2015
Email opt-out is a high stakes moment. Too many companies are ruining the relationship when they could be advancing it. Here's an illustrated tour of what works - and what fails. Bonus section: pop-up content marketing from hell.

Unsubscribing from email isn't the most inconvenient chore of the digital age; getting off scummy robocall lists is still the harder task. Booking airline flights still sucks more. But email unsubscriptions are exceptional in the spectrum of negative to positive business outcomes that are possible.

An email unsubscription process is arguably THE most important online business moment until you get to the shopping cart "abandon or pay" decision. On the one hand, you have a chance to solidify your negative perception from a potential customer or influencer. On the other, you can rescue a long term relationship by getting the same individual to resubscribe on terms that are amenable.

Over the last few months, I've been collecting the worst and best of the unsubscribes. I also grabbed a couple of pop-up meltdowns that are worthy of public ridicule. I'm an ideal (or not so ideal) subject, as I'm downright fussy over the subscriptions I allow (I consume most of my content vis RSS, and have a dedicated email for newsletter content that is strictly limited).

Savvy marketers know that email is alive and well, regularly outperforming social when it comes to putting butts in seats (a topic well-covered on diginomica). But it's shocking how rudimentary the execution is. Example: I recently attended a content marketing webinar (translation: the folks who are supposed to actually grasp what opt-in means).

After the webinar, I was added to at least six spam promotional lists by six different partners on the webinar. This may not have been a technical violation of terms of service, but it was still a worst practice - and a sign that we have a lot to learn about personalization done right.

With that in mind, here's my illustrated guide to the worst (and best) of opt-outs. And yes, I'm naming names.

The worst

The worst is forcing you to log-in to the web site itself to unsubscribe. An evil variation: when you can unsubscribe from the email itself, but if you want to unsubscribe from all mailings, you must remember your (usually misplaced) log-in and "manage your preferences". I don't have an example of the bad way to do this at press time, but it's unacceptable, and, perhaps in some cases, illegal.

For contrast, this is a good way to handle it:


The above is from an email footer from a dude, Michael Hyatt, who is connected to something called Platform University. The "forever and ever" language is informal and appealing, and the options between the two unsubscribes are clear. Simply by the thought he put into this, I'm less inclined to bail on him completely.

But what happens when you actually click on an unsubscribe link itself? Typically, you will hit some kind of exit landing page, which leads us to:

Not-very-good email unsubscribes

Have a look-see:


Not a fan. Call me cold, but the sad puppy doesn't do it for me.  Second, they're not sorry, so that's bullpucky. They don't know enough about me to know whether to be sorry - anyone who clicks on the unsubscribe gets the same fido; this is not my personal puppy. And "should you change your mind" is useless;  as soon as I close this window, I'm never going to see that button again. And no, this is not the time to ask me about a generic "business service." Overall, a big missed opportunity, and I'm outta there.



Hmm - I'm starting to miss the puppy. Does it seem like the folks at HBR are at all troubled by my departure? And: it takes ten days for them to process! In the meantime, they are free to annoy me. If it takes ten days for an organization to process this fundamentally simple request, how confident does that make you in their services and brand?

"Why are you leaving" - acceptable at best

The most likely flavor of unsubscribe forms is the "Why are you leaving us" variety. These are acceptable at best. On the good side, these forms purport to show interest in our needs and preferences, and may bring useful data back to the provider. Biggest problem? They make the assumption that the decision to "abandon ship" is a done deal.

Here's a classic example; you've probably seen this one as MailChimp uses it (Nothing personal Verbestel):


Full disclosure, this is the form you will see if for some nutty reason you decide to unsubscribe from diginomica's weekly email "best of" digest (You can subscribe at the bottom of this article if you like, no pop-ups). In our defense, right now we only run one email to readers on a regular basis, so there's not much of a need to reframe the decision. Either you want it, or you don't. But when we add more topical lists, I'll be making the case to junk this form and approach.

Better unsubscribes - thoughtful options

This exit form from NewsCred hits on the crucial issue of timing. Smart move, given a very likely reason to unsubscribe is lack of control over email frequency:


Only thing missing:  the topical nature of the content. If I can't remember the variety of content they are sending, I'm still not sure what I'm opting into. But, control of message timing is a real perk, and could keep me on their lists.

I also found examples of offering topical choices upon (potential) exit. This from Metaio:


I also ran into a nice form from Symmetry Corporation, with similar topical choices, but Metaio's was a tad better. due to its concise and helpful summary of each subject area. (Spoiler: I did end up picking the ones I wanted and staying on Metaio's list.)

Content marketing from hell: the aggressive opt-in pop-up

Finally, more web sites are going with the aggressive "Are you a winner or a loser?" content pop-up. This in-your-face pop-up adds insult to annoyance by making you feel like a schmuck for opting out. I recently ran into one on a tech news site, where if you wanted to read the freaking article you clicked on, you had to either opt-in to a useless white paper, or click a button that said something along the lines of, "I'm not interested in the information tech leaders need." Whatever. I wasn't able to capture that one, found a similar insulting pop-up online:


Dunno about you, but this makes me want to see how many lead conversion specialists I can jam into a phone booth.

The gobsmacker? I found this graphic in an article called Have You Fallen For This Scuzzy Design Trend In Pop-ups?.on Copyhackers. But before I could read much of the piece, the exact same type of scuzzy pop-up appeared on the page:


WTF? (and yes, the faded colors on "no" is part of the charm). Thinking there must be more to this absurdity, I scrolled into the comments. Other readers had beat me to it. One wrote:

You gave me the annoying popup. I clicked yes and entered "[email protected]" please stop with all the "in your face" suggestions.


Welp, Irony of ironies, I got bounce exchanged on this site... Guess I can't use your article as a reference anymore.

"Bounce exchanged" refers to the company "Bounce Exchange" which provides these aggressive opt-outs with dopey/confrontational choices. Scroll further in the comments, and we get a surprising update from author Lance Jones, who claimed to be opposed to these "scuzzy" tactics:

Hey Nicholas, we're running a Bounce Exchange experiment on the website. The Bounce Exchange team wanted an opportunity to change our minds and we're open to that (again, as an experiment). We'll be sharing the outcomes on the blog soon.

I wasn't able to find that outcomes piece, but Jones did later comment:

November was a killer month, where we tripled our average "pre Bounce Exchange" monthly opt-ins.

Fine, but how many readers lost total respect for you? To be fair, this IS a lead-gen topical web site so perhaps visitors should expect to be e-commerce guinea pigs. Jones notes they are monitoring "unsubscribes and one-off complaints." If only it were that easy.

Wrap - a fork in the road between personalization and annoyance

The better unsubscribe pages are good for business, without a downside. Whereas pop-ups and Bounce Exchange may be good for business according to a narrow definition (number of opt-ins), but raises questions about the downside (truly angering/insulting readers) that aren't easily answered.

Offering timing and topical options on email list exit forms clearly makes sense - the main obstacle is process design/money/technical capabilities. Translation: I doubt we''ll see the end of the puppies anytime soon.

We've arrived at a genuine fork in the opt-out road. On the win-win, we have personalization options that could retain readers and build loyalty via easy-to-manage preferences. On the bottom feeder side, we have the sledgehammer of in-your-face tactics that force us to make an unwanted choice, as if we're being asked out on an awkward date.

Re: Bounce Exchange, I'm not surprised to learn that opt-in rates go up when you smack all visitors with a snarky pop-up. But if "confrontational marketing" is what it takes to succeed in modern media, then it's time for me to opt-out - of this profession.

Image credit: Leadership or Business Failure © ptnphotof -

Disclosure: All the screen shots of email unsubscribes were from emails I received, with the exception of Harvard Business Review, which I found online, and the pop-up fails, which were pulled from the linked copyhackers page.

A grey colored placeholder image