March 25, 2010, 12:00 AM

Breaking up with an e-mail marketer can be hard to do—too hard, study says

Retailers are bound by law to provide an option for e-mail recipients to opt out of receiving marketing e-mail, but some merchants put up roadblocks. A recent study of 100 large web retailers shows that 39% require three or more clicks to opt out.

Retailers are bound by law to provide an option for e-mail recipients to opt out of receiving marketing e-mail, but some merchants put up roadblocks. A study of 100 large web retailers shows that 39% require three or more clicks to opt out, a chore that can trigger frustrated recipients to label e-mail from that sender as spam. And too many spam complaints can lead to a marketer’s e-mail being blocked by e-mail inbox services like AOL, Yahoo and Google.

The study also found that marketers have been slow to present alternative communication channels like RSS feeds and Facebook pages to departing subscribers. Only 7% of retailers do this currently, despite the fact that more than 30% of them include community links in their e-mails. “The Retail E-mail Unsubscribe Benchmark Study” was conducted by Smith-Harmon Inc., which specializes in web marketing services and is a division of e-mail and cross-channel marketing company Responsys Inc.

The report is based on data collected from November 2009 through January 2010 while unsubscribing from the e-mail marketing programs of 100 major U.S. online retailers tracked by Smith-Harmon through its Retail E-mail blog. The study followed up a similar survey in 2008.

Over the past two years, there’s been a significant shift toward longer unsubscribe processes that present more choices to subscribers, the study shows. Since 2008, the average number of clicks necessary to opt-out has increased 18% to 2.4 clicks. Worse, the percentage of retailers requiring three or more clicks to unsubscribe grew to 39% from just 7% two years ago. Researchers counted the click on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail, plus any clicks necessary on the opt-out page.

“While I believe two clicks is superior to one, anything beyond two clicks gets into the realm of creating a barrier to exit,” says Stefan Pollard, senior strategic consultant at Responsys. “We have to remember the subscriber has alternatives: If the unsubscribe process is complicated, confusing or too long, there is the ‘report spam’ button in their e-mail client that overrides this problem, and that button hurts a sender’s reputation and can prevent valued subscribers from receiving future messages.”

To prevent consumers from unsubscribing, more retailers are offering subscribers reduced e-mail frequency. The percentage of retailers allowing subscribers to reduce the frequency at which they receive e-mails more than doubled to 35%. The shift is likely driven by two factors, the study says. First is the continued rise in retail e-mail volume, which climbed 12% year over year, according to a Smith-Harmon report on year-end e-mail trends for 2009. Second, many consumers now define spam to include e-mails they signed up for that they no longer want.

The most popular options for reduced frequency were once a week, twice a month and once a month, with about two-thirds of retailers offering one frequency option and the rest offering two or more options. In addition to giving subscribers frequency controls, 29% of major online retailers let subscribers unsubscribe from certain messages or change their topic preferences.

Web retailers are starting to flag their other marketing channels as alternatives to opting out altogether, the study shows. Currently, 7% of major online retailers promote at least one alternative channel to outgoing subscribers. This appears to be a sign that retailers are “de-siloing” their marketing efforts, the study says, and an acknowledgement that just because consumers opt out of an e-mail program doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to communicate via other channels. The most popular channels to pitch as alternatives to e-mail were RSS feeds, direct mail and catalogs. Facebook, mobile, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and desktop apps were also presented as alternatives.

And because of failure to honor opt-outs, 4% of retailers are not in compliance with the federal CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, the study found, which is unchanged since the 2008 study.

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