“To unsub or not to unsub?”

Is that the question? The truth is, that isn’t a question at all, it’s the law. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain. A few weeks ago, my former colleague and friend Lee Isensee, the Director of Product over at Search Discovery, pinged me on Twitter with a simple question:

At first, I couldn’t quite comprehend what Lee was asking me. Wait, what?! Increasing frequency and volume of email during an unsub period? Is there really such a thing as an unsub period? I mean technically yes, but, but, but, this does not compute!

So Lee clarified the question as I was struggling with the mere concept…

As you can see, Lee is pretty passionate (probably why we got along), but his frustration is not without merit; the problem lies in the expectations set around something as universal as unsubscribes.


Honor opt-out requests promptly. Any opt-out mechanism you offer must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after you send your message. You must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days. You can’t charge a fee, require the recipient to give you any personally identifying information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request. Once people have told you they don’t want to receive more messages from you, you can’t sell or transfer their email addresses, even in the form of a mailing list. The only exception is that you may transfer the addresses to a company you’ve hired to help you comply with the CAN-SPAM Act.

According to the FTC (and CAN-SPAM), a business has 10 business days to honor an opt-out request. That’s 2 whole weeks. When the law was written back in the 2000s, systems were different, and the writers of the law probably thought it prudent to be sensitive to companies that were new to email, and probably behind in their technical acumen, by giving them a longer period of time to opt people out of future mailings by either electronic or manual means. If you think about it, the 10 business day paradigm almost assumes a direct mail (read postal) mail framework where one has to mail in an opt-out request, or call it in. The request would then go through mostly a manual process to be honored.

However, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world of ones and zeroes flying by at the speed of light. The rules by which we play have to be commensurate with the digital playing field. If you were thinking of carpet bombing your recipients over the course of a 10 day opt out, think again:

  • Don’t do it!
  • According to a Brightwave study, 47.1% of millennials unsub because they get too much email. How then is sending them more email without actually processing the unsub supposed to work?
  • An opt out is a good thing. The other option is that they mark your mail as spam which could affect your ability to deliver emails to people who do want to receive it.
  • Did I mention don’t do it?!
  • An opt-out means that someone can always opt back in at the right time.
  • If you’re thinking about doing it don’t, a puppy might die if you do.
  • Opt-outs are much better for your overall digital reputation at a given mailbox provider than being marked as spam or simply deleted without opening.
  • If your opt-outs are high, then analyze who you sent the mail to, what kind of call-to-action you used, and if it was truly appropriate. Put yourself in their shoes, how would you have reacted?
  • Maybe you committed one of the 7 deadly sins of email and that’s what’s driving your opt outs.
  • Make it easy for someone to unsub: don’t bury the link, or make it some off white color. Make it a simple and easy-to-use mechanism; the alternative is much worse.
  • To avoid opt-outs, set the expectations early in the conversation: tell new subscribers what to expect, how often to expect it, and give them a preference center where they can tell YOU what and how much they want to receive.
  • Did I mention you really shouldn’t carpet bomb someone trying to opt-out? Well there, now I did.

Opting out means that for some reason, or for an indeterminate period of time, an individual doesn’t want to receive any more email which is a vastly different signal than saying: you’ve annoyed me to the point that I filed a complaint with my Internet service provider.

Also, take this into consideration, if someone has actively requested to opt-out, and then you go about trying to win them back or filling their inbox, then they might also mark your message as spam. Now you’ve not only lost the subscriber, but you’ve also invoked a hit to your reputation making it twice as unlikely you’ll ever see them back on your subscriber list.


Opt-outs, they’re a good thing. Really.

Interested in learning more about honoring your subscribers opt-out the right way? Download SendGrid’s Top Tips and Tricks to Stay Out of the Spam Folder and check out Tip #8 which covers the opt-out process.

Len Shneyder is a 15+ year email and digital messaging veteran and the VP of Industry Relations at Twilio SendGrid. Len serves as an evangelist and proponent of best practices and he drives thought leadership and data-driven insights on industry trends based on the massive volume of email SendGrid delivers on behalf of their customers. Len is a longtime member of M3AAWG (the Messaging, Malware, Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group) and served on its board in addition to Co-Chairing the Program Committee. He’s also part of the MAC (Member Advisory Committee) of the EEC (Email Experience Council) where he serves as the organization's MAC Chair. The EEC is a professional trade organization focused on promoting email marketing best practices. The EEC is owned by the ANA (Association of National Advertisers), a nearly 100-year-old organization where he also sits on the Ethics Committee. In addition, Len has worked closely with the ESPC (Email Sender & Provider Coalition) on issues surrounding data privacy and email deliverability.