Best practices: How not to handle angry people who never asked for the newsletter you subscribed them to

How does your organization handles email subscriptions to your newsletters and marketing messages?

spam wall
freezelight /Flickr

How do you handle your email lists for things like newsletters? Do you use double opt-in? Do you make sure emailed unsubscribe requests are acted upon?

I ask these questions (yet again) because at least 3 times every week I have to unsubscribe from newsletters and marketing messages that I never signed up for. This get old really quickly and if this happens to you as much as it happens to me, you may find that you, like me, get really cranky about it.

There’s something profoundly presumptuous and rude about any organization assuming that you want to be subscribed to their newsletter or whatever. And what amplifies the irritation is that unsubscribing isn’t frictionless: You usually have to click on a link, choose what you want to unsubscribe from, click on another button to activate the unsubscribe, then get asked about why you unsubscribed and so on. It's only a few seconds but it's incredibly annoying to have to keep doing it. And sending "UNSUBSCRIBE" to an email address is just as bad.

To add insult to injury, most of the time the response to the unsubscribe request tells you that it may take up to ten days to be removed from their list and to top that off, they send you an email message to tell you you’ve been unsubscribed.

There’s only one thing worse: When you send an unsubscribe request by email and they don’t unsubscribe you. This happened to me recently with a company by the name of Jefferies LLC.

On January 6, Jefferies sent me a message titled “Jefferies Insights” impersonally addressed “To Our Clients” despite having my name in the To: field and me not being a client. The message was to tell me what a wonderful company they were (they do investment banking, equities, wealth management, etc.) including “Our firm does good and important things.” Apparently amongst these “good and important things” was adding me to their newsletter so I after unsubscribing on their Web site I also replied to their help address with “Please unsubscribe me from Jefferies Insights” in the subject line. 

On March 13 I got another message with their opinions on the state of computer services and IT consulting and another on March 18. I resent my first unsubscribe request and on April 28th got another newsletter. Then another on April 30th.

This time I copied everyone listed in the last message and added the CEO. My message was a little terse:

This is the third time I've asked you [expletive deleted] to remove [my email address] from your spam list that I never asked to be subscribed to. You are in violation of the CAN SPAM Act and have been reported to the FTC.

And I had reported them … much good might that do, the FTC aren’t exactly hot and heavy on this stuff. Anyway, I got a response this time:

Mr. Gibbs – We apologize for sending you the unwanted research.  I have personally removed you from our research distribution list.  If by chance you receive anything further, which I believe you should not, please direct it to me and I’ll have it addressed immediately.   My contact information is below.  Thank you.

OK, well-handled, nice lady from Jefferies. A polite, personal response promising action to which I responded with a “thank you” … then the CEO had to give his $0.02:

I will personally make sure you are removed from our research distribution and how dare you speak to responsible and professional people in that manner. I'm not sure who you think you are but I think you are sad and pathetic, and I am being polite. 

Outstanding! The assertion that they are “responsible and professional” would seem to have been disproved by the fact the subscribed me to a list, ignored my requests, and violated CAN SPAM. As for him being "polite", this was a use of the word I wasn't previously aware of.

What’s astoundingly obvious from this exchange is that this company’s management doesn’t understand what it means to have a responsible, mature engagement with their market. You don’t ever defend your practices by being rude to potential customers, particularly when you’re in the wrong.

So, here’s your homework: Take a look at how your organization subscribes people to lists; if you’re not using double opt-in, as Jefferies didn’t (and probably still doesn’t) you are making a huge mistake. Then look at how you handle unsubscribes; you should have a Web page as well as make sure that all incoming messages that contain the word UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject line or as the first word of the body are copied to customer service and then the organization should act upon the request.  Oh, and include a checkbox on the unsubscribe page that says "Do you want to receive an email confirmation of being unsubscribed?"

I’m sure, like me, you find yourself deluged by subscriptions you never asked for. Do you just meekly unsubscribe or … well, what do you do?

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