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It’s Your Privacy Choice: Opting In and Opting Out of Email Marketing

One of the most basic privacy choices we make online is the decision to share our email address. Despite the rise of social media and SMS (text messages), email marketing remains a crucial marketing channel. Companies have become savvy about offering useful newsletters and special discounts for customers who choose to share their email address, and it’s increasingly common for retail stores to employ a variety of strategies to encourage shoppers to share their email address.

Though the offer may be desirable, sharing our email address is a perfect opportunity to engage our privacy practice. Remember: Privacy is a choice. How will the company use our email address? Will we receive offers and information beyond the scope of the initial incentive to sign-up? Will the company share our email address with third parties? And perhaps most importantly: Can we quickly and easily opt-out? (This information shouldn’t be hidden.)

You might expect by now that companies understand the value in respecting our wishes and complying with legislation regarding email privacy choices. In truth, the record shows we still must play in active role in protecting our privacy when it comes to email marketing.

The OTA Survey of Email Marketing Compliance

The Online Trust Alliance (OTA), a non-profit with a mission to enhance online trust, recently conducted an audit of 200 retailers and their email marketing practices. The OTA’s report looked for retailers’ use of unsubscribe best practices, as detailed in their “Email Unsub Best Practices & Audit” report (PDF). Practices included:

1. Opt-out copy and link should be “clear and conspicuous.”

2. Use commonly understood terms such as “unsubscribe” or “opt-out.”

3. Text should be easily read by recipients of all ages and on all devices.

4. Provide an easy mechanism to opt-out of all email.

5. Use a link directing users to a combination preference center to unsubscribe, opt-down or make other changes.

6. Eliminate the confusion generated by an unbranded unsubscribe web page.

7. Serve an unsubscribe confirmation web page.

8. Remove unsubscribes without delay.

9. Include the “unsubscribe header,” a.k.a. the List-Unsubscribe mechanism within the header of each message as described in RFC 2369.

10. Use consumer feedback to improve your email marketing program and help to reduce future opt-outs.

The audit revealed 10% of retailers aren’t complying with CAN SPAM, the U.S. law regulating email marketing, or CASL, the Canadian equivalent. Both require an opt-out mechanism. While the OTA doesn’t list retailers who were not in compliance, they reported that 70% of the companies surveyed passed the OTA’s audit (implementing at least eight of out ten of the best practices above). Those companies with 100% compliance (implementing all ten of the best practices) include Ann Taylor, Nine West, Coach and Living Social.  All the retailers whose email programs passed the audit are named in the OTA report.

Craig Spiezle, the Executive Director and President of OTA had this to say on the release of the audit:

“Despite CAN-SPAM taking effect 10 years ago, it is disappointing that a number of the world’s biggest online retailers have yet to get things right. On the positive side, the vast majority of email marketers are doing their part to distance themselves from spammers and thus fortify their customer relationships. Now is the time for others to follow their leadership.”

How You Can Opt-Out

While many organizations provide varying degrees of effective opt-out choices, there are ways you can further protect your inbox from unwanted marketing:

National Email Opt-out List: The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has an Email Preference Service (eMPS) to help you reduce unsolicited commercial emails. To opt out of receiving unsolicited commercial email from DMA members, visit Registration is free and effective for six years. As mentioned in a previous post on the mindful use of technology, is a free web tool which assists with the process of unsubscribing and managing email communication from multiple companies in a single interface.

FTC Guidelines on Direct Marketing: The Federal Trade Commission provides a helpful list of steps you can take to opt-out of a range of direct marketing offers, including email.

Use Email Filters: Many web-based email services such as Gmail provide ways you can filter and flag unwanted email so that it will not appear in your inbox. In fact, you can even establish filters which automatically delete email from certain senders. Check out Gmail’s “Block unwanted emails” guide here.

You don’t have to cede your inbox and your attention to unsolicited email. Be mindful about how you share your email address and the tools out there to protect your privacy.

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