Focal Curve

Usability Week 2004, Day 5

The presentation I attended on the fifth day was entitled “E-mail Newsletter Usability” and I went into it with a certain amount of trepidation, seeing as I’m vehemently opposed to spam in all its forms and the issue was sure to come up. Of course, all intelligent people hate spam. The only ones who think it’s ok are spammers and the marketing jerks who pay them (two classifications of humans who are notably not intelligent). So my concern was that the seminar would be pro-marketing (and hence probably pro-spam) and I’d be forced to walk out on ethical grounds. But luckily that didn’t happen, and in the end I actually quite enjoyed attending.

The seminar was based on the combined findings of two different usability tests wherein participants subscribed to newsletters from a variety of sites (all at least weekly, some more frequent) for a period of several weeks and then gave feedback on the experience. There were a total of 45 participants (who were compensated for their involvement) and the newsletters they were asked to subscribe to were chosen by Nielsen Norman Group, so that needs to be borne in mind when considering the results.

In general, the results were pretty predictable, at least to anyone who knows a little something about spam and newsletters. Only one recommendation of the study really surprised me: NNG recommends against using double-opt-in for newsletter subscriptions. They found that a significant number of participants failed to confirm their subscriptions, and hence didn’t receieve future mailings (which means the double-opt-in worked properly). I have to say, I heartily disagree with that recommendation.


In a culture that is increasingly (and righteously) hostile towards unwanted email, a responsible sender must obtain proof of permission. If the subscriber fails to confirm it’s their problem, you still don’t have the right to send them more email. The arguments against double-opt-in go something like this:

  1. By the time they see the confirmation request, people forget they subscribed and don’t confirm.
  2. By the time they see the confirmation request, people change their minds and don’t confirm.
  3. People don’t expect a confirmation request, and don’t understand that they have to take action to complete their subscription.
  4. Confirmation requests sometimes look like spam and people are conditioned not to respond to spam, so they don’t confirm.
  5. Confirmation requests can sometimes be blocked by spam filters altogether, and the user never sees them.
  6. The number of successful subscriptions is much lower when confirmation is required.

Sure, those all seem fairly reasonable on the surface, but they’re each quite flawed.

  1. If they forget they subscribed, then obviously they’re not going to react favorably when you start blasting them with your newsletters. Better to get confirmation and avoid spamming.
  2. If they changed their minds, then obviously they don’t really want to get your newsletter after all. Better to get confirmation and avoid spamming.
  3. This one is actually 100% valid, which is why you need to explain the process on the subscription page on your website. Make it abundantly clear that this is a two-step process and they will shortly be receiving a confirmation message they will need to respond to.
  4. If your confirmation messages look spammy, then you’re doing it wrong. Use plain-text, make it short, use very clear language and a clear subject line that mentions the newsletter by name, the site it came from, and says something like “subscription confirmation, action required” etc.
  5. If your confirmation messages get caught by spam filters, you’re likely doing it wrong, or you’re a spammer. Your website should offer a FAQ or some sort of instructions for what to do if someone has trouble subscribing. Either way, it’s better to have your confirmation requests filtered out than to email someone without permission and reaffirm that you really are a spammer.
  6. This one gets right down to the real matter: marketers are more concerned with quantity than they are with quality. This was the one recommendation that seemed to clearly be more about marketing than about making life better for the end users. Subscribers to email newsletters are not just anonymous eyeballs waiting to be sprayed with advertising. Get confirmation and don’t be a lowlife spammer.

The first two arguments are just about the numbers too, and it’s why marketroids are quickly supplanting salesmen as my most-despised offshoot of humanity. They’ll take a huge number of unsatisfied customers over a small number of happy ones any day, because in the end all they really care about is looking good on paper. This is the kind of user-hostile attitude that sickens me about the business of American consumerism. But I digress…

One possible alternative to double-opt-in is to require the subscriber to enter their email address twice, which prevents a simple typo from botching the subscription. However, most of the users who encountered a double-entry just copied and pasted their address from the first field, and thus would duplicate the typo anyway. This still doesn’t constitute proof of permission from the address owner, since anyone can enter any email address twice in a web form. Confirmed double-opt-in still wins out.

Another interesting tidbit I gleaned is that many of the participants used their spam filters as a shortcut to unsubscribing. After all, as long as they stopped getting the newsletter that’s all they really cared about. They were reluctant to go through the unsubscribing process, either out of concern that unsubscribing would be difficult, out of fear that it would just bring more spam, or out of sheer laziness. Unfortunately, not much can be done about this from the sender’s end, other than making your unsubscribe process extremely simple, and providing an easy means of reaching it through your website rather than requiring a response to an email.

During the day-long presentation, spontaneous group discussions occasionally erupted out of one audience member’s question. I would have liked to have a longer conversation with some of the other attendees about the spam issue, but there was a schedule to keep, and I’m not enough of a schmoozer to pass out business cards and try to make friends with these strangers. But I was surprised at how little these professionals knew about how spam works. I expect oblivious ignorance from the average person, but these were people who send email for a living and they didn’t know about Bayesian filtering or whitelisting. I piped up once or twice and evidently people got the impression that I was some kind of expert, so it was quite interesting to have other professionals actually asking me for advice.

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