The Golden Rule: {Email} Unsubscribe Link Treatment

While we are now fully dependent on data and metrics to drive marketing strategy, I believe we can, and should, keep fundamental concepts like “The Golden Rule” in mind as a general guide and starting point for all aspects of a marketing campaign, message, or general strategy.

It may not be immediately apparent, but styling and structural treatments can, and in some cases, follow “The Golden Rule”-based foundations. One example I’ve often faced is placement, size, style, and quantity of “unsubscribe” links.

Regardless of phrase used – opt-out, unsubscribe, “say goodbye”, “disconnect”, or any other “creative” iteration – the unsubscribe link is one of the most critical, and legally required, elements of your email. That “legally required” part seems to catch a lot of people, as most questions I’ve been asked have involved burying or shadowing unsubscribe links to minimize their visual impact, the bare minimum to fulfill the basic legal requirement.

This strategy of burying or otherwise minimizing unsubscribe links, though, is little more than giving a big middle finger to the email recipient base. Why hide the link? So people can’t find it? Well, in very nature, that’s basically eliminating the subscriber’s only friendly option for opting out of receiving emails they don’t want, leaving them with the unfriendly option, “the spam button” (duh duh duh…….).


(Source: Breath of Optimism)


So, following the theme used in my recent “The Golden Rule: {Email} Cadence” blog, let’s visualize this with another hypothetical dialog:

Other: Can we make our unsubscribe link really small and put it at the bottom of our emails?

Me: I’d recommend placing it at both the top and bottom of the email, and while they can be smaller than regular body content, I wouldn’t necessary make them “small” – make it easy for your readers to find.

Other: What? Why? Can we make it a color similar to the footer background so it doesn’t stand out?

Me: I always like text links to be bold and underlined – it’s good for accessibility, and helps to overcome challenges with consistency between email client/device combinations. And, you should use a legible color – make it easy for your readers to find.

Other: But why would I want to make it easy for people to find the unsubscribe link – I don’t want them to unsubscribe.

Me: Unfortunately, that’s not our choice. If a subscriber wants to unsubscribe, they will, either by unsubscribing through your unsubscribe link, or through their device/client adding unsubscribe options such as Gmail and Hotmail, or by hitting spam.

Other: But if my link is obvious and easy to find, everyone will unsubscribe.

Me: High unsubscribe rates are often indicators of an unhealthy email marketing program – subscribers are or become uninterested, they receive too many emails from a specific company, they receive too many emails in general, the emails they receive are or become irrelevant, or they had an unpleasant experience with a company and are simply done with it.

Other: I still don’t think that’s a good idea, I think the link should be all the way at the bottom and hard to find. Now you’re not only talking about making it easy to find, but you also want to put one at the top!?

Me: Ok, let’s look at it another way. What would you do if you kept receiving emails from a company you didn’t want to hear from – maybe you went hiking once, hated it, and never want to think about hiking gear again. But, you signed up to a company like REI’s email list, and keep getting their emails. You finally had enough, you went to unsubscribe, but couldn’t find the link. What would you do?

Other: Well, I’d hit spam. I can’t stand it when companies like that keep sending me stuff.

(mic drop)


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