In the early days of email marketing, the “unsubscribe” link was seen as a necessary evil, or worse, an optional courtesy. There was no penalty or punishment for sending email to people who didn’t want it, the theory went, so why not make it harder for subscribers to take themselves off the list? Email subscribers are a business asset; why on earth would we throw away a single one?

Modern marketers know those days are long over, and furthermore, the CAN-SPAM act requires that marketing messages include an “opt out.” So there’s no longer an argument about whether the message has to include an unsub link — it does, period.

But I’ll go a step beyond that, or two. In case anybody thinks that CAN-SPAM compliance can be met by an obscured, mouse-type unsub link buried in the footer of the message, I’ll say: OK, fine, yes. It can. But you’re missing the point, and a significant opportunity to maintain strong inbox rates.

What’s Worse Than An Unsub Request?

The inbox landscape, and the science of deliverability, have changed. Marketers must go well beyond CAN-SPAM requirements in this regard. Why? Because if you don’t provide an easy and obvious way for a disgruntled or disinterested subscriber to leave your list, the subscriber’s mailbox provider will.

Gmail spam report optionBut that MBP won’t simply unsub an address; they’ll keep score. When your subscribers complain to their MBP about your mail, that puts a black mark on your reputation record. It’s a vote in the “spam” column. Once your percentage of spam votes passes a threshold of acceptability, your email messages to other subscribers — meaning, subscribers in good standing who might be looking forward to your next mailing — might also get delivered to the spam folder. Suddenly your engagement rates are in free-fall, your monetization is down by double digit percentages, and your organization’s marketing priorities have shifted from “growth” to “recovery” overnight.

If one of your subscribers is no longer engaged with your campaigns, the best thing she can do for you is unsubscribe.

Yahoo Mail UIEvery unsub request is a gift. We’re not happy to see people go, but the alternative is so much worse. If someone unsubs, you lose one reader. Your list will survive that loss. If that subscriber clicks the “spam” button in Yahoo Mail, Gmail, Outlook/Hotmail, you’ll lose a lot more than one.

There’s no question that marketing job #1 is engagement. In the pursuit of engagement, there is no substitute for relevant, fun, timely, appealing content. If your content team is hitting its marks, then your attrition problem is going to be minimal anyway.

But unsubs will happen. Subscribers have crises, or just run out of time or interest. Make it easy for them to leave, and there’s no harm done. Make it difficult for them to leave, and they’ll get frustrated, and yes, one frustrated subscriber can cause a disproportionate amount of damage to your reputation. All s/he has to do is click that “spam” button in his or her email app.

Not just “visible.” Make it obvious.

That means the “unsub” link should be prominent in the message. You don’t have to open with it, but you can’t bury it, either.

I promised a second step beyond the CAN-SPAM requirements. This one is a bit more controversial, but I think it’s worth a conversation: I propose that marketers put an unsub link in the welcome message. That sets a healthy tone with a new subscriber. It says, “We’re glad you’re here, and we’ll make this worth your time. But if you change your mind, just click here and we’ll part ways.”

In the early days of email marketing, every subscriber address was indeed a business asset. Today, only engaged subscribers are truly valuable. Any subscriber looking to make a clean break shouldn’t have to look very hard.