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Three out of five companies are putting unnecessary obstacles in the way when customers attempt to unsubscribe from their marketing emails, exclusive research from The Big Tech Question has found. BT and Royal Mail are two of the biggest names that could potentially be breaching European privacy regulations.
We clicked unsubscribe on a random selection of 50 email circulars to test whether firms actually remove customers from their lists when they specifically choose to opt out of future mailings. Only 20 companies removed us from their mailing list right away, while a further 28 companies put barriers in the way of unsubscribing. Two of the companies failed to unsubscribe us from their mailing lists entirely. (The full list of companies and what happens when you click ‘unsubscribe’ on their emails can be found here.)
Our research shows how difficult companies make it to leave their mailing lists, with some forcing customers to fill out lengthy forms before they can unsubscribe from mailouts and many burying the ‘unsubscribe’ link in minuscule text at the foot of their emails.
How it should be done
It is perfectly possible to remove customers from a mailing list by simply clicking on the ‘unsubscribe’ link that companies are legally obliged to put at the bottom of their mailouts, as 20 of the companies in our test proved. The company’s mail provider generates a unique unsubscribe URL for each customer so that, when the link is clicked, the firm knows which address to exclude from future mailouts.
Companies that adopted this flawless procedure include hotel chain Premier Inn, travel firm Trailfinders and flights comparison service Skyscanner.
Putting obstacles in the path
Sixteen (32%) of the firms we tested required the user to click once more on a website to confirm that they wished to be removed from the mailing list. Given that the customer has already specifically clicked on a small link buried in the footer of an email, it’s hard to regard this extra step as anything other than an attempt to retain as many customers as possible, in the hope that they didn’t notice further action was required.
However, 12 (24%) of the firms we tested required customers to jump through even more hoops to extract themselves from the mailing list. Among the worst offenders were BT Sport, which not only required customers to tick boxes for the newsletters they no longer wished to receive, but also to re-enter the email address twice. The unsubscribe page also contained a large ad as well as a prominent link to ‘buy our products’.
Other companies that make it difficult for customers to leave mailing lists were online betting firm Betfair, which forces customers to log in to its website and then fill out a multi-stage form: customers must untick the newsletters they no longer wish to receive and the means by which they can be contacted (email, SMS etc.).
Restaurant booking service OpenTable forces customers to untick no fewer than seven different boxes to remove themselves from all of the company’s mailouts – which is even more galling seeing that we were signed up for the newsletters automatically when registering with the site, and that the site failed to even place our restaurant reservation when we first signed up.
The outright failures
Two of the firms we tested completely failed to remove us from their mailing lists. When we clicked the unsubscribe link in a sales circular sent out by Stardock Software, we were left with nothing more than an ugly server error message.
Tes, formerly known as the Times Educational Supplement, was entirely disobliging. When we first clicked the unsubscribe link it took us to a web page demanding to know our occupation. Having clicked through that needless survey, it then asked us to log in to the website to adjust our email preferences, although we don’t recall ever registering for the website in the first place.
We subsequently had to go through a password recovery procedure and only then could we enter the email preferences section to unsubscribe from all mailouts – a procedure so unnecessarily long-winded that we’ve counted that as an outright failure to accept an unsubscribe request.
The small print
Many of the 50 companies we tested made it difficult to find the unsubscribe link in the first place. Almost all of the companies place the link out of the way at the bottom of emails. The emails received from five of the companies were so long that you had to click to expand them in Gmail, and only then did the unsubscribe link appear. Several put the unsubscribe link in such small text that anyone with poor eyesight would struggle to read them.
The worst examples include comparison site GoCompare and the hotel chain Premier Inn.
What does the law say?
The sending of marketing emails is covered under the European Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR). The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office offers very clear guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to customers opting out of marketing emails. It states:
“Organisations must not make it difficult to opt out, for example by asking customers to complete a form or confirm in writing.”
The Gov.uk website also states that:
“You must make it easy to opt out – for example by sending a ‘STOP’ text to a short number, or using an ‘unsubscribe’ link.”
We’d argue that 30 out of the 50 companies we tested aren’t making it easy, and that some – such as BT Sport and Betfair – are simply breaching the regulations by making customers fill out a form.
Our full results
Here’s the full list of the 50 companies we tested. The results are broken down into four categories: unsubscribed the moment we clicked the link; required one further click on a website; required more than one further click on a website; and failed. We’ve also made further notes on the behaviour of some companies in the final column. If you cannot see the full results embedded below, click here to view the entire sheet on Airtable.
Main picture credit: Juan Cabanillas