Progressive or performative? Our thoughts on ‘opt-out’ campaigns

16 min read by Lauren Boyton 13 Jun 2023

When does ‘thoughtful’ marketing become thoughtless messaging?

With Father’s Day just around the corner, the barrage of ‘opt-out’ communications is hitting inboxes thick and fast.

Our Head of Customer Experience, Lauren Boyton, weighs in on the opt-out trend, and looks at whether it’s really as considerate as businesses think.

Opting out: the state of play

Firstly, what is an ‘opt-out’ in email marketing? 

An opt-out is a way for customers like you and I to tell brands that we don’t want to receive their marketing any more. 

It started with the basic ability to unsubscribe: ‘Don’t want to hear from us? Tick this box.’

Since then, opt-outs have reached a new level entirely. 

Finding out whether you are interested in hearing about a brand’s products for a specific occasion or holiday has been implemented relentlessly over the last few years; with subject lines such as ‘Don’t want to hear about Mother’s Day, Lauren?’ appearing in my inbox more often than anyone would realistically want to see.

Brands are just jumping on the bandwagon – but there are more sophisticated ways to retain customers’ goodwill

As someone who lost their mum nearly seven years ago, my views on thoughtful marketing have changed dramatically. A few years ago, I found the movement compassionate and thoughtful; I’d get a couple of brands, like Bloom & Wild, email me to ask me if I wanted to opt-out of their marketing communications.

Fast forward to now, and I have around 50+ brands emailing me asking if I want to opt-out. The movement has become more and more insensitive, with masses of brands just jumping on the bandwagon. 

It feels like a trend which was initially intended to be considerate has become an empty gesture designed only to make brands feel like they’re being inclusive and thoughtful. Have they really thought about the impact this could have on people who are really struggling?

As a consumer, I can easily walk past the Mother’s Day cards and gifts in the supermarket, but with an inbox filled with opt-out messages, I’m reminded more frequently that I don’t have someone to buy gifts for, and Mother’s Day becomes something that’s impossible to escape.

Last year, I didn’t even realise it was Mother’s Day until I started getting the ‘opt-out’ messaging. One of the crucial things that brands seem to forget is that some people find it comforting to still celebrate a parent on Mother’s or Father’s Day, even if they aren’t here anymore. Receiving constant invitations to ‘opt-out’ of these occasions and celebrations can make it feel like people are being encouraged to erase or forget the fact that a parent ever existed.

In terms of the more practical side of the issue, I can’t imagine how much time it would take for a user who really struggles with these occasions to actually opt-out of newsletters with every single brand asking. This year, I’d already had around 20 click-throughs and form submissions before we’d even got through the first week of March. People don’t have the time or energy to interact with so many opt-out campaigns at once – even if they were sent with the best will in the world.

So – how can businesses get it right?

Here are a few thoughts on how you can make your marketing more thoughtful, without aimlessly jumping on the opt-out trend:

Utilise onsite behaviour

Within customer marketing platforms, you can track the onsite behaviour of your customers and create segments which then easily allows you to find users who have previously browsed occasion pages like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. This is a great way to see how your existing customers have engaged with these products, and will allow you to make an implicit decision that if, for example, someone has been on your database for five years and hasn’t viewed an occasion page in that time, it isn’t appropriate to send promotions centred around those occasions. 

Use past purchase behaviour 

Have your customers previously shopped on these occasions? By segmenting your database on previous purchases, you’ll be able to establish which customers have an explicit interest in these occasions as they’ve previously purchased from you around this period. You’ll be able to use their past purchases to determine who is likely to repurchase with you around these occasions. Of course, this doesn’t always account for events which may have occurred since they last shopped for that occasion, but a simple ‘opt-out’ reminder at the end of the email is a good middle ground. 

Use email behaviour 

By using past email engagement behaviour, you’ll be able to see who has previously engaged with and/or clicked on products in your occasion emails and determine whether they’re likely to have an interest this year.

Utilise preference centres 

One of the most underused features in email marketing is the preference centre. Rather than ask the user to opt-out around the time of a potentially sensitive occasion, you can explicitly ask them upon sign-up “which occasions would you like to hear from us about?” – put a positive spin on it and let them choose all of their occasions at once. You can make the form/preference centre accessible so they can always come back to it.

With our client, Flowercard, we ask people as part of the welcome series if they’d like to hear about Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, as well as asking them about their birthday. The preference centre is accessible in every email so users can easily come back to it whenever they wish.

We love what Bloom & Wild did this Mother’s Day: 

In honour of Mother’s Day this year, Bloom & Wild partnered with Tommy’s and focused on how celebrating mums or mother figures can mean something different to all of us; making the emails inclusive, regardless of each individual’s situation.

£1 of every sale of “The Hope” went to Tommy’s: the largest UK pregnancy and baby loss charity. 

While people may have lost their mother, they still may want to celebrate a mother figure in their lives; like an auntie, sister, or friend. Bloom & Wild did a brilliant job of making Mother’s Day feel inclusive for all, while still having the option to opt-out in their emails if preferred.

There’s no winner in the sympathy Olympics, but brands should quit with the clichés if they really want to keep their customers.

Our Content Executive, Amy Peckham-Driver, is still adjusting to life after the loss of a parent, and shares her thoughts ahead of Father’s Day.

“Having only lost my dad a year and a half ago, I’m still very much new to the territory of living life without a parent, and that territory seems to be ever-changing and full of surprises – I’ve realised there’s no ‘getting used’ to this new version of reality, because there’s always a new ‘parentless’ scenario to adjust to. There’s always a new situation where you really need them and they’re not there, a part of your day you want to tell them about but you can’t, a question you need to ask them that you’ll never get the answer to. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long your parent has been gone – you’ll never stop needing them, and there’ll never be a day that you’re not aware of their absence. 

Since losing my dad, I’ve become hyper-aware of the sheer volume of ‘opt-out’ communications circulating throughout inboxes worldwide, and something about it just doesn’t sit right with me. Whether you’re newly bereaved or have lived without a parent for quite some time, I can’t imagine it ever gets easier to have your inbox flooded with reminders about who you’ve lost.”

Here are Amy’s thoughts on how brands can get it right from a content perspective: 

Don’t use lazy, clichéd messaging 

What I struggle with most is the tangible lack of sincerity behind the messaging; there’s something that feels almost performative about these brands trying to prove just how caring and considerate they are, but if their marketing strategy was genuinely customer-focused, or rather, if they actually spoke to someone who had lost a parent, they’d quickly realise that people are being bombarded with these communications all at the same time. Actions speak louder than words, and it’s truly not hard to get it right.

Consider whether you should send an opt-out at all

With Father’s Day a little over a week away, not a day goes by that I don’t receive some sort of gooey, platitudinous, recycled sentiment in my inbox about how ‘hard’ these occasions can be and how it’s a ‘sensitive time’ for some. It gets to the point of feeling like these brands are all trying to out-do each other; as though they’re competing for the top spot in some sort of imaginary sympathy Olympics. But there’s no winner in the sympathy Olympics, and there’s no prize for proving that your opt-out campaigns are more thoughtful than anyone else’s – however, there’s a lot to lose if your customers are put off by the way you communicate with them.

Keep it simple – and give people a chance to reset

To put it bluntly – if you want to show your bereaved customers that you really care, stop constantly reminding them that their loved ones are dead.

Give them a clear opportunity to set their preferences either at the start of the calendar year or when they sign-up for your newsletters, and don’t centre those communications around the theme of loss; simply ask them what they want to hear about, and what they don’t.

Talk to real people before writing a word

If in doubt, simply speak to the people who can offer first-hand insights on how these communications make them feel and how they want to be spoken to when these occasions arise. Remember that it’s ultimately about your customer’s experience and not about your brand’s image; a customer will always remember how you made them feel, whether that’s for the right or wrong reasons, and above all else, they just want to be treated like human beings.

Whilst these opt-out communications are sent with good intentions, it may be time to press pause on the trend and be mindful about what people really want to receive. There are so many other ways to connect meaningfully with your customers and encourage them to share their preferences, and this comes from the relationship you foster with them all year-round – not just in the weeks running up to a special occasion. Ultimately, if you focus on creating the best possible customer experience and keep your customers’ needs at the heart of every marketing decision, you’ll set yourself apart as being a brand that genuinely cares – rather than being the sender of another opt-out email heading straight for the recycle bin.

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