The Disruptive Journey of Unsubscribing

Lindsey Gemmill
Two girls looking at tablet together

Have you ever looked at your inbox and thought to yourself, "Why do I still get these emails?" It happens to me all the time. I look away from my email and in the blink of an eye, I have 20 more from things I subscribed to years ago and have just been throwing away.

I finally decided it was time to do something about it. I spent an entire Saturday morning in bed, clicking on emails from companies I haven't opened for years, to click that unsubscribe button. What I found through this, was that there was a lot more to the process than just clicking a button in my email. Boy, do I wish it was that easy.

It's pretty straightforward to sign up for these emails, right? You enter your email address and push a button. That's when the inbox spam action hits you like a tidal wave.

If you want to leave an email list, you better be prepared to give your blood, sweat and tears. It is a painful experience like no-other on the internet. It all boils down to a blatant disregard for a user-request, and instead putting the company over the individual. Companies are so desperate to keep spamming your inbox, that they actually make this process difficult on purpose.

Here are a few of the crazy things I experienced when I was purging my subscriptions.

Typing Something

A Page With A Form

The saddest excuse of an unsubscribe page, is making me type in anything at all in order to unsubscribe. You have the data already, you know where I came from when I pushed that impossible to find button. Instead, you think it's funny to make me type in my email address to acknowledge that I really want to leave.

multi email field input to unsubscribe
Early Moments Unsubscribe Page

This caused me a few problems. Not only is it incredibly annoying to do on your cell phone, but I also have more than one email address - and remembering what inbox I was in was a challenge sometimes. This caused me to re-open my email application to make sure I'm putting in accurate content. Talk about going out of my way to accomplish a task. The worst part about this one in particular, is I had to type in my email address to confirm not once, but twice! 

Requiring Me To Answer Questions

The next disruptive behavior was presenting me with a list of reasons why I was leaving. Making me say "It's not you, pizza guy, it's me." I understand the need to learn about user behavior, and the insight into why people are leaving your email list is informative at a certain level. Requiring me to answer though, when I'm already on my way out the door, is no friendly goodbye. Just because I'm not interested anymore doesn't mean I'm required to explain myself. Yet, time and time again, some of you seem to think that I do.

Pier1 Unsubscribe Page on Mobile
Pier1 Unsubscribe Page

A Friggin' Captcha? Is this real life?

Yes, you read that right. I was directed to a page that made me confirm I am not a robot in order to leave their subscription. This is in no way helping any privacy, but once again trying to deter me from actually going through the steps of unsubscribing.

Not only was I surprised to see it on the page at all, the page itself was so long, and ridiculous to sift through to even get to the part where I wanted to opt-out of communications.

Overstock Questionairre to Unsubscribe
Overstock Unsubscribe First Half of Page
Overstock Captcha on Form
Overstock Unsubscribe Second Half of Page

Browser Pop-Ups

After a while I thought I wouldn't be surprised by what I saw on these pages, but this one was rather shocking. I was forwarded to a page in my browser, that actually alerted me with a browser notification to confirm my action.

Carrabba's Unsubscribe Popup
Carrabba's Unsubscribe Page

The worst part, is that wasn't even the end of it. I still had to do more confirming and unsubscribing to leave. I'm not entirely sure of the purpose of the browser pop-up. I would assume if I cancelled it I would be redirected to their homepage or another promotion. Nonetheless, I think we've established at this point that the intent to leave has to be strong enough for me to click the button in my email anyway.

What About Mobile?

Good luck with that phone

It's 2019, and we are all about responsive website design. We preaching how important it is to reach a wider audience and increase the frequency in-which people access your information. You can throw all those concepts out the window with unsubscribing.

There is a blatant neglect of mobile design on these forms. The fact that I have to fill in any data at all is the first point of contention, but making it nearly impossible to click on anything to actually complete the process from my phone is an astonishing attempt at trying to ruin my plans of leaving.

After the Deed Is Done

"It's going to take some time"

After I have been through an amazing amount of effort to unsubscribe, the next surprise came when some places say "Sorry to see you go, It's going to take up to 10 days to update our list."

What. A. Blatant. Lie.

It takes you 30 seconds to send me an email after I subscribe to your list, why does it take 10 days to remove me? I'll tell you why. It's because you still want to spam my inbox and you're going to get away with it just a little bit longer if you have any say in the matter. The first time I read the message, and yes it appeared quite a few times in my journey, I actually laughed out loud. I can't believe that in a world of instant-everything, it's going to take you over a week to remove one email address from a list? Come on, man!

Are you like, Really Sure?

Design Milk Unsubscribe Email
Design Milk Unsubscribe Email

If that isn't bad enough, the most annoying one of all, is the immediate email that would be generated to my inbox begging me to come back. If I unsubscribe, do you really think there is any validation in sending me another email? 

"Hey, we just made you check 19 boxes, type your entire family tree, and confirm you're not a robot, but we want to make really, really sure you meant to do that." 

Yes, yes I did mean to do that! That email, begging users to return to you, is the most obvious act of desperation out of all of these disruptive behaviors to users. Not only do you not believe me after all of the hoops I went through, but you have the audacity to question it immediately.

If you're looking for an opportunity to bring me back, questioning my decision-making is probably not a good start to mending the relationship we just ended.

Sharing the page?

This one is probably the weirdest, strangest page I was directed to. I found myself on a page that required me to enter some data. Nothing new. But then, very prominently in the same area as my unsubscribe, was a social share option.

Now I'm not sure about you, but sharing a page of a website I'm unsubscribing from isn't quite a top priority. I can't think of a single person I communicate with digitally that would enjoy seeing that content.

The reason I'm bringing this up is not because it was disruptive to the actual process. Instead, it was distracting and actually taking up vital space where I should be completing a task I came to do. It's never a good idea to make the to-do item hard to find. Not that in this case it was difficult to find, it is just taking away from the main goal of the page.

Kolari Vision Unsubscribe Page on Mobile
Kolari Vision Unsubscribe Page

Not All Experiences Were Bad

A Confirmation Page

Overstock Questionairre to Unsubscribe
Ticketfly Unsubscribe Page
Overstock Captcha on Form
Sonic Unsubscribe Page

The most reassuring experience I had, was when I clicked that button from my email and I was directed to a page that said "you have now been unsubscribed."


Sure you can ask me if I want to come back, or change my settings instead, but thank you so much for not making me do anything else. You are the hidden gem in all of this. The right answer to this user-flow.

Trust me when I say, I didn't really want to leave you, sometimes things are just out of our control, and people move and you haven't moved with us. I wish I could still go to your venue or eat your food, but it just isn't in my radius anymore. Thank you for accepting that things just happen.

Key Takeaways

Value your users

A notable thing to take away from the experience I had in this process is the understanding that the experience your users will have, in all aspects of your business, is vital to your whole brand experience.

Just because I'm unsubscribing from your emails doesn't mean I still don't value your company, your product, or your service. It could be a number of other things, like the fact that I get too many emails or I'm no longer interested in receiving promotional offers. Whatever the case may be, an unsubscribe from an email is not always the end of the road for your relationship with that user.

If you make things difficult during this process, however, users will start to re-think how they interact with you outside of emails. The more difficult you make it for someone to leave, the more obvious it is that you are prioritizing yourself over the individual's experience. Unfortunately for you businesses, you can't be that obviously selfish. It's just not how businesses stay relevant and operational these days.

We're in the age of brands having a purpose and a value that we can get behind and is relatable. If you're giving off impressions that users aren't valued, they'll go somewhere else to look for that validation.

Don't be a beggar

I get it, you don't want to lose your valuable customers. However, when someone makes the decision to unsubscribe, they intentionally pushed the button. It's difficult to find the button in the first place so there is a very slim chance it was accidental.

Just a friendly heads up: sometimes we're not unsubscribing because we hate you. Don't take it personally–we just don't need to see emails for pizza shops near an apartment we lived at 6 years ago or that clothing company that fit in college. People change in many ways, from location, to appearances, to taste and style; the list goes on. It is your job to recognize that change is inevitable and sometimes people don't need you anymore. This is not an opportunity for you to be spiteful, but an opportunity to be the "better person" and accept it for what it is.

Just do the right thing and take the loss. Don't fight the change. Don't try to peer pressure people into staying. Just let go. If it's meant to be, they'll come back, right?


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