What Is a List-Unsubscribe Header?
by Ryan Ozawa
In the age of social media, email marketing seems positively quaint. Yet delivering your message to the inboxes of your customers and potential clients remains one of the most effective marketing strategies.
As you build your distribution list, however, remember that the federal CAN-SPAM Act governs how all businesses send emails. And one of the most important requirements is providing an easy way for recipients to opt out of your messages. That’s where a List-Unsubscribe header comes in.
What is CAN-SPAM?
For Paubox, with roots in Hawaii, we have an unusually fond relationship with Hormel’s canned meat product. But the Federal Trade Commission does not trade in spiced ham. The CAN-SPAM Act, passed in 2003, stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing. And it sets a number of requirements for email marketing.
CAN-SPAM prohibits the use of deceptive subject lines, for example, and requires the disclosure of a physical mailing address. But the most technically complex rule involves providing recipients the option to unsubscribe from your email message.
“Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future,” notes the FTC. “Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand.”
Failure to meet this and other CAN-SPAM requirements could mean a penalty of up to $43,280 for each separate email. Obviously, if you send a few thousand emails a month, this could be a debilitating fine.
Why do email systems require opt-out options?
In the early days of email, marketers would tell recipients that they should reply to their unwelcome message with a request to unsubscribe. When distribution lists ballooned to hundreds or thousands of email addresses, however, this manual method was both inconvenient and impractical.
Meanwhile, email providers began to struggle with the volume of email messages coursing through their systems, many sent indiscriminately by the millions. The birth of email spam prompted companies to develop a number of tools to restrict how many email messages could be sent, and by whom. The spam folder, also known as the bulk mail or junk mail folder, emerged as a way to filter unwanted messages for email users.
The advent of CAN-SPAM spurred the development of email marketing platforms, tools specifically designed to meet all FTC requirements to ensure that all email messages were legitimate and could bypass the spam folder to reach the recipient’s inbox.
The ability to unsubscribe is perhaps their most important feature.
While making it easy for someone to stop receiving your email marketing messages sounds like a bad thing, it’s not. The easier it is to opt-out, the less likely your email will be marked as spam, which would hurt your chances of reaching recipients in the future.
What is a List-Unsubscribe header?
Every email marketing platform already has a simple and built-in way for recipients to remove themselves from your distribution list. This includes Paubox Marketing, our HITRUST CSF certified HIPAA compliant email marketing solution.
A List-Unsubscribe header, however, is part of the underlying standards governing email systems. Introduced in 1998 as RFC-2369, a List-Unsubscribe header is an address or link hidden in the header of some email messages that specifies how a recipient can opt-out of future messages.
Sometimes it’s a special email address, an automated descendent of the “reply to remove” method. And sometimes it’s a URL, which triggers an unsubscribe action with a single click. For best results, email providers are encouraged to support both methods.
To the end user, the List-Unsubscribe header usually means a clearly visible “Unsubscribe” link shown at the top of an email marketing message. Again, while nobody wants to lose a subscriber, a List-Unsubscribe header reduces spam reports and ultimately ensures your distribution list is made up of recipients who want to hear from you.