I found out this week that “unsubscribe links,” those cryptic looking tools that allow you remove yourself from an email mailing list or newsletter, are a lot like wet paint signs. If you draw attention to them, people are inclined to respond by touching or clicking where they should not. The fact that I learned this as part of a colossally stupid move is probably not relevant to the story.

Or maybe it is.

We have been working to implement a new mailing system for our daily CompNewsNetwork Email Newsletter. The system that has been distributing it is very old and can no longer keep up with the increasing validation requirements of email servers and spam avoidance systems. The new system is extremely robust and will allow us to do far more with the current list, as well as accommodate planned new services in the future. 

We have been testing the new system but want to make absolutely sure we don’t have problems when we roll it out. It is one thing to test a system with a few dozen email addresses. It is quite another to run thousands of emails through it for the first time. Therefore, we determined that we would alternate between systems during roll out week, allowing us to tweak and adjust it before we permanently retire the old one.

This process has also involved validating our subscriber list and purging invalid emails. Doing everything at once is somewhat challenging. This means that some things might not work right for a couple days. We were looking to minimize any disruption in the process.

All current subscribers from the newly purified list have been copied to the new system. That means that, should one of them decide to unsubscribe from a newsletter sent on the old server, they might still receive messages sent from the new one. The opposite scenario would also hold true. It was when we were discussing this process that I hit upon a brilliant idea.

We would send out a notice telling our subscribers of the pending change. We included a cute graphic of a construction worker, and instead of trying to explain the potential unsubscribe confusion we simply elected to say, “some services, such as unsubscribe, may not work properly for a few days.” Confident that we had accurately communicated the situation, we sent it out, using the new system. We of course included the obligatory unsubscribe link, which is required of all mass email situations.

I never thought about the “wet paint sign” syndrome, and the fact that we had just sent an email to thousands of people telling them that “unsubscribe” may not work, while there was an unsubscribe link directly below the message. No, I never gave it a second thought.

Until the system showed it was working perfectly, and the unsubscribe notifications started rolling in.

The first one was a bit of a surprise, but also served as a pleasant validation that the system was working as intended. Then came another. And another. And yet more. They didn’t seem to be slowing down. We checked the real time statistics that the system can provide and discovered that almost 40% of people who had opened the email had clicked the unsubscribe link. Unfortunately, the system was working perfectly. One click, and they were gone.

My mind started scrambling as I realized that we may have inadvertently just wiped thousands of subscribers off our list. I was focused both on two critical thoughts; how we could stop the carnage, and who I could blame if we couldn’t? My Senior Editor of our news area? She is young. She could bounce back. My VP of Systems Development? He could handle the hit.

In the end I decided to do what every responsible corporation does when things go down the toilet. We’d blame the guys in Sales.

I should also note we discovered a problem with one setting that prevented about 2,000 of our subscribers from ever getting this email, so we still have some work to do before we deploy it. Thank God for small miracles.

This sordid story of my mammoth ignorance does have a happy ending, however. We were able to modify the mailing system settings while the distribution was still underway. We changed the unsubscribe feature to what is known as “double opt out,” which would require it to produce a web page that says, essentially, “Are you sure?” Once we did that, the exodus stopped. Not a single one came through after that time.

As for those who clicked the link early, our spiffy new system allowed us to restore their subscription status with the click of a button. Of course, that may mean that someone who actually wanted to unsubscribe will find themselves still in the system when the dust settles.

Well, we told them unsubscribe wasn’t working. What else would they expect?

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