Building Trust 28 November 2018

New Report: Major Online Retailers Increase Email Marketing Trustworthiness and Follow Unsubscribe Best Practices

By Kenneth OlmsteadFormer Senior Internet Security and Privacy Expert

Author: Kenneth Olmstead

Today, the Internet Society’s Online Trust Alliance released its fifth annual Email Marketing & Unsubscribe Audit. OTA researchers analyzed the email marketing practices of 200 of North America’s top online retailers and, based on this analysis, offered prescriptive advice to help marketers provide consumers with choice and control over when and what messages they receive. The Audit assesses the end-to-end user experience from signing up for emails, to receiving emails, to the unsubscribe process and its results.

In the 2018 Audit, seventy-four percent of the top online retailers received “Best of Class” designation, meaning they scored eighty percent or higher in OTA’s analysis of their email marketing. In addition, ten retailers received perfect scores, meaning they adopted all twelve of OTA’s best practices. They are: Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, Lands’ End, Musician’s Friend, Office Depot, OpticsPlanet, Sierra Trading Post, Staples, Talbots, and Walgreens.

In the subscribe process there were several positive findings. The percentage of sites that had subscribe forms that were easy for the user to find was 94% in 2018, up from 85% in 2017. In addition, one-quarter of sites offered incentives such as free shipping to entice users to subscribe, down slightly from 28% in 2018.

Another positive note from this year’s audit was email security. The use of Sender Policy Framework (SPF), a technology used to detect forged email addresses and prevent malicious emails such as phishing attempts, was used by 100% of the sites audited. DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), a similar technology used to help authenticate the sender of an email, also reached 100%. Adoption of similar security technologies such as DMARC and TLS also improved significantly in 2018. All of these technologies help protect users when subscribing to retailers’ emails.

An area for concern in the signup process, however, is the low percentage of retailers asking users to provide geographic information (just 14% of sites). Collecting geographic information is important as regulations evolve around the world, such as GDPR in the EU. It is in retailers’ interest to collect geographic information to properly segment their users depending on the regulatory regime where each user resides.

In the unsubscribe process the vast majority of retailers not only adhered to most of OTA’s unsubscribe best practices, but went well beyond the requirements laid out in regulations such as CAN-SPAM or CASL. Fully eighty-four percent of retailers had unsubscribe links in their emails that were clear and easy to find, a significant increase from 76% in 2017. In addition, the vast majority of sites (89%) immediately honor unsubscribe requests, i.e. the user receives no further emails after unsubscribing.

The full report and an infographic are available at We encourage you to read the report and, if you are involved in email marketing or retail, apply the OTA’s unsubscribe best practices for your organization.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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