It’s an ongoing discussion in the email marketing world: Do you choose to grow your list via opt-in or opt-out methods? I had a client ask me this week what were the real pros and cons of each. How could they decide what’s right for them?

First, what’s the difference?

Opt-in email sign-up:

  • Your email sign-up form’s only function is to subscribe someone to your email list: OR
  • You include an email signup checkbox on a registration or checkout form, it’s left unchecked by default

Opt-out email sign-up:

  • You pre-check that email signup checkbox on the registration/checkout form: OR
  • You add every email address you capture via registration/check-out. For this method, you're basically assuming that those who don’t want it will opt-out when they get their first email.

So which is better? At emfluence — especially me — we'd tell you that opt-in is definitely best practice. It requires an active choice by your new subscriber and so makes them a much better prospect. But first, if you're considering opt-out, here's the good news:

  • It’s not illegal to pre-check the checkbox.
  • Depending on the form (i.e. shopping cart checkout vs. a white paper download vs. a partner sign-up form), people may *expect* to be signed up for email automatically or at least won’t be surprised to see it when you send your first email.
  • You’ll definitely grow your list at a faster rate by pre-checking the box for customers/prospects.

BUT, opt-out email subscription will degrade the quality of your email list and can hurt your ROI:

  • People who don’t pay attention and don’t un-check may not realize they’re being signed up for emails and may be either surprised to see it or else will find it irrelevant or unwanted. This means they may be more likely to mark you as Spam. (Again, depends on your form!)
  • As you add email addresses, not everyone will be interested and more likely you’ll have some email addresses that aren’t the “primary” address. For example, I checkout on eCommerce websites using my Hotmail address, so in case I get auto-signed up for things it doesn’t clog up my “real” inbox at Gmail. Studies show I'm not alone in this tactic. Inactive recipients that rarely/never see your emails drive your response rates percentages down, which Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail and others take note of. For example:
    • If you’re sending to 10,000 and 2,000 are interacting, you have a 20% engagement (pretty standard)
    • If you’re sending to 40,000 and 3,000 are interacting, you have a 7.5% engagement (abysmal). This flags you as a potential un-wanted or potentially a spammer… this means less inbox placement (which means lower response rates … vicious cycle)

Bottom line: The ROI (return on investment) of adding a large number of new subscribers if only a few of them are engaged is pretty low. And it means you’re spending more money on email marketing volume to people that aren’t taking the actions you want them to (open, click, buy).

Still think opt-out is best for you? No problem… we’ve seen it work! One of our eCommerce clients just switched from unchecked to pre-checked boxes on their shopping cart checkout forms. The people that buy from them want to hear from them! This particular client hasn’t seen a huge uptick in complaints or unsubscribes, so it’s definitely possible to be successful with those pre-checked boxes. Just keep an eye on bounces, suppressions and spam complaints. (A complaint is when someone clicks ‘This is Spam!’) And of course, watch your overall response rate: if your conversion rates start to suffer, you may be having some issues getting into the inbox and it’s time to talk about cleaning up that list.

Need more info on how to ask permission? Check out our previous post on What Happens When You Ask Permission.

Talk to an emfluence pro about how to grow your list the right way or find us on Twitter @emfluence and chat us up about your thoughts on the pre-checked box.


  1. Great stuff, Jessica. How do you feel about pop-up registration forms these days? It seems to be making a comeback and has even worked on me a couple of times in the past week. Simple forms asking for minimal information. Quick and easy or intrusive?

    1. Thanks, BMcC!

      It’s still a bit of a toss up on pop-up email sign-up forms. I know people that *swear* by them that they work, and it’s pretty hard to argue with that reasoning. It is a little annoying, but make it easy to fill out and easy to close/decline and it can be worth it. As in, grow-your-list-3-times-faster worth it.

      Visitors to your blog or website should be your best prospects for email subscribers and as long as you promise relevant content (at a reasonable frequency) and then deliver on that promise, it’s a great way/reason to get a new sign-up.

      Thanks for reading!

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