Why Do Unsubscribe Requests Take So Long To Process?

Good email management dictates occasionally unsubscribing from mailing lists that no longer interest you. But why are so many companies super-tardy when it comes to removing you?

Over the past week or so, I've been conducting my annual Unsubscribe Review, where I remove myself from mailing lists I'm no longer interested in (or which I failed to notice the 'no email' option when I made a one-off purchase). Largely, this involves bothering to click through on the unsubscribe option on emails, rather than just automatically deleting them without really thinking about it. (I take the old-school approach of deleting irrelevant email, so I can't use the approach of searching for the word 'unsubscribe' to identify potential problems, but that's definitely worth remembering if you take a Gmail-style don't-delete-anything attitude.)

Unsubscribing has certainly reduced the number of irrelevant incoming mails I'm getting, but I can't help wondering why so many companies treat what should be a simple one-time task as a major chore. In an ideal world, clicking on an unsubscribe link should result in an experience like this:

In practice, though, it's far more common to encounter a message like the one from PayPal seen at the top of this post, claiming that the process will happen "within five days". What exactly are the five days needed for? Are there already five days of marketing messages lined up ready to post? Is PayPal secretly storing its data for each user on individual floppies which have to be retrieved by low-paid support workers in South-East Asia? It's not like we're talking about a small company here, after all.

Sadly, five days isn't even the worst-case scenario I've encountered. That was this, from SanDisk, which admittedly has form when it comes to communications inefficiency:

In reality, deleting a record from a database should be able to happen instantaneously. Got any insights into why these delays occur? Been offered a longer delay than ten days? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.


    Never seen such long delays myself.

    My gripe is with sites that need you to log in to unsubscribe. They should be able to do a one click unsubsribe from the email - god knows I can't be bothered to guess my username and go through a pw reset procedure.

      My worst one is with BodyTrim. When I didn't like their payment options of regular deductions "until further notice" and the site would not let you put in a future end date. I unsubscribed at the time (In April 2013). June 2013 comes around and bam emails. Knowing that sometimes you can be on multiple mailing lists, I unsubscribed 5 times in 8 weeks. Rang them and was told the reason the unsubscribe didn't work was because on my account the send me new information box had been selected. Apparently, I have not officially been unsubscribed. We'll see.

    Large organisations often do funny things like send their database over to external marketing companies when they send the brief to create the emails. The 5 day turnaround assumes there might be emails 'in the works' that they haven't sent yet, but have included your address in the recipient list.

    Another consideration is that bulk emails are often sent in stages to lighten the load on mail servers. Once the send button is pressed, you can't snuff out any single address from the recipient list...

      while I agree this seems legit, this sort of thing just shouldn't be allowed. There's no reason a spam system can't be built where an entry is immediately removed and never harassed again. This requires that before an email mailer is sent the spammers hit an api to reference "deleted" email addresses.

      The 10 day thing is a snail mail artifact that unethical marketing managers slapped on emails too because they can. There's absolutely no excuse for any sort of waiting period in the electronic world. They're dicking you, plain and simple.

    There are plenty of companies around still who use mailmerges and manually maintained contact databases for sending out mailouts/newsletters etc.

    The 5(ish) days could simply be the amount of time it takes for someone to "get around to it" in the removal process.

    I know this doesn't apply to your example of PayPal, but I'm just throwing that into the mix...

      That is what I currently do at my workplace. It is tedious and painful. Needless to say the days after a mail merge are predominately spent managing the unsubscribes and other return emails.

      I'm trying to convince my superior that upgrading our database (and other aspects) will make business easier but they are a little slow to take on tech.

    I have problems with a lot of systems like this. When you unsubscribe they give you an error message or a yep we have done it.

    Then a week or so later I keep getting emails.

    Best thing to do if this happens is first log a support ticket with them asking them to remove you. Also mention if they don't you will report them to the ACMA (only works on Australian companies).

    I have had this issue with nokia a few times. Their support tried to tell me it was a scam email because they used another marketing company to email me. In the end I said it was up to them, they can try and stop the emails or I will lodge a complaint with the ACMA. They decided to investigate and stop it.

    Probably had a bit more weight because I have previously lodged an ACMA complaint against them due to SMS spam I couldn't stop.

    I can't stress how important it is you lodge complaints against this sort of thing though, most companies see this as not important. They need to learn that not actioning requests like this will result in large fines.

    I look after a few large websites in Australia all of which have an email newsletter and therefore a 'unsubscribe' function.

    Until recently it used to take around 10 days (sometimes less) to process the unsubscribe requests as the email newsletters were managed by a third party company. The requests were sent through to them once a week in a batch.

    Some of the newsletters were sent by ourselves (instead of a third party) but these requests still took a while to process as no automatic function was ever set up. It costs money to make it automatic...

    Now all our newsletters are processed immediately as we have upgraded to a new system. One click, and the database is updated in real-time :o)

    My guess is when you click on the "unsubscribe" link that request has to flow through a number of systems from the web server that receives the request until it reaches the system that is actually sending the emails. A lot of companies also out source the sending of these kind of emails. That adds on another layer of complexity.

    This all adds up to a bunch of places where something can break. They say 5 days but it probably only takes a few hours, less than 24 - until something breaks. 5 days gives them time to fix problems if they occur without people complaining about a delay.

    It's just a case of CYA - Cover Your Ass.

    I think in Australia if an unsubscribe request is sent, you have 5 business days to remove the email from the list by legislation. Quoting in the 5 day period could be just a safety net for the company in question. Otherwise, in my experience what Tim said above is pretty accurate.

    The one that annoys me is You buy software or hardware. You register and say just for driver updates.
    And then they send spam after spam.
    Even telling you can buy the software you registered for.

    I have an excellent unsubscription tool – gmail filters and plus-addressing.

    In some cases it's a manually maintained list. So when you click on Unsubscribe in the background go knows what could happen, but if could be something along the line of - Fire Off E-mail to marketing assistant who maintains list - Marketing assistant isn't in today as it is Saturday (2 days gone) - Marketing assistant comes in on Monday to a whole heap of unsubscribe e-mail to action, does 3/4 of them before needing to complete other tasks (3 days gone) - Tuesday, finally action all weekend and Monday unsubscribe e-mail.

    Now I know a lot of people will ask why people don't just employ an automated system to handle this? Well because small companies simply don't have the staff or resources to implement something like that.

    The worst problem I've encountered with unsubscribing is when one company keeps an internal list of subscribers, but generates new lists from it for each newsletter. I've had this with Engineers Australia where they have at least 6 different newsletters, each with their own subscriber list. Unsubscribing from the one does not remove you from the others and you can end up on the subscription lists for any NEW lists they make.

    My favourite is when the unsubscribe button doesn't work. "We're sorry, we could not process your request".

    Alaskan Airlines mentions 2-8 weeks and seems to send emails every day.

    I think its just companies trying it on, takes me 2 seconds to be added on the mailing list then 10 days (paypal) to be removed.

    I think it is outrageous that some of these sites take ten days. The majority of sites I have unsubscribed to do it instantly. Why aren't these companies that take ten days penalized in some way? Or, maybe some one could post a list of them, so people could avoid them to begin with.

    If a company can't unsubscribe you immediately they should be required to inform everyone at the beginning of this fact!

    My worst experience is with Curry's in the UK, who told me it can take up to 6 weeks to unsubscribe me from their system.

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