Should subscription opt-ins be checked by default?

Automatic subscription opt-ins

A common question we’re often asked about is whether email subscription opt-in boxes on forms should be checked or not. Some folks advocate that for maximum list-building potential, boxes should always be pre-checked. Some folks advocate that for true subscription intent, boxes should always be unchecked by default.

Which is right?

The answer is – it depends on what kind of audience you’re looking to get. There’s a wonderful TED Talk by scientist Hans Rosling that looks at opt-in rates of citizens of various countries for a certain healthcare initiative. In some European countries, opt-in rates for this health program are in the 10-15% range, while in other countries it’s in the 90%+ range. Why the crazy differences between otherwise similar nations and citizens?

It turns out that in the countries where the opt-in rate is the highest, the box on their census forms is pre-checked by default. In countries where it’s lowest, citizens have to check it off. That’s the fundamental difference.

Whether in health care surveys or email marketing, you’ll get very different response rates based on how much work you ask people to do. One of the reasons that platforms like Sign in With Facebook are so powerful is that it requires almost no additional work on the part of the user. People gladly, it seems, trade their privacy for the convenience of not checking an additional box.

There’s a dark side to using a pre-checked box on your forms, however – the number of people who are NOT dedicated, engaged fans and subscribers will be significantly higher. People will be on your list who will not even be consciously aware that they signed up for your list, and some percentage of those will even report you as a spammer, even though you can demonstrate clear adherence to the letter of the law by asking for and receiving permission.

Which is better? That depends on the kind of audience you want. If you want a small, focused, highly engaged audience, ask users to manually check off a subscription box. If you want a large, less focused, but more comprehensive audience, pre-check it for them and you’ll only filter out people who REALLY don’t want to hear from you. The choice you make depends on what your business needs most. If you’re looking to build your core of evangelists, choose the former. If you need to populate your database as your highest priority, choose the latter.

Christopher S. Penn
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts

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