Mailchimp backtracks on all their recommendations, enforcing single opt-in

So I left the service

Like millions of others I have used Mailchimp for many years to send out e-mail updates to subscribers. Their freemium business model and quirky monkey mascot have contributed to them growing into the Internet’s largest platform for company newsletters. Yesterday, out of the blue and without explanation, users of the service received an e-mail saying Mailchimp will in seven days change a default behavior affecting how people subscribe. They have previously described the current behavior as a safeguard against malicious spambots and scammers. By their own account the new default behavior will contribute to reducing list engagement, reducing clicks and increasing unsubscribes.

Not evil enough for you? The new default also breaks the law in many European countries.

Not only will Mailchimp change default behavior, they will also make this change to all existing lists without any intervention by the list owners. Read that again. They are automatically removing safeguards from all lists without my consent.

Why would they do such a thing, you ask?

Well, let’s start from the beginning. Let me just briefly explain the different subscribe methods in play here, as Mailchimp also managed to (intentionally?) skip that part in their e-mail yesterday.

  • Single opt-in means that a person only has to enter their e-mail address, click subscribe, and that’s it. They are now subscribed to the list. (Yes, there is nothing stopping your from entering someone else’s e-mail address.)
  • Double opt-in refers to a workflow where a user not only has to take the actions described for single opt-in, but also an e-mail is sent to their e-mail address and in this e-mail they must click on a link, thus verifying that the owner of the submitted e-mail address also intended to subscribe.

The thinking behind double opt-in has been clear from the start and the benefits have been well-communicated and documented in Mailchimp’s own knowledgebase. Here are some of Mailchimp’s own wordings:

[EDIT: This entire page, containing this text, has now (the day after) been removed from Mailchimp’s website]

”Double-opt requires new subscribers to confirm their signup, so you know they want to receive emails from you. Double opt-in lists have better subscriber engagement levels over time. This means more opens and clicks, and fewer bounces and unsubscribes. Double opt-in also safeguards your account against malicious spambots and scammers.2

”double opt-in isn’t mandatory for these other signup methods, as long as you have express and verifiable permission to email your subscribers, but we still recommend it.”

Now here is text from the e-mail that was sent out:

Starting October 31, single opt-in will become the default setting for all MailChimp hosted, embedded, and pop-up signup forms. This change will impact all MailChimp users, so here’s everything you need to know:
• All MailChimp signup forms – including all of your existing forms – will shift from double opt-in to single opt-in. This change will occur automatically; you don’t need to make any manual adjustments within your account.
• The overall signup process will change: when single opt-in is enabled, the opt-in confirmation emails and the signup thank you page will not be sent or displayed.
• If you wish to keep your existing forms as double opt-in, you will need to set your preferences here before October 31.

Missing from the e-mail is a link explaining why the change has happened. It also assumes that readers have a high level of knowledge about what the change means. As Steve Portigal tweeted: ”I couldn’t believe how badly that email was written. Assumes we fully understand a lot of their jargon, lacking easy solution: examples”.

An hour after the fact I predicted they would be removing information about the benefits of double opt-in from their web page. While the text above is still up [update: it’s now deleted] at the time of writing, the text in the screenshot below ,outlining benefits of double opt-in, was removed (within an hour after I tweeted it) from this article.

This text, as it was written by Mailchimp prior to yesterday’s announcement, includes this bullet point clarifying benefits of double opt-in:

  • Protection against spambots, email scams, and fake subscribers, which could increase your monthly billing rates.

Herein perhaps lies much of the incentive behind this momentous, unexplained change. There are millions of newsletters hosted on Mailchimp’s platform for free by staying below the minimum number of subscribers for paid plans. With a surge in subscribers these users would be forced into paying. Sadly, with single opt-in, the risks of this happening without gaining any value from those additional subscribers is glaringly obvious – as Mailchimp well know and have told us.

If Mailchimp are in financial troubles this could be a gasp for air. At the expense of unsuspecting users of their platform. Or maybe they have just grown tired of all the people using their platform for free.

Add to this that in many EU countries it is required by law to have a double opt-in solution for any e-mail subscription services. Jane Ruffino was also quick to note that ”This is such a bad decision. Also a GDPR nightmare in the making!”

GDPR refers to an EU regulation intended to strengthen and unify data protection for all individuals in the EU [Wikipedia link]. This regulation will start being enforced in May of next year. If you as a business owner do not have documented consent for keeping a database of newsletter subscribers (only made available by double opt-in) you can run into trouble. And, as in Germany for example, this is already the case.

This is maleficent design

Make no mistake. This new design default will cause lots of problems. Not for Mailchimp (in the short term), but for users of their platform. When we as designers make something default we are advising. If you have bad advisors you will make bad decisions.

Mailchimp have completely flipped on their recommendation and failed to tell us why. Reactions on Twitter tell a story of confusion and worry.

Here is my outline of the damaging actions and decisions taken by Mailchimp that have me now looking to migrate to another solution.

  • This announcement comes on the 24th of October, allowing 7 days for users to understand what is going on and manually go in and prevent Mailchimp from changing the behavior of all their lists. 7 days!? When did you last hear about a platform giving you 7 days to prevent a significant change that will impact your business and your relationships with stakeholders.
  • There is no link to an explanation for the change. I asked for this on Twitter and Mailchimp responded promptly with something completely unrelated. When I pointed this out I was met by silence.
  • List owners in countries where double opt-in is required will suffer, at the very least by the time it will take them to stop the change from happening on their lists. Worst case by being reported and/or suffering from fake subscriptions.
  • The same goes for all list owners in the EU when GDPR comes into play next year.
  • Mailchimp are actively removing texts on their website where they have defended and recommended double opt-in. This type of behavior is truly frightening.
  • After having had double opt-in as a clear, obvious, recommended choice for many years there is now a rush to change this default encouraged behavior – and delete recommendations – in a 7-day ”sprint”.
  • Read the letter again. Sign-up confirmation e-mail and thank you pages simply disappear as of October 31st. If you have customized these with brand-building copywriting or with important links, then you had better scurry now to prevent the change from happening on your list.
  • Throughout the years Mailchimp have cited ”spambots”, ”fake subscribers”, ”email scams”, ”less engagement”, ”no record of the subscriber’s consent” and more as reasons the risks of single opt-in. Have these risks disappeared? Of course not. But as of October 31st, single opt-in is now Mailchimp’s recommendation. The cluelessnes about the importance to communicate this complete flip in recommendations to customers w0rries me.
  • Why even force this change on existing lists? Single opt-in has always been possible. If I wanted single opt-in I would have activated it. Mailchimp are now telling me as list owner, ”we know you have double opt-in but that’s probably not what you want. You probably just found it hard to find the settings. So ignore all our previous recommendations over the years and let me just change that for you. Oh you really wanted double opt-in like you had it? Well you have to go in and change that back yourself. Can’t help you with that. Bye bye!”

Am I over-reacting?

You may choose to argue that subscribers will still have the option of unsubscribing on the first e-mail they receive from a Mailchimp newsletter. The trouble is that when that newsletter arrives it may arrive to an e-mail address I did not approve, and finding an unsubscribe link when I am discouraged by an e-mail I did not want will need more cognitive energy than if I am myself actively looking for, and expecting, the single-task e-mail to approve the subscription.

Won’t newsletter owners simply go in and change to double opt-in then? Well, as a designer I am keenly aware of the power of defaults. As are Mailchimp. No, that won’t happen on a large scale.

If you are celebrating the fact that you will have one less e-mail in your inbox (because of the removed requirement to approve) then the root of your problem perhaps is something else than the newsletter opt-in e-mail.


I was going to end this article with a request, a wish, that Mailchimp make amends and explain themselves. But after writing that long list I’m beginning to wonder if that is even possible. What a blow to the brand. What a sad turn of events for a company I’ve admired for so long.

Newsletters are an immensely important part of organizational communication and using Mailchimp has been a no-brainer for many list owners. If we want to stay true to a responsible and ethical way of working we must however expect the same from our suppliers. So where should we go from here? Do you still trust Mailchimp? Will you adapt? More importantly: will you recommend Mailchimp to others?

Update: Since people are asking, I have decided myself to opt for a self-hosted platform which gives me more control. I am now using Sendy to manage my newsletters.

Per Axbom

Per Axbom

@axbom

Per Axbom is a Swedish communication theorist born in Liberia. For two decades he has educated digital professionals and helped organizations with digital usability and accessibility. Per makes tech safe and compassionate through reflective reasoning, human-considerate design, coaching and teaching. You can hear his voice on UX Podcast.

Digital compassion book cover Per's recent handbook on managing ethics in tech, Digital compassion, is available to order from Amazon in Kindle format. Send an e-mail to Per for more options.

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