By Craig Buckler

Marketing Mistakes: Opt-in vs Opt-out Checkboxes

By Craig Buckler

You may have noticed the recent BBC News item “EU bans pre-ticked website boxes to aid consumers” which was featured on the SitePoint podcast. The new legislation aims to eliminate hidden charges and costs. European websites will no longer be able to helpfully include extras such as insurance which customers have to actively decline. The rules will also cover registration for services such as email promotions.

It’s a shame legislation has been required to stamp out the practice. The opt-in vs opt-out debate has been raging for many years — longer than the web’s been around. Yet:

pre-checked opt-in boxes are dumb.

Who are marketers trying to fool? Are they making their systems easier for users? At best, they’re hoping that you — their customer — is so enamored with a product or service you’ll actively want to opt-in and a pre-checked box saves you a click. But, if you’re truly impressed, wouldn’t you be happy to spare a few milliseconds clicking a box?

Unfortunately, in most cases, pre-checked boxes treat users as imbeciles. The company is hoping you fail to notice the small print so you’ll pay more money or receive promotional materials.

We then see the dubious practice of attempting to trick users with bad metaphors:

tick here to opt-out

or worse, those which use indecipherable language:

untick this box if you don’t want to opt-out of our newsletter

Finally, many forms will re-check opt-in boxes when you make a mistake during the initial submit.

If you’re indulging in this type of practice you’re simply giving customers bad service. They’ve either paid more than they expected or they’re now receiving unwanted spam from your company. It’s not a great start to any customer relationship. Perhaps it will lead to minimal short-term gains but repeat purchases and recommendations are far less likely. Unless your business model is wildly different to others, it’ll put your long-term reputation and prospects at risk.

Companies often forget that people have become wise to the tricks. Many customers expect to be hit with hidden charges or dubious marketing techniques. If you don’t do it, you’re already one step ahead of your competitors.

Customers are people and everyone appreciates openness and honesty:

  1. Use clear and concise language.
  2. Give them your best price.
  3. Inform them about options but don’t assume they’re required.
  4. Provide opt-out information for those who choose to opt-in.

For example:

send me the monthly newsletter (you can unsubscribe at any time)

It’s not difficult. Yet I suspect we’ll still be discussing deceitful marketing activities for many years to come. Perhaps it’s time to name and shame the worst examples we find?

  • I think this take is a bit facile, though I appreciate what I take to be the broader sentiment behind it.

    It’s worth checking out this TED talk on the effects of making organ donation the default option in some countries. http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decisions.html

    The talk is on the greater question of how, exactly, we make our decisions, and whether we are truly as independent as we sometimes believe ourselves to be. The talk shows how our decisions are immensely influenced by things we don’t realize and in ways that are subtler than out-and-out trickery.

    Sure, using misleading language to trick users into making mistakes with checkboxes is just evil, and hopefully you’ll be punished by your users for your abuse in the long-run. But presenting an option as the default — like organ donation — even in very clear, very honest terms has dramatic effects on whether a person will actually decide they want to do something.

    To put this a different way: if I ask someone “Would you like the additional 1-year warranty with this product for $30?” I might get a very different answer than if I ask “Would you like to remove the complementary 1-year warranty that comes with this product to remove $30 from the total cost?” The language is not dishonest, but it creates a different context for a person’s choice, a context that has a huge affect on what responses you get.

    So in answer to this question from the article: “But, if you’re truly impressed, wouldn’t you be happy to spare a few milliseconds clicking a box?” The answer is no: it’s not anywhere NEAR that simple.

  • I have never actually seen “untick this box if you don’t want to opt-out of our newsletter,” but it gave me a good laugh! It’s just insanely confusing. I think if I saw that out in ‘the wild,’ I would just leave. Whatever I was trying to buy, it’s not worth it.

  • Oz

    When I last bought insurance through Confused.com I finished and thought, “wait, what about marketing permissions?” I asked my partner, who used to work for them and she took me back through the process and there near the end was a tiny little link that said, “click here for marketing permissions” (or something to that effect!) Click on the link and the page extends to reveal the tick boxes, already opted in. Unbelievable.

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