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Sep 17, 2008
Case Study

How to Get Your Preference Center CAN-SPAM Compliant: Our 3-Step Fix

SUMMARY: The biggest pain point for email marketers coming out of the new CAN-SPAM provisions deals with preference centers. Believe us, we know your pain!

MarketingSherpa had its own snafu getting squared with CAN-SPAM. And since there's still non-compliant email out there, we thought we'd share our fix here.

Allowing subscribers to pick and choose what kind of messages they want to receive is a best practice. So, marketers in recent years – MarketingSherpa included – set up preference centers where subscribers could log in and change what information they wanted to get regularly.

Then, the revised provisions of CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003) were announced over the summer. Many preference centers were suddenly in violation.

Indeed, one provision stated that email subscribers cannot be required to take any steps other than sending a reply message *or visiting a single Webpage to opt out* of receiving future email from a sender.

Well, the deadline for compliance came and went, and the ‘single Webpage’ language slipped by us. Until several weeks ago, we still required subscribers to log in before getting into their preference page. Yeah, that’s more than a single Webpage. We needed to make a fix and as soon as possible.


Anthony Valcarcel, Marketing Optimization Manager, MarketingSherpa, and his team went right to work preparing a code-based fix. “Basically, we had to remove that middle step of clicking to log in,” he says. “We had to take them from the link at the bottom of our newsletters right into the preference center.”

Here are the three steps that Valcarcel and his team took:

Step #1. Implement API code

First, Valcarcel and his team zeroed in on getting rid of the middle step by plugging in an API (application programming interface) code. The code automatically logged people into their preference center after tapping the unsubscribe link – erasing the middle step.

Ask your IT staffer or ESP about this process. Valcarcel says it’s not complicated – it just needs to be addressed and executed.

Step #2. Pre-populate preference center

Valcarcel then wanted to have the fields on the preference center be pre-populated. Mostly, the API code they used also cut out the step where the subscribers had to enter their email address to change their preferences.

“The API code was designed to ‘simulate a login,’ meaning that the step still exists in our system but the user just doesn’t have to engage it,” Valcarcel says. “Populating the preference center was necessary because the whole point was for the user to go from the newsletter to his/her profile and be able to manage it without logging in. Simply sending them to a blank profile center would have still required them to log in to take any action.”

Also, the preference boxes were pre-checked due to the new API code. The user would have to uncheck the box to stop getting that particular newsletter (or check a new one to begin receiving it). Last, the subscribers would tap the “Click here to submit your changes” button to save their new preferences.

Step #3. Damage control

Valcarcel and his team ran into a snafu on the day of the transition from the old system to the new. The ‘Chart of the Week’ newsletter going out that day included an opt-out link that went to an ‘error’ page.

The Sherpa marketing team immediately penned an apology email. It explained that it was an honest mistake as the administrative technicalities were being worked out on the backend for CAN-SPAM. The team used the simple subject line: “Sherpa’s Email Preferences Link.”


The code-based system put in place by Valcarcel and his team has snuffed out the snafus and made Sherpa fully compliant with CAN-SPAM. And, taking out the middle steps to the opt-out process (i.e., API code and pre-populating the page) hasn’t led to an increase in unsubscribes.

“The meter hasn’t moved,” he explains. “People shouldn’t be afraid that taking out the middle step will decrease their list.”

Meanwhile, getting out in front of the potential error-page embarrassment turned out to be the right idea. Valcarcel says the apology email was well-received.

“We got feedback where people expressed appreciation that we were professional for giving them a heads-up. Acknowledging your mistakes is the right way to go.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples for Sherpa Preference Center

ExactTarget – email services provider who helped with the tweak:

See Also:

Comments about this Case Study

Sep 29, 2008 - Erik Bower of Marketbright says:
What about security? What if somebody forwards the email and then somebody else clicks on it? Can they unsubscribe for that user? Could a hacker figure out the format and write a script to unsubscribe a bunch of people from your list?

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