Whilst it has been a popular method of gaining a return for free content e.g. harvesting email addresses and contact details for use in further marketing activities, forced opt-ins are going to become a major no-no in 2011.

Google seems to have decided that it hates forced opt-ins on your front page, and if you operate a PPC campaign with them, it is likely that you will find yourself facing penalties on your Quality Score for making users stay on your site longer than necessary just to fill out a form for your benefit rather than theirs. It is likely that other sites, such as Facebook, may well follow suit.  

The reality is that consumers are not too keen on this approach either, and if you have a forced opt-in, for instance to download a white paper or similar, you probably see a fairly high bounce rate from that page. Especially if it isn’t clear what they are signing up to without reading umpteen paragraphs of T&Cs about what future contact they should expect from you.

The alternatives are so much simpler, and likely to succeed.

Firstly, don’t force the opt-in, make it optional and keep it simple. By giving people free choice whether they want to opt in, you will have jumped the first hurdle in finding the self-selecting group that is called ‘willing customers’. Make it easy to opt in later by including, within your free content, a chance to go back and opt in for further contact. After all, if they have enjoyed your freebie, they will be in the mood to sign up to hear more from you, receive other freebies, contact from you etc.

Don’t try to extract too much information in one go from those who do choose to opt-in. Customer retention is so much cheaper than customer acquisition so gather little nuggets of information from them over time, rather than all in one lump. Don’t scare them away by asking for inside leg measurements, marital status, an about you paragraph, photo etc! And don’t make email address a compulsory option on the form – allow the user to indicate to you their preferred mode of contact, whether that is through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, mobile phone, Skype etc. Emails are so yesterday….

Secondly, accept that Facebook is here to stay and that many people, even in business, are now registered on it. Add a Facebook Like button to your site and, if you are eligible, use Facebook Connect on your site to make any log-in easy. Other options include OpenID and similar. Don’t limit the choices your visitors have to communicate their preferences to you.

Thirdly, give the user a sample of what they will receive if they opt-in before they opt-in e.g. a sample of your white paper, a link to your newsletter archive, a flipthrough digital version of your catalogue or brochure, etc.

To summarise: Allow people to opt-in by choice, add a Facebook Like button to your site, and never, ever have a forced opt-in before your site visitor knows what you are about.

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology