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How to treat email subscribers

Today I spent some time going through the huge number of unread emails in my inbox and found that most of them were from a bunch of mailing lists that I’ve been subscribed to for donating money, buying things, or otherwise submitting forms on the Internet that happened to have my email address in them. I then went about unsubscribing from dozens of marketing email lists and had some thoughts on the experience.

I understand why everybody wants to send me email. It’s a way to reach out to me that I may actual pay attention to, even if I never go back to the Web site. Digital marketing people will tell you that email marketing is very effective, much more so than other paid advertising campaigns. I may hate all that email, but I’m lazy about unsubscribing. Since I’ve been working in analytics, I have also become more sympathetic to marketers, mainly because math behind marketing is cruel.

If you want to grow your business on the Web, you have to increase engagement with your existing audience or you have to add new people to your audience. There are costs associated with either option. Increasing engagement usually means paying people to improve the experience of using the Web site — engineers, designers, product managers, customer support people, and so on. Sending email to people who have already given you their email address is a comparatively cheap way to reengage them.

Growing your audience is even more difficult, because there are no sure things. You can pay for traffic (ads), you can work on search engine optimization, or you can try even more speculative approaches. This is how companies get into businesses like paying bloggers to talk about their products. Even if you take it as a given that the most important component of success is making awesome things people want, there’s still the matter of telling people about it. Just assuming that “If you build it, they will come” is a luxury few companies can afford.

Given that email marketing isn’t going away, here are a few tips to make it suck less. First, how to keep me from unsubscribing in the first place.

Your best shot is to make your email really interesting. I almost never visit Quora, but I do read the Quora Weekly Digest, and often click through. They do a great job of sending me an email every week that has a few really interesting links in it. I kept that subscription.

This demand that email marketers produce interesting stuff goes for nonprofits I’ve donated to as well. Your email should consist of more than a guilt trip.

Your next best shot is to let me know how I can buy things I want at a discount. This works best for specialty retailers who don’t offer discounts frequently. I may hate your emails, but if I can occasionally get a really good deal on an item I want, I’ll stick around, probably.

Nothing else is likely to keep me on your mailing list.

Now let’s talk about unsubscribing. There are tons of blog posts about unsubscribe best practices. Here’s one from Marco Marini, the CEO of ClickMail Marketing. Here’s another one by an important sounding fellow who works in direct marketing. The most important advice in both of them is to accept that people will unsubscribe and to make the process of unsubscribing straightforward.

I’m glad to see people in the industry strongly encouraging email marketers to make unsubscribing easy. Many email marketers have not taken this advice. One charitable organization required me to submit my zip code in order to unsubscribe. Many others require you to reenter your email address, or specify which emails you don’t want any more. Some use dark patterns to trick you into staying on their lists at the last minute. Other emails don’t even include an unsubscribe link, which is illegal these days, I think.

That said, the industry recommendations are still too mild. Here’s how it should actually work:

  1. There should be a clearly labeled unsubscribe link in every email.
  2. When you click on the link, you should be removed from the mailing list in question immediately without taking any further action.
  3. That’s it.

As an email marketer, it behooves you to include a form on the confirmation page that suggests to the user that they stick around, while making it clear that if they do nothing else, they won’t get any more email. You can ask them why they unsubscribed if you think that’s useful, but I would recommend using analytics to measure the effectiveness of your emails rather than asking people. The point is, this may be your last chance to reengage this user, make it count and don’t try to trick them.

If your company has multiple mailing lists, you do have some thinking to do about UI, because you have to figure out whether your unsubscribe link should remove the user from all email lists, or just the list associated with the email. You should probably err on the side of removing them from everything, because unsubscribing from a list and getting email from that sender later is frustrating and raises the likelihood that your email will be reported as spam.

Aside from the fact that as a marketer, frustrating your customers is a bad idea, getting your emails reported as spam can prevent your email from getting delivered at all. Making it painless to unsubscribe is ultimately a way to improve your email delivery rates, which enables you to make sure your email gets to people who actually want it.

Chances are, more engineers than marketers read my blog. The message to you is that your employer is probably producing marketing emails, and you should do a bit of research and make sure that it doesn’t suck at email. The job you save may ultimately be your own.

2 Comments

  1. Also, I constantly get emails that are just empty. I guess if I used the e-mail client they wanted me to use I’d see something. And do marketers think I enjoy carefully highlighting a five-line-long URL that starts with some extra character right before the http: and ends with a matching extraneous character in order to paste it into a browser? If you have something to say, say it. In text. In the e-mail. If you want to include a URL, don’t put it inside brackets or quotation marks and ideally make it something closer to 50 characters than to 500 in length. A message that seems to consist entierly of markup with text so thouroughly marked-up as to be unreadable without firing up a browser and tricky hand-eye-coordination-test URLs is just not making a positive impression.

  2. Reentering your address or something to confirm an unsubscribe is actually a good thing. Otherwise, forwarding the message to a friend (which you presumably want me to do) means they can misclick and remove me from the list.

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