How a 1% unsubscribe rate KILLS your business


Below is a screen shot of the footer of an email I received early this morning, one which illustrates a common problem in email subscription management. This particular one is from a software vendor not unlike many others. As a long-time customer of this company I receive regular email, and in good faith started to read it like so many others before.

After getting halfway through the email, I realize this is another one of their “marketing emails” and conclude that my information must be mistakenly classified in their database as a prospect. As a customer this is completely irrelevant to me, so today I took action to make it stop.

clicking the “update your e-mail subscriptions” link at the bottom.  sends the user to a preference center, with some choices where I could opt out, so far so good.

Surprise!  The web page displayed the following choices, all of them EMPTY:

How do you unsubscribe when all the checkboxes are empty?

There is no obvious way to stop getting this particular type of email sent to me without stopping all of it. At the bottom of the page there is a choice to unsubscribe from all emails. But that is rather drastic, I don’t want to do that! What if I unsubscribed and then missed some important announcement?  Like a new version of their software?

With no reasonable option to choose, I closed the page taking no further action. Too bad for them!  It amounted to a missed opportunity to collect my preferences and tailor their messaging.

Epic fail
This experience is being relived by countless people all over the world every day.  We can all appreciate the frustration, what begins as an honest effort to help the sender correct its email lists, instead of hitting the “spam” button and condemning that company to deliverability issues, ends as a failure to communicate.

Imagine losing 1% of your customers every time you email
Let’s extend this example further.    Imagine that your email audience no longer had a say in the type of email they wanted to receive.

It’s fair to say you are putting your entire business with them in jeopardy.

Some marketers I’ve met develop an entrenched attitude about this; they defend by explaining that any unwilling recipient can simply opt out of all email.  They will blindly accept a 1% unsubscription rate as “normal.”

If you knew that your very next email would cause 1% of your customers to defect every time you sent it, would you still send it? Of course not.

Yet people do it every day!  The graphic below illustrates what happens when you send emails at a rate of 1 per day, with a 1% unsubscribe rate.   You would be severing your communications with HALF of your customers after only 70 emails. decay_curve_at_1_percent_unsubscribe_rate

Linking Lists with Choices
The good news is, if you are giving careful thought to the value of your email content, most of your audience is already receptive to hearing from you. Otherwise they would have unsubscribed a long time ago.  That said, it’s normal for your audience to crave more control over the content they receive.

When you offer them controls, and those controls work properly to change the outcomes, it has tremendous positive benefits: Lower opt-out rates, better readership, better email click-throughs,  more shares, more brand loyalty.

Fixing this problem is something every marketer should make their top priority. And I do mean a TOP priority. This means it should be addressed before the next email goes out the door.

Here are some guiding principles to building a good subscription management page:

1. Put the “unsubscribe from everything” choice at the bottom. This is the convention that people expect. There is no benefit to hiding it, putting it in small size, etc. Make sure that people can execute that choice in one click. In some countries this is the law, plain and simple.

2. Group your list choices according to your sending habits. Remaining checkboxes you offer should have a real and substantial impact on the emails that a person receives. Be sure to sanity-check your choices; better to go broader and have less displayed choices. For example, instead of “case studies” and “webinars” you could combine them as “product expertise”.

3. Now, execute your emails. Every promotional email you send from now on should be sent to subscribers of the corresponding checkbox choices. In other words, if you send me the email, I will be able to opt-out without unsubscribing from everything.

4. Automate the programming for “net new” contacts. Anyone you add to the database (via CRM, via Upload etc.) has pre-defined choices. So they are automatically subscribed to the right choices without any direct effort by the marketer.

5. Build your lists with the subscription choices in mind. In other words, use the subscribers to a given choice as the basis for your distribution list.

6. Coordinate your colors. This is my favorite technique. The careful use of colorized email templates or other creative elements can be a powerful signal to your audience and make their subscription options dead simple. If you don’t like the green emails, unsubscribe from them!

7. And lastly, while this may seem obvious it is imperative to include your new footer with the “update your preferences” link in every email! You might need to retrofit some of your nurture emails in progress.

After awhile, you may find the subscription center emerges as a focal point for all marketing communications planning. You start to visualize your overall segments in terms of the subscription choices. What is the lineup this month for people who subscribed to “product expertise”? Do we have enough coverage in our marketing calendar for people who are subscribed to “special events”?

In larger marketing teams, the executive might designate a single marcom employee to “own” each list. The list owner acts as a champion and traffic cop for that audience. The owner does not necessarily need to reside in the Marketing department, either; good candidates can be found among sales managers. The owner should have the authority to act as dispatch, and escalating for any campaigns scheduled at the same time, or when they see dry spells coming up on their calendar.

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