The Often Baffling Behavior Of Email Subscribers

This week the Email Insider Summit reminded us once again that there is a giant chasm between how email marketers would like their subscribers to manage their email and what consumers actually do.

After having panel of students from Ball State University at the spring Email Insider Summit, this week MediaPost featured a panel of mothers. While most of the moms saw email and online shopping as highly convenient, they also all expressed negative feelings toward email. One said she'd be more receptive if she received fewer emails. Another said, "The computer is a time-sucker." They all put a premium on convenience, simplicity and transparency of email offers. They also didn't seem to make much of a distinction between spam and emails that they opted in to receive.

The most telling moment was when DJ Waldow of Bronto Software asked the women how they decided whether to delete an email, unsubscribe or mark it as spam. One of the panelists proudly declared that they were women so there was no rhyme or reason for what they did. The other women nodded their heads and laughed. When pressed on the matter, they seemed to indicate that they just deleted unwanted emails, whether they were spam or just irrelevant permission-based email. No wonder they're frustrated with their inboxes. They don't appear to know how to stop receiving messages from legitimate or illegitimate marketers.

That stands in sharp contrast to how the college kids behaved. They were very quick to mark as spam both unsolicited messages as well as emails that they'd asked to receive but that no longer interested them. For instance, one of the students said that he had signed up for Urban Dictionary's "Word of the Day" email but had grown tired of the emails and would probably "junk it." So while the college kids knew how to stop receiving emails, they also didn't distinguish between permission-based email and spam.

What's clear from all of this is that many consumers don't know how to use email properly-which is to say that they are a detriment to themselves and to email marketers.

In the wake of the spring Email Insider Summit, the Email Experience Council polled the email marketing community, asking whether the EEC should help reestablish the true definition of spam. More than 90% said that it should. The EEC's response was to launch the Consumer Education Roundtable, of which I'm a member. The new roundtable was tasked with creating a consumer Web site that would educate email users on how to get the most out of their email experience, not only educating them on the appropriate way to get rid of unwanted emails -- both spam and permission email -- but also giving them advice and information that would make their inbox a less intimidating place.

Under the leadership of Jason Baer of Convince & Convert and DJ Waldow, the roundtable has developed a content strategy for the Web site that revolves around three topic areas:

1. How to identify unwanted email, including spam and phishing attempts. 2. How to manage and get the most out of your email subscriptions, including how to use preference centers, and why you should unsubscribe rather than mark as spam. 3. How to efficiently manage your inbox, including tips on setting up rules, managing email notifications from social networks, and how to respect the inboxes of friends and family.

The roundtable is actively looking for educational content that can be repurposed for the site, as well as collecting links to blogs posts, articles, videos and other content that would help consumers understand these issues. If you know of resources that would be helpful to this effort, please comment below or reach out to Jason, DJ or Ali at the EEC.

If you've ever been frustrated by the actions of your subscribers, I encourage you to get involved with this initiativ.

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10 comments about "The Often Baffling Behavior Of Email Subscribers ".
  1. Daniel Riggs from Cessna , December 11, 2008 at 12:26 p.m.

    Good luck, Chad. Yours is a grand task, indeed. I think that it would be extremely important to get the help of ISPs, Yahoo mail, Gmail, Hotmail/livemail, etc. to educate the masses to use the "unsubscribe here" and "spam" links appropriately. Also the guys like me who grind out the email campaigns must be educated at how important it is to honor the request from an unsubscribing customer.

  2. Jennifer Kushell from YSN/YS Interactive , December 11, 2008 at 12:38 p.m.

    Thank you for this article! I was just talking to someone at Constant Contact the other day about this. We signed up for their service a couple of years back when we started sending out our YS Weekly newsletter. They said it was one of the highest quality publications they'd seen and were so excited to be working with us. Then we started blasting an opted in list of something like 19k who had signed up/opted in for it at that point. Within weeks we were getting maybe 5 or 7 spam reports per send (out of 19,000) and we got shut down!

    Now I KNOW we didn't look like junk, and knew that many people didn't differentiate between trash and junk or maybe just hit junk not knowing what the ramifications for us would be, but I've always wondered how others who deal with this younger demo deal with this?

    We eventually started our list from scratch with a double opt in required to be extra careful...but lost almost 12k people who had been following us fairly regularly as a result.

    One last thing, I love that you've been working on publishing strategies for consumers - and I for one will certainly be reading them carefully - but in this ADD, bite-sized chunk world, doesn't the real burden have to remain on us, the content publishers, to make it more clear what this label of junk means to us as businesses? I don't think subscribers would be so quick to hit that button if they understood that it might be detrimental to our ability to continue serving up great content to their peers who might love and even rely on us.

    But then again, haven't we all hit that JUNK button accidentally in the past, when in reality we were trying to clear out our in boxes or just moving to fast?

    Keep up the great work MEDIAPOST. You make it so much easier to stay on top of these kinds of issues and challenges.

    Jennifer Kushell
    President/Co-founder, YSN.com (your success network)

  3. Steve Kellmeyer from Bridegroom Press , December 11, 2008 at 12:51 p.m.

    It will never work.

    There is no penalty for subscribers to opt out of subscription e-mail by marking it "spam" instead.

    Indeed, it is much easier to hit the omnipresent "spam" button then it is to locate, identify and click on the "unsubscribe" link.

    Why should they choose one over the other?
    Who cares?

    They don't and there's no reason they should.
    They don't read e-mail to please us.
    Why should they handle their e-mail in a way that pleases us?

    They'll handle e-mail however it pleases them to handle it. Taking classes in how to handle e-mail doesn't have a big enough up-side to be worth it for 99% of e-mail readers.

    E-mail software needs to have an unsubscribe button instead of a spam button, or it needs a spam button that can unsubscribe an e-mail instead of marking it as spam when that is appropriate, i.e., when there is a real unsubscribe link in the e-mail that is known to work.

    That's exceedingly difficult, but it's easier than changing the habits of people who find it easier to hit "spam" then to hit "unsubscribe. "

  4. Chad White from Salesforce Marketing Cloud , December 11, 2008 at 1:36 p.m.

    It is a grand task, but we have some smart people working on it, and would love to have more folks get involved. The trick is to provide tips that help both consumers and marketers. Consumers certainly won't do anything just to help us.

    At the same time, email marketers certainly need to do their part, making their email programs more transparent, giving consumers more control, and making everything easier. At the Email Insider Summit, LifeScript provided a great example of doing this. A while back they introduced a hassle-free unsubscribe link and button in the upper right-hand corner of every email. They can get off the list with one click, said Jack Hogan of LifeScript. We saw your unsubscribes go up and complaints go down—almost at 1-to-1, he said. Subscribers may be less likely to hit the “report spam” button if they see the unsubscribe link at the top, and they may be less likely to unsubscribe in the first place because they know they can unsubscribe at any time.

    If every marketer took that approach to unsub links, I think we'd earn a lot more trust from consumers than we currently do--and we'd also reduce complaints and deliverability issues for ourselves as well.

  5. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory , December 11, 2008 at 5:19 p.m.

    @Steve -

    I'm sorry that you feel like this initiative will "never work." Jason and I are co-chairing this roundtable that includes a super-sharp group of people. We are optimistic that we can make a difference. As Chad said, we'd love to have more folks involved. It's always great to have more perspectives.

    I agree with you that traditionally, consumers do not care about spam vs unsubscribe. At the Email Insider Summit this past week, Stephanie Miller (Return Path) referenced a Silverpop study that said, "67% know but don't care that the "report spam" button hurts marketers."

    The task to change that behavior will be large, but again, that doesn't mean we don't try.

    Regarding your comments, "E-mail (sic) software needs to have an unsubscribe button instead of a spam button"...ISPs are in fact starting to adopt this very practice. Check out Hotmail.

    Love to have you help out with the Consumer Education Roundtable. We need more people who are passionate about educating the general public.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Best Practices & Deliverability
    Bronto Software, Inc
    djwaldow: twitter, AIM, MSN, Gtalk...

  6. Jennifer Kushell from YSN/YS Interactive , December 11, 2008 at 5:27 p.m.

    Completely agreed Chad. Can you, or anyone here, recommend the best 3rd party email marketing providers who are really addressing these issues seriously?

    These are great suggestions though. And kudos for you for tackling these tough issues on behalf of the industry and consumers.

  7. Janet Nicolini from Octagon , December 11, 2008 at 6:07 p.m.

    There is only one answer... e-mailers should stop abusing the in boxes of permission based subscribers. What is relevant and useful can easily become considered as spam when you receive multiple emails per day/week with little difference (cases in point: Crate and Barrell, Fortunoff, Talbots--reminding each day that the same sales is about to expire). Enough already!

  8. Mike Bloxham from Frank N. Magid Associates , December 12, 2008 at 12:50 p.m.

    The task of the EEC's Consumer Education Roundtable is indeed a herculean one - but that does not mean it should not be undertaken or that it will not meet with at least some degree of success. Will it change all consumer behavior? Of course not. Will some consumers respond in the ways hoped for? Quite possibly.

    However, the issue at the heart of the problem is essentially two-fold. First, there is the innate irrationality, inconsistency and unpredictability of our species. We do not fit readily into the codified modes of behavior that we seek to define "consumers" and their behaviors within. Nor do we think through many of our actions - especially if we perceive the consequences to be non-existent or of no importance to us (including how negative or frustrating those consequences may be for marketers - and expecting consumers to care about marketers in general is a futile task).

    The second factor is the size of the gap that exists between the mindsets of the recipient of an email and the sender. The less the sender understands about the mindset and need-state of the recipient, the greater the gap and the likelihood of failure. The more we understand about the quicksilver nature of the target recipient, the better for both. This of course makes marketing more complex and demanding, but that is an inevitable consequence of the world of permission marketing and digital technology.

    While some may feel that consumers lack of knowledge of how to use email "properly" is detrimental to their interests, perhaps - for the consumer themselves - what's really detrimental is the volume, frequency and relevance of emails they receive. The definition of what is detrimental is much like the definition of spam - it's in the eye of the beholder (or the inbox anyway).

    Education on the difference between deleting and marking as spam will only go so far to address the underlying challenge.

    In just one short discussion among five women of similar backgrounds we saw widely divergent views on many things. We also saw strongly held similarities which were the nuggests of the dialogue; the scarcity of time and it's impact on attention given to marketing messages; the importance of ease of use and comprehension, relevance and meaningful offers and so on.

    The whole session is posted by Mediapost (distributed in today's Online Media Daily) - if you have the time, check it out and see how you feel the Consumer Education Roundtable should address the issues

  9. Kieran Cooper from Facultas Lyris , December 17, 2008 at 4:12 a.m.

    I have to say that I was gobsmacked by the line 'What's clear from all of this is that many consumers don't know how to use email properly'. To my mind there simply aren't any rules about using email 'properly' - and what you really mean is that customers just aren't doing what we want them to. The history of the Internet shows that usability 'standards' only ever evolve - based on what users actually *do* rather than what people say they should. Granted, good websites etc can lead the way - but ultimately, I believe that we are swimming against a very heavy tide if we try to force people to use the Internet in the way that we want them to, rather than the way that they want to. A cursory glance at any text on web usability (for example, Steve Krug's excellent 'Don't Make Me Think') would surely back that up.

    If customers aren't doing what we want them to, then we need to change what we're doing so that we better match their expectations - exactly the point that Mike Bloxham makes.

    I think that the 'super-sharp group of people' could do some really great work in funding research studies into inbox behaviour - similar to the sorts of things that the Nielsen Normal Group have undertaken over the years - and then undertake the important education programme to get *mailers* to change their habits!

    I'm more than happy to help if I can - and bring a UK perspective too.

  10. Chad White from Salesforce Marketing Cloud , December 18, 2008 at 12:51 p.m.

    There are stores in parts of New York where you can buy antibiotics over the counter without a prescription. Some people buy them so they can take one a day to stay healthy, even though that's not how the drugs are designed to work. At the same time, millions of people buy antibacterial soap every week because they think it's healthier than normal soap. Both behaviors reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics and breed resistent bacteria, and create health risks for both individuals and the country.

    My point is that the consumer is not always right. Sometimes education is needed. I will stress once again that email marketers' behaviors need to change as well. This is an issue that can be attacked from multiple sides; both reactive and proactive measures are needed. I encourage folks to get involved wherever they feel they can make the biggest impact.