Take Unsubscribes Personally


Of all the metrics and analytics available to email marketers, none is harder to countenance than the unsubscribe rate. Not coincidentally, it is also the metric most often ignored or at least dismissed by email marketers, in favor of numbers that speak instead to the success of our messages.

On top of being a little uncomfortable to acknowledge, unsubscribes are also easy to rationalize. They are like the C- you got in sociology: it stings a little, but if you ace your other courses you can make Dean's List this semester.  For most email marketers, unsubscribes constitute a relatively small percentage of a list, and can certainly be marginalized by focusing on the aspects of the email program that drive the business forward.

But relatively is a dangerous word. It means we are rationalizing a failure, instead of learning from it. It's standard operating procedure to wave off unsubscribes provided the rate remains low (anything under 1% in any metric is easy to ignore) and/or holds steady over time. But standard operating procedure is a lot like a "best practice": following it puts you right in the middle of the bell curve. Being exceptional (that is, outpacing your competitors) requires extra effort, and a heightened sense of urgency. Every time someone unsubscribes from your list is an opportunity to learn something that most of your competitors are glossing over.



Given the limited resources available to most email marketers, is scrutinizing unsubscribe requests really worth the energy? Prioritization is hard, particularly when deliverability, open rate and click-through seem like much larger levers to pull. Determining whether or not you should prioritize unsubscribes presents a Catch-22. If your email program is strong, you can put it on auto-pilot for a stretch and spend some time working on incremental gains at the margins, like unsubscribes. But if your program is not as strong, your unsubscribes may need attention more urgently -- same as every other metric you track. So for many companies, a dedicated unsubscribe study would be extremely valuable, but is never going to climb near the top of the to-do list.

But there are a few ways you can start to acknowledge and even exploit your unsubscribes, that don't tax your resources too heavily:

1. Run a baseline report. Track how your unsubscribes have trended in the past. The further you can go back, the better. Come up with a baseline unsubscribe percentage that represents where you are currently, but also be cognizant if it is higher or lower than a year or two years ago, so you can see in which direction your organization is headed. For the purpose of the baseline exercise, I recommend you track absolute numbers along with percentages. As your list grows, a small percentage starts to become a significant number -- and that number represents actual people who used to be willing to do business with you, but aren't any longer. Absolute numbers give some perspective.

2. Work unsubscribe data actively into reports. Many organizations measure their email programs with a snapshot of data that includes deliverability, open-rate, click-throughs and (depending on the business) conversion. Unsubscribes should also be at the top line of your regular reporting, so you are summarizing your entire email program, not just the activity that has a positive impact on your business. The email landscape is not going to get any easier, and a metric that shows you -- with each message -- where you've turned off a subscriber is going to be more vital by the week.

3. Build a culture of discovery. Last month, CNBC aired a documentary on the comeback of the Ford Motor Company called "Rebuilding an American Icon." The show focused on new CEO Alan Mulally, and the impact he has had both on the company's operations and also its culture. When he arrived, product managers invited to the senior management strategy meetings in "The War Room" would unfailingly report that everything was right on track - the project charts peppering the walls were marked with nothing but green bars. But shortly after Mulally arrived and started to encourage more openness within the company, one executive placed a yellow bar on one of his charts, signaling a problem with his product and opening the floodgates to similar candid reports from other executives. What Mulally did was to create a culture where identifying problems is not an admission of failure, but an act of discovery. Once you start to acknowledge unsubscribes in your regular reporting, the next step is to invite open discussion about them, in a way that is constructive and proactive.

Each unsubscribe request you take personally and research enough to determine the cause sheds some light on the dark recesses of your email program. Better to flush them out into the open now, while they are small and manageable, than to let them grow undetected into a bigger problem.

4 comments about "Take Unsubscribes Personally".
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  1. Rita from FreshAddress, Inc., December 15, 2010 at 10:39 a.m.

    Interesting and important metric as it is not usual and customary to highlight 'failure'. But why did the recipient unsubscribe? Just today, I unsubscribed from a retailer's list and was offered several options to explain my action, one being " Emailed me too frequently".If these options aren't made available and you can contact the person by direct mail/telephone to inquire as to why they unsubscribed, you stand a chance to recover their loyalty and learn more about your deployments and content offered.

  2. Bill Kaplan from FreshAddress, Inc., December 15, 2010 at 10:53 a.m.

    Good topic and points, Mike. We work with many leading companies, including 25% of the Fortune 50 firms, and there are a few simple strategies they use to help minimize their unsubscribe rates besides the obvious ones like relevance and personalization:
    1) Ask your subscribers upfront how often they want to hear from you and give them a variety of subscription options (discount offers only, specific content-related information, new product announcements, warranty and recall information, offerings from your trusted partners, etc.)
    2) When someone clicks your unsubscribe link, link them to your email preference center where they can alter their desired frequency (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) as well as their subscription options. People's interests and availability change over time so be sure to accommodate this.
    3) Provide an option to unsubscribe from specific mailings as opposed to simply having one universal opt-in or opt-out for all
    4) Honor their wishes as dictated by the above
    5) If all else fails, have a drop-down menu so subscribers can click on the reason for why they're unsubscribing and don't forget to offer a comment box for any additional comments. Information is power - you don't need to divine the reason behind your unsubscribes when your readers will often be glad to willingly provide this to you.

  3. Ben Isaacson from Part-Time Privacy, December 15, 2010 at 1:19 p.m.

    Simply looking at unsubscribe metrics is not enough. Marketers must; 1) compare unsub rates to complaint rates (through ISP feedback loops) -- if complaints exceed unsubs, then there's a major problem with consent or unsub visibility that needs to be addressed, 2) build preference centers and give the ECOA option since email churn is still very high (more so with @facebook soon), and 3) build opt-down/over & surveys into a preference center or post unsub page to gauge the real reasons why people are opting out. Without those 3 things, marketers are only getting a small piece of the puzzle.

  4. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, December 15, 2010 at 6:54 p.m.

    Nothing really changes. Build a relationship and segment your lists for relevancy. Your list may stay with you forever or it some people may depart. The big difference with an email list is how they got there. As opposed when you lose a customer they may have bought something so chasing them up is worthwhile. But if someone opted for free report, a free item were they ever going to by from you? And I am not a subscriber to the theory 'maybe one day'. Look after your "A" customers FIRST. Because if you don't they will hurt your business more when they leave. Kurt Johansen Australia's Leading Email Marketing Strategist -

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