Earning Our Keep -- From Opt-in to Unsubscribe

We have a covenant with our email subscribers.  They provide their email address (and hopefully, permission) and we provide valuable content that they find worthwhile.

Unfortunately, we email marketers have broken this covenant time and time again.  We don't always get explicit permission.  Many of our messages are untargeted, poorly timed and irrelevant.  We don't bother to customize or take into account the job title, ZIP code or lifecycle stage.  We send way more frequently than is meaningful or welcome.

In a study we did with 61 brand-name email marketers back in May,  they reported it took an average of nine days after sign-up for the first message to arrive -- and a shocking 30% of companies never sent any messages at all.  Of the 70% who collected information that could be used to customize the message, 75% never used it.

Now there is more heartbreaking news from a just-released follow-up study on the same set of companies that drills into a critical aspect of email marketing: the unsubscribe process.  Apparently, some otherwise smart marketers are not giving the unsubscribe the attention it needs as a valid part of their customers' holistic email brand experience.

The study, "Keeping the Subscriber Experience Positive After 'Unsubscribe Me,'" found that 20% of top brand marketers sent additional emails to subscribers after confirming an unsubscribe request, and 11% of the companies studied emailed subscribers more than 10 days after confirming an unsubscribe request -- a violation of the federal CAN-SPAM Act.  

You are likely shaking your head by now.  Does this mean that the email marketers in the study are stupid or purposefully breaking the law?  Of course not.  But it does mean that someone is not paying enough attention.   When subscribers request off your file, by all means let them off without any troubles, preferably immediately (aka: before the next mailing) and certainly within the timeframe prescribed by law.  

Here's the rub:  It's so hard for email marketers to let go of the control we love.  A simple example is our collective unwillingness to let subscribers choose their own frequency.  Only two of the 45 companies we studied offered subscribers the option to change the frequency of their emails at any point in the cycle (at point of collection or point of unsubscribe). If a customer or potential customer is interested in your products, but they'd rather hear from you once a month vs. once a week, by all means give them that option and keep them on your list.  Given the companies are barely following the basics, it is any wonder that we are not optimizing the opt-out experience?  And that's a pity, since there is still so much untapped opportunity in the email channel.

I look at these study results and want to weep.  Email marketing is such an incredible opportunity, and so many of us are wasting the opportunity.  Not from lack of interest, expertise or technological advance. No, it's because we are just not paying enough attention to a channel that is still perceived to be free.

No wonder subscribers complain in ever higher numbers, and ISPs and receivers block our email.  We haven't proven consistently, as an industry, that we can be trusted to respect the implicit covenant of the opt-in.  As for marketers having control, that is now just a fabulous memory of the past. It's certainly no longer true.  With the advent of social media, our customers (business and consumer) are seeking and digesting information in totally new ways, and often not the information we send.  Our email marketing must adjust.   And I think that is all good news for the industry.  So that's the topic for my next column.

Meanwhile, please go right now and test your unsubscribe link.  Do it personally.  And make a note to do so every month, at least.



5 comments about "Earning Our Keep -- From Opt-in to Unsubscribe ".
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  1. Alan Charlesworth from the UK, November 26, 2008 at 11:56 a.m.

    "I look at these study results and want to weep. Email marketing is such an incredible opportunity ... "

    ... and it is hardly rocket science. It should simply be an extension of good marketing practice

    Can you imagine some of these sloppy habits being tolerated offline? Sales staff not returning a 'lead' phone call for nine days, for example. Or if a long-standing customer suddenly told a sales rep to stop calling - would that rep leave without trying to ascertain why the relationship has soured?

    Keep shouting Stephanie, hopefully they will take notice eventually - but sadly, 'there are none so blind as those who will not see' ... and I fear too many do not even realise the folly of their ways.

  2. Khris Thayer from Optizmo Technologies, November 26, 2008 at 1:45 p.m.

    ...To second John's comment...Great article, relevant to the pains our industry faces daily.

    Much like the reputation of a "Used Car Salesman" or "Salesperson" in general, people make judgments based on the way marketers conduct business. Lack of attention, irrelevant content/communications, poor timing, and a barrage of unwelcome solicitations thus making it hard for those of us marketeers who sincerely desire to take an ethical approach to promoting our brands.

    Although checking your unsubscribes once a month is better than never, that process is extremely cumbersome for larger organizations with a robust mailing list. The simple fact is that, when compared to the amount of revenue gained from a successful email marketing campaign, the small investments in an automated third party management infrastructure to maintain brand integrity and target a definitive call to action, is easily justifiable. Customer Focus People... The bloodline of every business that when executed properly results in positive IRR (not just ROI).

    For questions and clarity on how UnsubCentral with Lashback integration can help feel free to contact khristhayer(at)unsubcentral(dot)(com).

  3. Chris Teague from The WIN Firm, November 26, 2008 at 1:47 p.m.

    To follow up on Alan and John's comments, we at The WIN Firm have a customer service rating within our clients' email system that enables the subscriber to provide a client feedback whenever an e-mail is opened by the subscriber. The feedback option is sent with every e-mail and has worked out really well for many of our clients in healthcare industry who desire feedback from their "internal" and "external" customers; especially since this metric is evaluated in their quality measures by federal boards. The feedback tool also is a great way for many of our retail clients to stay of ahead of the merchandizing curve based on what their customers are saying. Therefore, making e-mail campaigns very service oriented is crucial to a company's reputation.

  4. Jordan Ayan from SubscriberMail, LLC, November 27, 2008 at 9:47 a.m.

    Stephanie, great article. The problem too often is that many marketers think "of course they will want to get this from me," and forget that email is a private communication channel where permission is granted but trust must be earned. If I granted you permission, but don't trust you any more because you have abused the relationship (by sending me stuff that matters to you and not to me), you have ruined a very good thing for both of us.

    The marketer ultimately loses the most because the recipient has total control the relationship.

    I love the title of the white paper.

  5. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, December 2, 2008 at 5:19 p.m.

    Stephanie -

    Regarding your comment, "I look at these study results and want to weep"...

    I agree that it is discouraging. However, on the flip side, it becomes a great opportunity to educate marketers on best practices. Every single day, I am encouraged by the new people I meet that believe in the power of (good, opt-in, best practice) email. The key, as I see it, is to continue to create vehicles to spread the knowledge.

    I don't need to tell *you* this, but I think the eec's efforts are an incredible start at the "education revolution."

    Also, as ESPs and email service companies (like Return Path), we need to continue to focus our efforts on making people/companies better marketers. Always.

    See you in Utah.

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

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