Beware ‘unsubscribe’


Don’t let the headline numbers lull you into a false sense of security, your customers could freeze you out at any time

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It’s the apocryphal red button. One push and… bang! You are gone.

The ‘unsubscribe’ option empowers your customers and renders you just one click away from being sent to oblivion.

By law, in the UK, every marketing email you send must give the recipient the ability to opt out of further emails. It’s law elsewhere too, with differing levels of enforcement. America’s 2003 CAN-SPAM has been criticized for a lack of proper controls. But the Australian Spam Act of 2003 scored noteworthy hits, issuing fines of AUS$ 110,000 to Virgin Blue Airlines (2011), Tiger Airways Holdings (2012) and Cellarmaster Wines (2013).

The unsubscribe option is invariably hidden at the bottom of marketing emails, although occasionally I notice it cunningly placed at the top – either a bold nod to transparency or a clever way of disguising it.

Email marketing certainly had an auspicious beginning. Internet legend has it that, in 1978, a certain Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corp sent out the first mass email to some 400 potential clients via the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. It resulted in $13 million of sales in DEC products. An industry was born!

The sector has grown rapidly, driven by advanced technology, ballooning internet capacity and a growing, hungry online consumer base. On the surface, there’s little for marketers to worry about. Globally, unsubscribe rates are a fraction of 1%. Phew. No cause for alarm then.

I’m not so sure. The unsubscribe button gives customers the ability to personalize their online experience. Customization will grow as we become accustomed to the online tools available to us. The more data we receive and send, the more tailored our cyber-lives will become. Signing in and out of companies and their offers will become second nature, particularly as our email boxes reach capacity and/or new products and services displace the old ones.

Marketers might want to think how they can best vaccinate against capricious and promiscuous customers regularly clicking that unsubscribe button. Hiding ‘unsubscribe’ will not be enough.

Email messages are a blend of mail, message and medium. They arrive through your letterbox and they advertise and sell at the same time. They connect and communicate instantly, but they are rarely personable. The language of the internet is not a thoughtful one. Think of ‘error 404’ which screams at you when you follow a broken or dead link. Why not: “Sorry. This isn’t going anywhere. Why not check the link you are trying to use?”

Marketers must make their messages meaningful. They must reflect what they know about the recipient:

  • Assume your customer is intelligent. They are web savvy and know a lot about you, your competitors and marketplace. Talk confidently, but don’t belittle them with poorly crafted storylines.
  • Be relevant. Contextualize your messages. It’s easy to spot email ‘carpet bombing’ campaigns. Invest in sophisticated automation for this, the tech is available and inexpensive.
  • Be personal. Write to customers as if they were sitting opposite you. Never before has there been so much material to read. Never before have we needed skilled, trained and experienced copywriters so badly. Poor writing reflects on you.
  • Pace yourself. Your messages should connect with one another. Make communication seamless; inconsistency can devalue previous messaging.

The ultimate aim for customer marketing is to get more customers; make them stay with you longer; make it easy for them to buy more from you; encourage them to introduce their friends; make it impossible for them to leave.