The Secret to Saving Email Relationships

What's the best way to respond when someone clicks "unsubscribe"? As with real-life breakups, you should start with a critique of your own behaviour

Written by Jim McElgunn

It’s a painful moment when someone tells you “I no longer wish to be in a relationship with you.” How should you respond? Chances are you’ll choose one of the following two options. One is to try to suss out the real reasons the person wants to break up with you, then convince them to reconsider. The other is to throw in the towel.

These are the same options whether you’re talking about a romantic relationship or the kind your company has with subscribers to its emails. And—as I can attest to about the first sort of relationship—neither option is likely to lead to a satisfying outcome.

But a recent blog post points to a more promising response—at least when it comes to email. Digital and email marketing specialist Karen Talavera is right to suggest that unsubscribes are a fact of life that you shouldn’t take personally. But, she contends, there are steps you can take to minimize the number of people who ask to be removed from your firm’s email list. She suggests these five:

  • Offer an “opt down” as an alternative to opting out: give subscribers the option to receive messages less often;
  • Provide email message type selections: let subscribers choose to limit messages from you to specific categories, such as special offers or company announcements;
  • Include a function for an email change of address: minimize unsubscribes from people who’ve changed their address due to a switch in email account providers or from a work to a personal address, or vice versa;
  • Offer a choice of message formats: encourage people who, say, find your emails tough to read on a mobile device to tell you which device they normally access emails on and give them a choice of HTML vs. plain text; and
  • Communicate beyond email: offer alternative channels such as social media, catalogues or direct mail.

This is a solid list that anyone who’s seeing a substantial number of unsubscribe requests should consider. But Talavera’s most important insight isn’t the specific tactics she suggests, but what underlies them: respect for your target customers. “It’s the nature of any permission-marketing channel,” she writes. “The ultimate choice and control over receiving messages rests in the hands of subscribers.”

Read: The 5 Words That Make People Open Emails

Just because a subscriber clicks on “unsubscribe” doesn’t necessarily mean they wish to have nothing to do with your company. They may very well be happy to remain on your email list provided you don’t limit their options to “you’re in or out.” The more choice and control you offer people, the more likely they are to want to maintain a relationship with your company—provided you don’t offer so many options you induce decision paralysis.

Read: The Fastest Way to Get Your Email Trashed

In fact, there’s an opportunity here that this article doesn’t point out. It’s still uncommon to offer a thoughtful menu of options designed to appeal to people who are still inclined to have a relationship with you, but only if it’s on their terms. If yours is one of the few firms that gets it, you’ll be well placed to win over at least some of those subscribers who initially figured “I’m outta here!”

The analogy here is with how companies handle customer complaints about their products or services. If you do so sensitively and skillfully, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up with a customer who’s more loyal to you than one who hasn’t had a complaint. In the same way, someone who had grown weary of your email offerings may become a fan once they see that your company, unlike most others, is trying hard to tailor its communications to suit the recipient.

Then again, maybe your best option for minimizing unsubscribes is to fix something that Talavera never mentions: email content that sucks. (Psst: here’s a good place to start.) As in a romantic relationship, suggesting to the person who says they want to break up with you that maybe you could see each other less often or switch to different shared activities together may be futile if they’ve decided they just can’t stand you any longer.

Jim McElgunn is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT Magazine. His coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators includes sales, marketing, business finance and personal finance, among other topics.

What do you think?

What’s the best way to reduce the number of people unsubscribing from your company’s emails? Please leave your comments below.

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