“Unsubscribe Me!”: Are You Hearing E-newsletter Alarm Bells, Too?


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Are you seeing an increase in the rate of customer requests to unsubscribe from ongoing e-membership marketing programs? We are. Could this noteworthy trend signal trouble ahead for all brands employing ongoing email and online membership programs?

“It’s just too much” is the cry of people referring to burden of managing inboxes. Don’t most of us find this to be the case in our daily work life? So why wouldn’t we expect this of customers? As mailbox clutter has seemed to worsen throughout 2007, some of our clients’ statistics have caused us to wonder if we have all crossed a tipping point this year. What does it mean that people are moving beyond just ignoring or deleting unwanted emails and are now taking active steps to decrease the amount of email that reaches their inbox?

Insights from 70-year-old Dottie (Deb’s mother-in-law) help illustrate the worry we have. When Dottie’s doctor informed her that she had kidney disease, she went on a quest of information discovery. She wanted to know how to put herself in the best shape moving forward to slow the progression of her kidney failure and prolong the need for dialysis. The Internet was a key tool for her research.

After a burst of initial research, Dottie determined that her kidney damage could be slowed if she lost weight, followed the right diet and followed the doctor’s recommended treatment plan. During the course of her research, she visited many web sites and signed up for ongoing programs from companies that promised to help her “live a better life” with her condition.

Others were just delivering coupons to persuade her to buy their product.

At first, Dottie read most of the inbound communications. But very quickly, she discovered many of them were delivering advice that was similar from manufacturer to manufacturer and largely of a generic “wellness” nature. What she wanted was more information that would increase her confidence that her time, her health and her money were all worth investing in the products she found in her search. But there wasn’t really enough of that validating information coming through. Take, for example, a manufacturer of nutritional shakes who told her to organize her days better, get a full eight hours of sleep and enjoy the fall season by helping friends winterize their homes. How did that better inform her that these shakes could improve her condition?

Other programs made it too tiresome to access because they insisted that she log in every time she wanted to find a recipe. Still others were just delivering coupons to persuade her to buy their product. “They didn’t even tell me how the product was good for me or why it was better than others. I wanted to buy the right things, not save $3,” Dottie said.

Inbox mayhem

The amount of information reaching her inbox was more than even a retired Dottie could stand to manage. The emails began to pile up, and Dottie began to find that sorting through the clutter of emails was making it harder to find the emails from her grandchildren and friends that she really wanted to read. So she began to unsubscribe from most of them. In fact, she eventually decided it was easier to go to the bookstore to buy special cookbooks and just follow her doctor’s advice than it was to manage what she calls the “Internet mumble jumble.”

How is this starting to show up on the radar screens of people in marketing land? Well, one leading medical device marketer with a wonderful subscription-based program is seeing active “unsubscribe me” requests reaching around a third of its subscription rate. Another leading automotive product marketer with a subscription newsletter-type program was seeing only about 5,000 participants actually get into an article in their newsletter for every 150,000 participants emailed. We’re talking about people who voluntarily and actively signed up here. If these were your numbers, would they trouble you?

So what are customer-centric marketers to do if this landscape is really changing? Do we all have to challenge the common assumptions, paradigms and current models for e-marketing? If the goal is to help every Dottie become a more loyal and compliant customer for our brand, then what do you do?

Start off by asking, “How can we serve Dottie better?” You then have to learn if your brand’s customers are like Dottie and have a window when their interest in finding out about the brand and their need is heightened. If this is the case, then the brand should field an early-on full-court press to satisfy the depth of that inquiry. In this window, a “Dottie” must come to understand how and why this is the best brand for her needs.

Beyond that, it’s time to question very hard the need, purpose and appropriate structure of a longer term communication stream. Especially when we are all seeing the signs that many people—including those who will remain good customers—might not want that.

Ask why you as a marketer feel you have to deliver a “program” of communication over time. Did you not do a good enough job of satisfying Dottie in her window of inquiry? Did you not do that because you wanted to have content to spread out over time because you were determined to have a periodical program? Is that an artifice you need to examine?

These questions and more are forcing us to rethink how we consult on our clients’ programs. But if we’ve passed a tipping point where too many similarly designed marketing programs are cluttering people’s mailboxes and no longer serving our customers’ true interest—and that of our brand—then we believe we must break the mold. The coming year may be the time for all of us to challenge and reconstruct the e-marketing customer loyalty paradigms.

Deb Rapacz
Deb Rapacz helps brands and non profit organizations build a solid core of highly-committed buyers or donors. She is a highly-rated marketing instructor at St. Xavier University and conducts research on the psychology of brand commitment and consumer engagement.



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