Subscriber Feedback: Learnings from Unsubscribe Reasons

I’m always glad when I get feedback on my email marketing work – feedback from blog readers, from book reviewers, and especially from subscribers to the weekly email marketing roundup.

Open and click rates are good things to have, but sometimes it’s more inspiring to look at non-aggregated, discrete, unstructured, plain, personal and sometimes harsh opinions. Reading replies makes email marketing feel more “one-to-one”, and – even better – there much to learn from them.

To gather comments, I placed several short free text fields, for example

  • during the sign up (“describe the perfect email marketing newsletter”),
  • when rating an email (“what did you like so far, and what not?”),
  • and when unsubscribing from future messages.

I read all answers carefully, and I use compliments as testimonials to convince blog readers of signing up.

But for now let’s have a look at

  1. why people unsubscribed from the weekly email marketing roundup and
  2. why this is interesting information:

First, here are some of the unsubscribe reasons, which were entered in the free text field:
unsub-reasonsUnsubscriber feedback grouped by color: “Why did you unsubscribe? E.g. other expectations, lost interest, inbox full, …”

Here are four take-aways:

1. Email Design: More important than you thought?

In traditional direct marketing, design is considered to be a less important success factor compared to e.g. choosing the right offer and the right segment. However, one must not neglect it. A poor design will fail to guide the recipient eyes through the answers to her questions; no answers often mean: no response.

rembrandtNow, when I read the unsubscribe reasons, I wasn’t surprised about people disliking the design of the weekly email marketing roundup. I know I’m no Rembrandt: ;-)

What surprised me was that some folks unsubscribed because of colors, layout etc. I mean the newsletter is a Google’esque stacked wrap-up of relevant web resources, it’s no illustrated magazine. At least I thought so.

However, the unsubscriber feedback underlines that a good first impression counts. Say hello to the halo effect – one cannot please everybody, but one also should not underestimate the value of an appealing visual identity.


2. Permission: IS DOI REALLY enough?

Folks, go quadruple opt-in! No, just kidding. But honestly, I believe in double opt-in (aka confirmed opt-in). And I’m not alone. DOI should make it virtually impossible to spam people. Thus, it provides marketers with the strongest permission and the highest response rates. Do you fear list shrinkage due to unconfirmed opt-ins? Well, minimize the loss to close to zero by optimizing your sign-up procedure.

I have a strict DOI policy on I think I also implemented a comparatively clear sign-up process that should set the expectations quite well:

  • when am I being emailed,
  • how often,
  • from whom,
  • on what…

Just look at the four steps in the screenshot:

doiConfirmed opt-in – again: no Rembrandt, I know … ;-)

How can it be that still some unsubscribers say they don’t know the sender and some call the newsletter “spam”? It not even contains any advertisements. One might say that spam is always in the eye of the beholder (UBE, UCE, too often, looks ugly, …). But getting permission couldn’t be clearer, could it?

Yes, it could. A true opt-in is a

  1. specific and
  2. freely made action by an
  3. informed individual.

However, some subscribers signed up just to grab an incentive (PDF download). They probably had no interest in the newsletter, just clicked in the confirmation email and didn’t read anything in or around it. Is such an opt-in free given? Maybe not. In addition, I paused the weekly roundup for more than two months due to travelling and holidays, so that some new subscribers may already have forgotten that they signed up during the pause. (Even if they saw my cinemagraph, of which I’m so proud; I was so ahead of my time with it ;-))

The learning is: Even double opt-in is by no means a guarantee that all subscribers really want your emails. Just the true and confirmed opt-in is.


3. Length, information density & perceived frequency

The email marketing roundup is a rather long newsletter as measured by its pixel height and copy length. In addition, it usually arrives weekly. Both contribute to a very high perceived frequency, which is one of the main reasons for unsubscribes.

I’m well aware of that. Therfore, I set up a preference center. Everyone can unselect any topics, which are not of interest. For example, someone from the US may have little interest in German recommendations. He can unsubscribe from those just by unticking the “German” box:


As you can see in the screenshots above, the preference center is promoted during the sign-up stage and later on in every email. Yet, many unsubscribe because of “too much information”, “too lengthy”, or “too often”. The profile is hardly used.

Why? I guess because no one looks for functional links (except for “unsubscribe”) and advice. Inboxes have very short attention spans. The newsletter is scanned too quickly for value.

That means if you want to make self-customization work in your emails, let this feature be eye-catching. Perhaps even push it by incentivized dedicated emails every now and then. A small link might not be noticed as you would expect.


4. Dead addresses? Resurrect them!

When looking at unsubscribe reasons, it always astonishes me how much churn results by employee turnover and other inbox abandonment.

The learning is clear: Ideally, your preference center offers to update an email address (again using double opt-in) or to snooze the newsletter for a certain time. Depending on your target group, this could push your retention rates – a metric, which I’ll discuss in one of the next posts…


Side note:

Someone noted in an unsubscribe reason that I’m selling the list. Of course that’s BS. In over three years of weekly email roundups, the only thing that I used the email list for was to send the roundup via MailChimp every Friday. Oh, plus a birthday greeting on occasion. :-)

Wanna feel the horrible newsletter design on your own body? Sign-up here, if you dare: (archive♞)
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It's valuable, I promise. Subscribers rate it >8 out of 10 (!) on average.

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