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5 Approaches to Minimizing Unsubscribes

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by: Loren McDonald (@LorenMcDonald)
11 June 2014

The bad news: Email subscriber churn is one of the biggest secrets in the email-marketing industry. Few marketers are talking about it publicly, but many are worrying in private because, for the first time for many brands, their subscriber acquisition efforts are not keeping up with subscriber churn.

The good news: This challenge is a wake-up call to marketers, telling them they must get a handle on their approach to subscriber acquisition and address the issues that drive churn in their customer database.

The best news: Tackling list churn head-on can actually become the catalyst for change that delivers not only a return to growth but also a stronger, more relevant email program that markets to customers more effectively.

In this article I'll focus on unsubscribe requests, one of the major churn drivers. (Others include spam complaints, invalid addresses and inactivity.)

Your churn reduction quest starts at the beginning of the subscriber relationship and continues all the way through it. Your primary goal is to make your email program as valuable and relevant as possible to each subscriber, and secondarily to discourage unsubscribing.

This will probably require some changes in processes and some new content, but the reward is a more engaged and robust subscriber database.

1) Tailor your onboarding program to reflect subscriber behavior and acquisition source. Use behavioral data and predictive modeling to create distinct new-subscriber groups.

I'm a big proponent of structured onboarding programs. They go beyond a basic "welcome" message to introduce and integrate subscribers deeper into your email program.

If you're serious about stemming the tide of unsubscribes, you must step up your onboarding program to make it even more relevant to your new subscriber.

A key first step is to develop unique onboarding programs (or use dynamic content) based on how a subscriber gets into your database.

New subscribers who join your database from a first-time purchase versus a daily iPad giveaway sweepstakes need to be treated and onboarded differently. The sweepstakes subscriber probably should receive content highlighting special offers and discounts and early access to deals as an email subscriber.

For a new customer who subscribes via a first-time purchase, however, content focusing on your value proposition, customer support, return policies, rewards program, etc. should likely be a greater initial focus of the onboarding series.

The key is to understand the context for a new subscriber and control that experience for several days or longer before moving them into your regular email program and content.

Key point: No matter what you put in your onboarding program, send your first message immediately after opt-in. The longer you wait, the less interested your subscribers can become.

2) Expand your broadcast messaging program with automated messages to drive greater relevance and engagement.

Not every broadcast message you send is appropriate for every subscriber. Develop an understanding about which offers should go to everyone in your active email database or only to a segment of it.

For example, to promote a new accessory for your flagship product, target that offer only to the people who actually bought the product and create different messages for everyone else.

You'll catch the attention of people to whom the offer means the most without annoying everyone else with an irrelevant email. If you want to maintain your cadence, you could send a white space email (see #4) to anyone not in that customer segment.

3) Integrate ecommerce and behavioral data to drive automated, relevant messaging.

If you aren't incorporating ecommerce data with your email, you're falling behind your peers and leaving money on the table.

Automated messages allow you to maintain a higher cadence with content tailored to the recipient's interests and behavior. You stay on your subscriber's radar without a steady stream of irrelevant messages.

Augment your basic broadcast email program with automated messages that trigger when they match a specific behavior. These include leaving an order in a shopping cart, buying a product that qualifies for a replenishment program or crossing a bill-reminder threshold.

Example: A barbecue grill company put its ecommerce data to work by creating a pellet-replenishment program for buyers of its high-end barbecue grills, which run on wood pellets.

Adding 10 or 20 automated messages does take time to create and test up front, but once you launch them, they run in the background, needing just maintenance from time to time and an occasional refresh. You also can start small and build on your success. (Read more: “7 Tactics to Generate More Content for Automated Emails.”)

4) Broaden the scope of your email content.

Even your best subscribers obviously aren't in the market to buy from every email. So, branch out from the usual discounts and other sales-driven promos with content-driven emails that will keep their attention between campaigns.

These "white space" emails offer some respite between offer-driven messages without decreasing cadence or inbox visibility. They aren't placeholders, though. They're your opportunity to stay in touch with your customers and to surprise and delight them with high-value content.

White-space emails can explain how to buy or use products (increases post-purchase satisfaction), tell stories about your products or employees (appeals to your fan base) or invite them to join you in your social circles or user forum.

5) Provide alternatives to unsubscribing.

Although it’s critical to make it simple and easy for subscribers to opt out, you also want to provide multiple alternatives to stay opted in.

Create different versions of your preference center that are designed specifically for each common goal that your subscribers are looking to achieve, including unsubscribe, change email address and reduce frequency or revise preferences. Then add specific links in your emails pointing to these pages with alternatives, including:

  • Update email address
  • Reduce frequency
  • Opt out of some but not all of your mailings
  • Pause ("snooze") emails for a period of time
  • Revise profile and interests
  • Add or change channel preferences including direct mail, social media or SMS

These five approaches should help you reduce list churn and, more importantly, drive stronger customer engagement.

For more on minimizing unsubscribes, check out my "Do You Have an Unsubscribe Problem?" video:

Related Resources:

1) Video: “Transitioning from a Single Welcome Message to an Onboarding Program

2) Blog: “21 Preference Center Mistakes and How to Fix Them

3) Ebook: “15 Post-Purchase Emails That Build Loyalty and Drive Revenue

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