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Effectively Managing Subscribers -- by Accident

  |  April 19, 2002   |  Comments

It's easy to point fingers at competitors --until you find you're guilty of the same transgressions. At least finding out what the competition's doing wrong is an opportunity for you to get it right.

It's finally happened -- I made my first "accidental discovery." You always hear about groundbreaking discoveries made purely by accident -- from Post-it notes and Velcro to dynamite and cold fusion (OK, no cold fusion yet, but the smart money is on the accident). Now, in my small way, I'm contributing to the global body of knowledge in the small corner of email newsletters and email marketing with my very own accidental discovery.

I was checking out what my competition was doing, subscribing and unsubscribing to various newsletters to see what's out there (as you should all be doing, if you're not). I signed up for this company's update, that company's new product alert -- and then, of course, I turned around and unsubscribed from the self-same lists. In unsubscribing from one list, I was confronted with a ghastly sight: a useless unsubscribe confirmation. The horror!

The beginning of the process was clean enough. This major publisher had a standard "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of its email newsletter. When I clicked it to get off the list, a Web browser came up -- presumably taking me to where I would unsubscribe or, better yet, giving me my "You have successfully unsubscribed" message. It did give me such a message. Surprisingly, it gave me only that message: a completely empty page with a lone, one-line sentence: "You have successfully unsubscribed."

No branding, no banners, no next, no back -- nothing but a big, white page with a pithy message in a 10-point font at the top left of the screen. "Boy," I thought, "these guys don't know what they're doing. I mean really, how could they be so stupid as to not engage their customers when they unsubscribe. After all, we here at..." Well. Wait a minute, what did "we" do? Quickly, I subscribed and unsubscribed from one of our own newsletters -- and sheepishly saw pretty much the same message, on the same blank page, with the same lack of absolutely everything.

Hoping for salvation, I attempted to unsubscribe from another newsletter of ours using email-only interaction. In other words, using the old "Reply to this message with this or that word in the subject line to be removed." Dashed again. I was met with a similar, strikingly unfriendly response: A long, tech-heavy email with headers, paths, and IP addresses that seemed to imply I was no longer on the list.

I have sinned. Not a mortal sin perhaps, but, in the world of email marketing, I've sinned nonetheless. Each and every interaction with customers is an opportunity to engage them, and woe unto she who ignores her readers. At least I was in good company. I checked out a few more newsletters and found a strikingly large number of companies completely lack interaction with their subscribers at many points during the relationship -- beginning, middle, and end.

Having discovered the absence of relationship management in our unsubscribe process, I did a top-to-bottom review of all our customer interactions:

  • Thank-you page. A user sees this page after he fills out your online subscription form. It should thank the user and introduce him to other material you may want your newsletter subscribers to see. Most companies seem to do this pretty well.

  • Confirmation email. A user receives this email after submitting a subscription request. The instructions have to be crystal clear to enhance the confirm rate. It shouldn't be clouded with other offers. Many companies also do this well

  • Welcome-to-our-newsletter email. This email is usually sent when someone has confirmed her subscription. It contains information about how to unsubscribe and where to turn for customer support. This crucial part of customer relationship management can eliminate headaches later. Many companies don't bother to send this.

  • Goodbye email. The user receives this email once he's unsubscribed. If you're not sending this, it's a missed opportunity to solicit feedback or generate interest in other areas. As noted above, most people either send nothing or send something nearly worthless.

Email delivery systems are by and large entirely configurable and deeply customizable. There are settings to manage every part of the process: what the "From" field will say, what the confirmation message will say, and so on. It took a little digging and a lot of help from our mail host, but we were able to get in there and add action-appropriate messages where none had previously been. In a few cases where existing messages did exist, we were able to enhance their effectiveness.

For instance, when someone unsubscribed from our mailings, she was greeted with a less-than-friendly goodbye email. All our mailings include an unsubscribe address, an address to which you can send an email and be removed from the list. Our mail delivery server has a goodbye document that is returned to the user when she unsubscribes. The horrifically IP-laden message I mentioned above is generated when no goodbye document has been created.

To fix this, we created a custom goodbye document and uploaded it to all our mail servers. Our primary goal was to find out why people were unsubscribing. People unsubscribe every day, but everyone has his own reason for leaving a newsletter. Some newsletters have more unsubscribes than others. We want to know why. So, we included the following:

  • A concise, clean thank-you message

  • A prominent "mailto" link soliciting feedback on the reason for unsubscribing

  • A link to resubscribe, in case the user unsubscribed accidentally

  • Links to some of our hottest newsletters

  • Privacy information -- which goes in every newsletter

I can't tell you what a difference it made. OK, I can tell you: a huge difference! The day we changed the message, we saw a huge influx of information from our users. That's not to say there was a backlog. Rather, we simply had not previously invited any interaction upon unsubscribing. Simply putting links to information a user might care about when unsubscribing was enough to call users to action.

To our delight, user after user was taking the time to send us feedback as to why she unsubscribed. This is invaluable information we had been leaving at the door. Users could communicate if they didn't like a newsletter, if there was a technical problem they had with it, and (perhaps the biggest reason of all) if they were trying to change their address but couldn't figure out how to do it. Posthaste, we highlighted the "Change Address" feature for all users. Not only were we making life easier for our subscribers but, as you can imagine, a self-service change-of-address ability greatly reduces our customer service hours.

Remember, we also included links to our most popular newsletters in our goodbye message. That message is significantly lower in the copy. The reason is simple: Don't cloud the intended action. Give users too much, and they'll do nothing. Focus on the one thing you really want them to do.

In a confirmation message, make sure the instructions are clean, clear, and concise -- and front and center. If it's feedback you want, focus on that. Don't throw in the kitchen sink. If we should decide not to continue soliciting feedback as our primary goodbye mission, focusing instead on converting departing subscribers to other newsletters or some other change -- we'll zero in on that. In all cases, we'll pick a clear, single, leading call to action.

Bottom line: Are you taking the time to get what you want out of your readers/subscribers? Every page, every email, every interaction is an opportunity to keep customers, to get feedback, to save money, to make money! Take a look at what you're doing in-house. You'll be glad you did. I am!

Got a question? Think I'm full of it? Let me know -- send me email!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward Grossman Formerly vice president of Web operations for Jupitermedia's internet.com network (ClickZ's parent), Edward Grossman was responsible for newsletter operations and unflappably oversaw the production and distribution of over 200 e-newsletters. He's been an online editor, producer and developer since 1995 on sites including internet.com, WebDeveloper.com, JavaScript.com and Gif.com. Edward's articles on newsletter publishing, Web development and the Internet industry have appeared online and off. Currently he's EVP of Digital Media at CMP Medica.

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