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Don’t Annoy Subscribers -- Until They Ask You To

  |  May 17, 2002   |  Comments

Best Practices vs. Screw the Rules: I’ll listen to my subscribers.

In the world of email marketing, sometimes doing the right thing is easy. I like easy. I can do easy. If someone tells us she wants to unsubscribe from one of our newsletters, we do it. No questions asked. Simple, right? I mean it’s just common sense -- if someone doesn’t want email, we simply don’t send it to him anymore. When the difference between right and wrong is clear and the right action to take is relatively painless, giddyup, I’m there.

But it’s not all just a walk in the park. At certain times, doing the right thing is hard. Converting a list from single opt-in to double opt-in would be very hard and result in a large loss of subscribers. But many of us would still say it’s the right thing to do, arguing that improved list quality and reduction in spam complaints are worth the price of admission alone.

Then there are the gray areas, those wonderful things not so clearly right or wrong, and usually neither easy nor hard to do. They lie somewhere in the middle. When you’ve been in the business a little while, you develop a gut instinct about these things. My judgment is as subjective as anyone else’s. But because I work closely with newsletters all day, every day, I tend to trust myself -- believing for the most part I can tell wrong from right and eke out a course in the grayest of gray areas. Well, let me tell you: Don’t get too cocky; you, too, can be wrong. I sure was. I’m going to tell you a story about how I was trying to do the right thing and ended up ticking some people off royally.

Want Our Newsletters? Take Our Marketing

First, some background. INT Media Group, the parent of ClickZ and internet.com, publishes about 200 text and HTML newsletters. Our newsletters are double opt-in and, for the most part, free (we do have a few paid newsletters). To support the free editorial content we deliver to readers, we run ads in our newsletters and deliver information to our subscribers about our own premium products (seminars, paid newsletters, etc.).

It’s a pretty simple model, and, no, we don’t have versions without ads or the product information. If you want our newsletters, great. They come with advertising and the occasional marketing mailing. If you don’t want to hear about our products from time to time, then we won’t be able to send you the newsletter. We think this is a great deal -- and most of our readers do, too. We have a low unsubscribe rate and an inbox full of emails from people who opted to stay on the list when told of our all-or-nothing deal (of course, we fully describe this process in our privacy policy).

The Problem: Duplication

Simple enough, right? For all of you who just agreed, stop reading now! If you haven’t learned yet things are never as simple as they seem on the Internet, you should pack up and go home. :-)

The complexity is the way we’ve set up our software and servers. Many of our newsletter subscriber lists are islands unto themselves, detached from our other lists. So, if you subscribe to two of our newsletters and we have a informational blast planned for both of them, you’re going to get two mailings.

I know I just invited a couple thousand sales pitches from people whose systems can do it better. Believe me, we’ve looked into it. A number of packages solve this problem, including our own, if it were set up differently. For the sake of this story, let’s just assume we need to stick with what we have for now (but rest assured, we’re researching a better solution). Given the current set of circumstances -- if you’re subscribed to two lists, you won’t be deduped, but get two blasts -- what are we to do?

We could just send the blast out to both lists individually, without deduping. But that doesn’t seem right. Obviously, sending a user the product information twice isn’t twice as effective as sending it one time (though it’s definitely twice as annoying). Or we could attempt to dedupe the lists manually -- export the lists, merge/purge them, and send the blast out to the merged list. If you’re like me (here’s the no-brainer), you dedupe the list, don’t annoy your users, do the right thing, and only reach each customer one time.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Being the upstanding type of company we are, we went about making this happen. Whenever we had an informational mailing to send to our lists, we took all the target newsletter lists and merged them into one big list, deduping in the process. We sent the mailing to the resulting "mama" list.

As you may know (if not, you probably should), when sending email to a list you need to specify the "from" address in addition to the subject line. When the recipient receives the message in her inbox, she will see the sender you specify. For those of you receiving this column as a newsletter, you can see the "from" line is either ClickZ Today, ClickZ Email Marketing, or ClickZ Weekly, depending on your subscription.

Therein lies the problem. People are used to receiving email from those they know. Most of us intuitively know the sender for the various newsletters we subscribe to. Because we merged a number of newsletters into one master list, we couldn’t use the individual names from each newsletter. As a result, instead of seeing ClickZ Today or WebDeveloper.com in the "from" line, you saw something like "internet.com subscriber." What would your reaction be if you received an email from a sender you didn’t recognize? Spam! Spam! Spam!

You have never heard such cries of bloody murder as when we started sending out mailings after deduping our lists. We were reported to the Federal Trade Commission and SpamCop. We were screamed at, yelled at, called nasty names -- you name it, we heard it.

And over here at HQ? Total shock. We had tried to do the right thing, went the extra mile not to annoy our users. Sure, we could’ve hit everybody twice with the mailing, but we felt we were doing the right thing by reducing the number of pieces of mail they would receive from us. And everybody just missed the point. Believe me, I tried to explain the point to a few people. They weren’t interested. Instead, they screamed, "Stop spamming me!" When people think you’re sending spam, they don’t want to hear, "we’ll take you off the list," or, "no, really, you requested this." They want action -- quickly.

They complained to our mail host and our mail host’s network provider. At this point we knew something was seriously wrong.

Finding a Solution

The first thing we did should be obvious: We stopped the mailings. We simply shut off the spigot and hunkered down while we waited for the dust to settle. Next, we tried to figure out the problem was. It’s tempting to conclude that sending product information to our newsletter subscribers was wrong. That’s not the case. When we went to our readers and explained to them what the mailing was, we received an almost-universal understanding response.

That’s not to say everyone wanted to stay subscribed to our newsletters. But people understood this was not spam/UCE, this was disclosed in our privacy policy, and they were receiving these mailings as part of their newsletter subscription. Many chose to remain subscribed. Some did not, and we parted ways amicably.

The problem, we theorized, was the informational mailings they received from us were not clearly identified as part of their newsletter subscription. People remembered signing up for their ClickZ newsletter, for example, but didn’t remember signing up for any internet.com informational mailings. When they received these mailings, they said -- no, screamed -- "I never signed up for this list, stop sending the spam!"

Clearly, if we could send these mailings more solidly tied to the newsletter a user subscribed to, we would take a major step toward resolving the issue. The easiest way to do this was to send informational mailings straight out to the newsletter lists. But, as mentioned above, this would be hitting subscribers multiple times if they subscribed to the multiple newsletters we were mailing to. Perhaps the side effect would be less offensive than sending out a message that wasn’t tied to a newsletter?

We decided to test our theory and sent out some mailings clearly identified with the newsletter in the sender line. A simple one-to-one relationship. Each newsletter got one mailing. We chose a small group of newsletters first, with what we felt would be minimal duplication across lists. We braced ourselves for the possibility of complaints coming in saying, "Why did you send this email twice?"

A Sigh of Relief

We were delighted to see a radical drop in the complaint level for our test message -- lower than anything we’d seen while trying to dedupe our lists. We slowly built back up to our normal level of mailing. Complaints have remained exceedingly low. We make an effort before any mailing to make sure we’re not hitting lists with a high chance of overlap (e.g., we try not to hit more than one Web developer list on a given day, because there may be overlap among those lists). Granted, from time to time we do get a complaint from a user who is subscribed to several of our lists and is unhappy about receiving the email several times. But overall, people seem to understand because the "from" line indicates their newsletter of choice; the mailing is part of a pre-existing relationship with our newsletter’s reader. Not spamming is important. Is avoiding the appearance of spamming equally important?

I would have never guessed it. In this case, doing the "right thing" was wrong. Our readers were much more concerned about their privacy being protected and mailings coming from trusted parties than they were about receiving the same mailing more than once. Despite the fact I knew all these mailings came from internet.com and were part of a pre-existing and defined relationship, our readers weren’t getting the message. And though I knew duplication across lists was possible, it turned out to be minimal and of little importance (actually, of no importance to the vast majority of subscribers, who receive only one of our newsletters).

Therein lies the moral of the story. Our readers let us know what they wanted. They let us know how to do right by them. My gut feeling about what to do and trying to do the right thing? It didn’t reflect our readers’ needs. Listen to your readers. And keep trying to do the right thing -- until you readers tell you not to. :-)

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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