5 Steps to Fighting (and Winning) the Unsubscribe War

Is your email list shrinking instead of growing? Here's why your smaller list might not mean a smaller readership.
June 10, 2014

I’m grateful for every person who feels that spending time with my brand is time well spent. Since 2007, I’ve amassed quite the email list of subscribers to my blog. Again, grateful.

Late last year, my career took a left at Albuquerque. It was all good and definitely something that I enjoy, but it was going to be less about "all business" and more a focus on the business of living. I knew I’d lose subscribers—then again, I hoped I’d gain new ones who were picking up what I was putting down.

In the past month, however, the unsubscribe notices were coming in droves. Did I smell? Did the people who once loved me now hate me? Did I accidentally post a picture of my laundry pile?

The answer turned out to be no, no and still no. I’m going to share with you how to fight the battle that’s quite the opposite of the bulge: It’s the unsubscribe wars that folks are waging on their inboxes.

While it’s unlikely that they’re going to stop anytime soon, I can tell you what I’ve learned so you can figure out where your audience is going and what to do about it. (Hint: They’re not going that far.)

The Rise of Facebook

In 2008, email marketing was king, and Facebook? It only had a mere 100,000,000 users. We still got our news via email, and email marketing was on the rise to becoming the savvy tool it is today. We all loved email—it was sexy and made us feel special.

In 2014, email marketing is just as prevalent as it was six years ago, but many former email enthusiasts are growing collectively more annoyed with their inboxes. Why? Because email follows us everywhere and demands things from us. Like attention. And work. And all the time.

But Facebook? Now that's a different story. While it also follows us everywhere via our smart and not-so-smart phones, it now boasts 1.2 billion users. With email volume staying the same and adoption of Facebook massively on the rise, duplicity is bound to happen.


Statistic: Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide from 3rd quarter 2008 to 1st quarter 2014 (in millions) | Statista


Which is why I went to my audience and asked the blunt question, "Why are you unsubscribing from my blog?"

The most prevalent answer? “You post everything from your emails on Facebook, and I don’t need it in two places.”

Uncovering the Truth

Most people who sign up for my email list know full well what they’re getting into. I could conservatively be described as “edgy,” and I’ve always written off a certain attrition rate to folks realizing what they’d gotten into. Buh-bye, and I’ll even hold the door for you.

But these were my readers, my brand’s heartbeat and life’s blood. Without them, I’m only a crazy lady with a keyboard writing to an empty room. (OK, maybe I’m still a crazy lady, but at least I know I'm not writing to an empty room.)

Once I asked the question, I realized that most of my readers weren’t going anywhere. They had just made the decision to follow me—and probably many of their other favorite blogs and news items—on the site where they spend more time than anywhere else: Facebook.

For quite some time, my Facebook page fans had been rapidly increasing. Before long, my page fans had surpassed my email subscribers. Not only that, but my site traffic was through the roof—Facebook was referring more traffic to my site than both organic search and my email marketing.

Combining this knowledge with what my Facebook community shared with me about why they’d unsubscribed, it was time for me to take notice, embrace what my readers wanted and shift tactics.

What You Can Do

If you find yourself a victim of the unsubscribe wars, you might be as surprised as I was to learn you may not be a victim after all. You might just have an audience that’s shifting how they prefer to consume what you’re serving.

Here's a five-step plan you can use to emerge a victor in the unsubscribe Game of Thrones:

1. Get baseline statistics. Go back six months, one year and two years. Grab stats for your email and RSS subscribers along with your Facebook page followers and monthly site visitors.

2. Identify spikes. If you see a rash of unsubscribe activity in your email list, go back and look at the content around those dates. You could have had an email-heavy week or topics/points of view that sparked an opinion (if so, good for you for having an opinion).

3. Ask your audience. Write a blog post or simply post the question to your company’s Facebook page. Be upfront and honest. Say you’re interested in finding out why people are unsubscribing. Is it content-related, or are folks just changing how they want to get your content? (I had several readers tell me they'd switched to an RSS reader or changed email addresses.)

4. Make it easy for readers to unsubscribe. Review the emails you send out. How easy is it to find the unsubscribe button? If it’s more like an Easter egg hunt, consider changing email marketing providers. You want to make it as simple as possible for your readers to unsubscribe. Yes, you heard me. Let people who don’t want your email in their inboxes go. It’s kind to hold the door for them because they might not be leaving you entirely—they just might be going over to Facebook or LinkedIn or one of the other platforms you're on.

5. Keep an eye on stats. If the number of your email subscribers is declining, keep an eye on your website stats. If you find site visits are also declining, then there’s a double whammy deserving of your attention (and the topic for another column). If traffic is staying within a 10 percent sway higher or lower, then, Sugar, you’re doing just fine.

In a digital marketing economy where everyone seems to want your email address, it’s understandable that we’re beginning to see our inboxes as more foe than friend. But this unsubscribe thing—it’s only a war if you let it become one. Our No. 1 job every day is to take care of our audiences and meet them where they’re at (not try to drag them to where we’d like them to be). Maybe they’re leaving you for Facebook. And maybe they’re leaving you, period (as many will over the years).

With a little sleuthing, you’ll find the ones worth keeping and the ones who want to stick around. And those folks? They’re the ones who'll tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. And that’s the information you need to make your business even better than it is today, email or no email.

Read more articles on social media.

Photos: Thinkstock, Statista