Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Important lesson for newsletter owners

The Popular Science website which I run has a newsletter. You know the sort of thing - you sign up with your email address and every now and then an email update pops into your inbox.

Until recently I ran this manually. It was a huge hassle, and the straw that broke the camel's back was when I switched email providers and the new one wouldn't let me send emails to large numbers of people. So I switched to a mailing service. (I had resisted this before for one reason - money - but it was well worth it.) On the recommendation of a couple of friends I chose MailChimp - and as I've documented elsewhere, it's really great.

This has made sending out newsletters painless, except for one new hazard. They're very fussy about people opting out of the emails. Their software flags up how many people unsubscribe, and if it makes 1% of your list, they ask you why. It also flags up anyone who complains that your email is spam. Apparently they are required to investigate if by US authorities if more than 1% unsubscribe. This seems pathetically low, especially with a small list. It only takes 11 people to unsubscribe and I trigger an investigation as I did with the last mailing. That's not a lot of people. This has made me rather nervous when I send out a newsletter.

So is the lesson 'Don't do it?' No. I've omitted one extra fact. I quite often have competitions on the website, when a publisher or the Royal Society generously donate books to give as prizes. For the last couple of years, I tended to make signing up for the newsletter the way to enter the competition. I know a fair number of those who subsequently sign up just do so for the competition entry, but some might read the newsletter and find it interesting, so it seemed worthwhile. And when I was running the list manually, it was. But now it's a big problem.

The trouble is, competition enterers will typically unsubscribe fairly soon after, often when the next newsletter arrives. So they artificially boost that percentage of unsubscribers. I haven't run this sort of competition since last summer, and I think I have weeded many of the compers out, but there are still some in there. The newsletter I just sent out has already had three unsubscribes, one with a complaint as spam, clearly from a competition entering person who totally forgot they had signed up. I want to email them and say YOU'RE AN IDIOT! You signed up for this - it's the only way to get it. But I can't help but think it's going to make things worse rather than better.

So if you run a newsletter, don't run a competition which is entered by signing up for the newsletter. It'll come back to bite you. I'm just amazed that the big companies who do this all the time don't have problems.


  1. Your timing is impeccable, Brian. I read this just after reading our CurvingRoad newsletter which we sent out by ourselves and have now put on our site. I was thinking about whether we want to out-source this -- and we don't run competitions -- now you've given me food for thought. Thanks.

  2. I guess at the root of it is data protection legislation. A bit like when a big organisation (like the one I work for) has "table of contents" alerts and registrants for free content. If you send these people too much irrelevant material, they "unsubscribe" and then they are lost forever. It is a pity that one cannot "unsubscribe" in a granular fashion.

    But, at the root of it all is the law- one might say part of the plethora of "jobsworth laws" we all have to cope with these days.

  3. I remember reading a warning somewhere (some years back) not to use 'unsubscribe' as some unscrupulous spam-senders simply use it as confirmation that your email address is still valid and start sending you more! Whether this is true or not, I tend not to unsubscribe, I simply set up a message rule that sends the unwanted emails straight to the 'deleted items' folder. That solves my problem, but doesn't get rid of unwarrented email traffic - don't know what the answer is?!

  4. Helen - this is true of spam, but unsubscribe is fine with any legitimate source.

    Maxine - I can see why too many unsubscribes could be considered suspicious, I just think 1% is a very low threshold, particularly for a relatively small list. I would have thought something like 5% would be more realistic.