Ask the Email Expert: What Unsubscribes Teach Us about Data Strategy
To help marketers make the most of their email marketing campaigns, we created the “Ask an Email Expert” series where we sat down with Zeta’s email experts to get their time-proven tips and tricks on how to create engaging, revenue-producing campaigns. In this edition, we speak with Donna Morton, Vice President, Strategic Consulting, to learn more about why unsubscribes create holes in data-backed marketing strategies.
“Waste not, want not” is far from an outdated expression. In terms of email marketing and data strategy, the adage applies every day. Using every bit of information can help us make deeper and more enduring connections with prospects and customers who are inundated with emails and barraged with content every day.
What do unsubscribes and bounced emails have to do with this? Well, waste not, want not. Where bounced emails and unsubscribes can be considered signs of a weak email marketing strategy, they can also be transformed into a great learning opportunity. Let’s explore what bounced and unsubscribed emails can teach us about how to evolve our data strategy.
Basic lessons from the bounce
On our way to dig into our unsubscribe data, we invariably notice bounce rates. This information can bolster what we learn from unsubscribes and help clean up our list. A cleaner, better-targeted email list may curb our unsubscribes. What else can we learn from the humble bounce rate metric?
For the uninitiated: Email bounces can be categorized as “hard” or “soft.” Soft bounces happen when an email finds the email address correct, but something prevents the delivery. It can be a server issue on the recipient’s end, an inbox that is at capacity, or some other glitch in the matrix. The good thing about soft bounces is that a re-send at a later time usually leads to a successful delivery. Soft bounce rates should ideally remain under 1% of delivered. If you see it going higher, it may warrant further investigation into whether or not there is an issue with a specific domain.
Hard bounces, on the other hand, have no hope of a future read at all. They’re undeliverable either because the email address has ceased to exist (as happens when people leave jobs), or the company has changed its domain or stopped its operations. Like soft bounces, hard bounces should remain under 1% of total delivered. Higher rates could indicate quality issues with your email list and could jeopardize reputation. Email hygiene and cleansing are important to avoid deliverability challenges. Hard bounces should immediately be added to a suppression file or removed from your list.
Deeper learnings from unsubscribes
List members who take the time to opt out are truly our greatest teachers as long as we’re paying close attention and don’t waste the learnings. To build even more knowledge into your data strategy, be sure to customize your email unsubscribe form. Many prospective customers really didn’t mind joining your email list to get that lead magnet or discount, but if they consider your email cadence to be too frequent (or aggressive or irrelevant), they’ll want out. Many times, however, things aren’t so black and white. Some prospects will be happy with the option of “opting down,” or controlling the frequency, amount, or type of emails they receive from your organization.
The issue could be as simple as your onboarding approach for new subscribers. Nearly every organization struggles with this. It’s a game of trial and error. It’s worth developing a cadence and content strategy that might feel more like a healthy relationship build (slow and boundaried, with lots of room for growth) rather than a breakneck, sales-driven haranguing that starts from the first day of signup.
Everything is an opportunity to learn if you stay attuned and listen deeply to your audience. Over time, your prospect list will even tell important stories. Who converted from a prospect to a customer, and why? On the other end of the spectrum, when a prospect buys something and then later unsubscribes, that’s true churn. Why did that happen? That’s a loss type that deserves deep exploration and insight gathering.
Truly, the worst feedback is no feedback. Getting an unsubscribe or some other signal of displeasure is far better than realizing your email is going into an abandoned inbox that’s being used as a spam trap. When someone unsubscribes, they’re at least willing to interact. You stand a chance to learn why they want to disengage. Were your emails too frequent? Were they not what the target expected when they initially signed up? Are you targeting the right customers? Maybe your content or promotions simply don’t resonate with your target audience. If you want to know, automate ways to ask! Then, take the time to adjust your strategy based on this data.
While it’s normal to get a few opt-outs per send, getting too many unsubscribes is cause for healthy curiosity about your operational decisions too. Did you get a spike in unsubscribes after a certain campaign? Did you enact a change that isn’t going over well? Did you add a new list to your existing list? It’s useful to know your baseline unsubscribe rate so that a significant spike does not go unnoticed.
Remember, too, that letting unengaged subscribers go is not always bad, and is far better than being reported as spam. After some healthy self reflection on what can be improved, turn your attention to who is NOT unsubscribing. You may even want to tune into your die hard subscribers and regularly express your gratitude and invite their feedback as you seek to evolve your email marketing strategy. This is a good way to “clone” your best customers by learning how to attract and retain more of them over time.
Extra Credit: Governance is a good word
Unsubscribes are a source of valuable, direct feedback from your target audience that keep on teaching us. Using this information to develop and maintain good data hygiene is not a one-time event. Governance is a good word because it evolves as more information emerges. Deciding in advance, for example, that a list of prospects who “opt down” instead of opting out will receive a certain outreach sequence at a particular cadence is sure to yield great data that can take your business to the next level. Furthermore, sometimes customers like your brand but don’t find relevance in your emails. Testing subject lines and more targeted content across smaller segments can improve engagement, therefore reducing unsubscribes. In the end, like any well-oiled machine, proper ongoing maintenance is the key to getting the most value out of your investment.
Let’s keep adding to this list together.
Would you like to continue the conversation about how to reduce unsubscribes and improve your email marketing strategy? Get in touch.