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Why Email Newsletters Are Doomed

I’ve been with email newsletter publisher iContact since December using the same list of approximately 12,000 subscribers. Well, a recent newsletter triggered some AOL unsubscribes in which AOL users find it easier to flag as spam than go through the effort to find an unsubscribe link.

This is the email iContact sent about these AOL users:

    Your account has logged 20 spam complaints from AOL users over the past 15 days, surpassing the acceptable AOL complaint ratio. Due to this level of complaints, we have temporarily put sending on your account on hold.


It is a problem effecting legitimate email, even one Google recognizes in Gmail (Google to Gmail Users: We’ll Unsubscribe You Automatically). I see more and more newsletters begging people to unsubscribe rather than hit the spam button.

iContact had some additional hoops for me to segment my list and invite the AOL users to subscribe again. I just simply asked iContact to close my account. I wasn’t happy about the abrupt shutoff or about past nickel and diming. Guess what? They won’t prorate my month of service. They certainly aren’t providing newsletter service but they still want my money.

Regarding the spam button problem — which is the bigger issue here — it’s not going away. A recent email from a consumer’s food company hit my inbox two days ago with the headline: “How to stop our emails.” The email went through extreme detail about how to unsubscribe and even said if you hit reply we will take you off our list (something I do as well). The email ended with this appeal:

    P.S. Please be aware, “Report Spam” functions offered by some spam blockers WILL NOT unsubscribe you. Since you signed up for our messages (or someone signed you up using your email address), we don’t think that it’s quite fair to call it spamming. Just let us know you want out, and you won’t hear from us again.


I think email newsletters are dying. To be honest, only about 10-15% of my subscribers even open any individual email according to stats. I’ve actually been tracking everyone who has opened my email over the past eight months as well as anyone who clicks on a link to the full article. I’m ditching the rest. As my newsletters only feature a summary of each week’s article followed by a link to the full article on my site, I feel pretty confident that those who have neither opened my email or clicked on my links don’t want my newsletter. Even with HTML turned off, readers who don’t click on my link aren’t really getting any value to my newsletter anyway.

Imagine how many millions of dollars would be saved, not to mention bandwidth, if we just segmented our lists and removed those who aren’t reading our emails. Why pay to send to 12,000 users when there are probably only 4,500 who ever open or read your emails over an eight month period? I know that email newsletter publishers wouldn’t be happy about this. There is money in those inflated numbers. There is also an ego play that prevents many list owners from purging their lists. I see it in the press release world. Company X says they reach 300,000 journalists. Company Y says they reach 500,000 journalists. I saw one company quote xx million journalists. Are there even that many journalists in the English-speaking world? I’ve got a stable of customers who have used these other guys in the past, tried us with our meager numbers of journalists, and stay with us. Why? Numbers don’t matter. It’s about being engaged with readers.

Interestingly, the recent newsletter that triggered all my problems was an apology for not posting the previous week’s PR Fuel. I let people in on a secret: I’m mostly posting to Twitter (http://twitter.com/ereleases) as well as to my blog of the same name as my newsletter: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/

I know of two people who simply won’t let AOL people join their lists or buy from them. I see reasons for this. Some of our most troublesome customer service issues have come from AOL users, including a person who couldn’t upload a document and didn’t know how to browse their hard drive to find said document. But this is too harsh. A lot of good people use AOL for its ease of use, including my wife. Also, a lot of these same issues are hitting Yahoo! Mail and Gmail users. I don’t see banning someone who uses AOL or any free email service as the answer.

Diversifying your communications is the short-term answer. I use Twitter, my blog, postcards, double opt-in autoresponders, and now a new email newsletter provider to reach subscribers, customers, and leads. So far, it’s working.

FYI: I asked iContact’s PR contact by phone and email for feedback on this issue, including my request for a prorated refund. I received no response from the company.

This article is written by Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

16 Responses

  1. Mickie,
    I write blogs, and Op-eds, and generally rant and rave about whatever.
    Years ago, I wrote a CNet article (“Why I Love Spam-aka Mass Marketing Email”)and offered a prognostication about the future, namely, Mass Marketing Email- AKA Spam, wasn’t going away unless and until ISP’s applied metered usage to senders which would forcve marketers to untertake the same judicious screening and evaluation of email lists as Direct Mail lists.
    Guess what?
    Never happened.
    Your problems with IContact, and others, relate directly to the huge and growing-yes, still growing-usage of Mass Marketing Email-aka Spam.
    What marketer in his right mind would not use to the fullest any prospecting program which has virtually zero cost, particularly when fulfilled using his own systems?
    Suspect lists are different rom Prospect lists, are different from Customer lists; each may have a value, at the right time, with the right message.
    The fun is figuring out which.

  2. I think the prorated refund is likely in their terms, and not as big of a deal as your newsletter makes it out to be – However the blame truly should be going to the users who are clicking that the newsletter is spam. THEY are the ones costing your email provider, which in turn is costing you, the significant cost of sending out the newsletter. The true cost to send it is trivial, likely for 12k users hardly even measurable – the cost is responding to complaints.

    EMail as it exists today is flawed in many ways and abused by both senders and recipients flagging items as spam that clearly aren’t spam – Technically today email solutions don’t handle that combination of abuses.

  3. All due respect, but I think you have it all wrong. Email marketing is not dead, you just may not be using the channel correctly.

    If two thirds of your file doesn’t think your content is interesting, that is a segmentation and content strategy challenge, not a channel problem. Declaring the email newsletter dead is like abandoning a restaurant because you don’t like the first thing on the menu. Marketers can provide different types of email content to different types of subscribers. Test a combination of news, promotions, offers, aggregate links, and even summaries of your Twitter conversations. The burden is on marketers to be relevant and interesting.

    Spam is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Doesn’t matter if someone gave you permission or if they are an active customer of your company. If they don’t find your email message valuable, it’s spam to them. And they may click the Report Spam button if they see your uninteresting or no value messages often. For the “other” third of your file, the 4,500 you kept, email marketing is working just great.

    Before you abandon email as a channel, first optimize your program. Perhaps that would have been a better solution for you, too.

    Thanks,

    Stephanie

    Stephanie Miller
    VP, Return Path, the email deliverability leader
    @StephanieSAM

  4. GodSpace says:

    That is one of the reasons we don’t use iContact any longer. Vertical Response has shown to be far more friendly to their customers.

    Even more irking is customers who complain that they didn’t know about the sale/special event/party – something – and they never opened or looked at their email. The same ones who don’t look at physical mail.

    Back to the throw it against wall and see what sticks.

  5. RolandoBarrero says:

    I do, I will, and I’ll continue to click “spam” to unsolicited news letters! I say good riddance to all of you! It is spam, when you make me scroll to the bottom of the news letter, then take me to another page only to ask me to take a survey, to let you know I tired of you and “affiliates” filling up my inbox! “Unsubscribe” should be prominent above the fold! If your scared that too many people will unsubscribe, it’s time to look at your news letter a bit closer while youe account is suspended!
    Rolando Barrero

  6. prfuel says:

    Rolando, The problem is our newsletter is a subscription-run newsletter. It is not unsolicited. You sign up. When ready to leave, you click unsubscribe or hit reply and I unsubscribe you. You are describing unsolicited newsletters, which eReleases doesn’t send.

    Mickie Kennedy
    eReleases

  7. Jules says:

    I thought this was very interesting – so thanks for writing it. As for people who SUBSCRIBED and now complain about the unsubscribing process… let’s take them out back and beat the s**t out of them….

  8. Thank you for this, it’s always interesting to see how a technology is changing. I have a newsletter that has about 50% opening rates and the “openers” are different each time. It’s hard fot me to get real stats because my subscribers tell me they are passing the newsletters onto friends ( who are also emailing me but not subcribing) but because they are inside big firewalled government departments we can’t see that internal fowward.

    I think the high opening rates are because the newsletter is very clearly targetted to the audience. Twitter and blogs sites( and FaceBook etc) are all blocked by government departments in Australia (mostly) as time wasters at work – so newsletters have a real role to play in getting ideas and information to a group of people fairly painlessly.

  9. LI Hertzi says:

    Hi guys, What do you think of Constant Contact? I have set up several clients with designs for this provider, hope I am doing right by them!
    Thanks Li

  10. I also advocate using Vertical Response. Their management and on-line support is terrific. I have yet to encounter a problem that they didn’t fix.

  11. Mickie, thanks for this essay–it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for several years as a producer . . . because I’ve watched my own behaviour change as a subscriber.

    These three comments are submitted in the interest of discussion, and are not intended to teach.

    1: Railing against iContact’s non-proration of a single unit of service is the same thinking process that causes people to click spam instead of unsubscribe. It is the “I want it. I want it all. I want it now. I want it my way.” mentality. We all do it somewhere in our lives. For me, the solution is to try to build natural ease above the fold unsubscribe opportunities into my products. I cannot change people’s behaviour. I am not always successful at predicting behaviour, recognizing it, or developing for it.

    2: Your stats on open rates are incredibly valuable. Thank you. In the early days of eZines what was that, 10 years ago? less? I subscribed to 93. And read them. And got value. And built a business! And recognized there were redundancies, and had less time to read them, and . . . opened 3 gmail accounts to send them to by category. I’ve never read a single one of my archived newsletters. Just don’t have time. Don’t get enough unique value. But haven’t unsubscribed, because, well, it’s not even on my radar.

    3: So I think the death of enewsletters has more to do with our busyness, our learning curve, our success, than it has to do with spam filters. Everything cycles, and I think enewsletters and print newspapers have lost their spark. (Though I do have an idea I think could save the newspaper industry.)

    Thanks so much, Mickie, for opening this discussion.

    W!

  12. Thank you for alerting me to all of this. I’m new to this world of online businesses, but am trying to learn it to promote my book. Just spent 4 days hearing from (self-proclaimed) internet gurus at the Wrold Internet Summit and got a good bit of info (too much to process). They spoke very highly of your services, btw.

    I wonder how long we can have the “internet as cash cow?” The stories are really amazing. The dollar amounts people can make are mind-blowing, and I thought it was interesting that many of these people were not rich before they began, in fact many spoke of having trouble in school. But they are all willing to work smart.

    I’m very small time. I send out my own email (not with any company) to about 250 people who have all given me their names about an event I have monthly. It’s very friendly and harmless with a lot of photos of people having fun and an invitation to join in each month (one or two emails a month only) for about $30. I actually received a notice from AOL (that’s who I’m with) about how you’re not supposed to send out emails about business – that the “rules” say you’re only allowed to send mail to friends to keep in touch – and if I did it again they’d block me.

    I was very nervous and didn’t send one for about 60 days. The last one went through so I hope they forgot about me. One reason I like AOL is that my life is on it. It’s the only address book I have anymore. You know it’s proprietary so I can’t download it into Outlook Express. In fact I can’t do a lot of MS stuff. All my favorite places are here, files of saved emails, etc.

    I’m not sure what consequences they’d take with me, but I’d be screwed if they closed my account. Can they do that? And do they really expect people to only write to friends and family?

    Anyway, I’m glad you told me that they actually do listen when you hit the spam button. I always find that stuff I report in my spam filter, so I thought it was just a fake thing. I didn’t know someone actually listened. I’m glad they do, but I’m sorry this is happening to you by having people abuse it out of laziness. Keep me on your list.

    Debbie Unterman, author
    Talking to My Selves: Learning to Love the Voices in Your Head

  13. Jenn says:

    I have also recently unsubscribed from iContact.

    However I found their customer service to be fairly good, just not the service for me. I now design my own newsletters through Campaign Monitor that gives me much more freedom and control over my designs.

    As for marking as spam – iContact does not have this automatically – but you should add a second unsubscribe at the TOP of your mail, if this is really a problem for you.

    Another suggestion, remind users where they signed up for your service and when.

    Again at the top of the email if you have a problem with being marked spam.

    Although I have much smaller subscriber lists than you state here, I am happy to say that I have avoided a SPAM mark in my 2 years of sending out eNewsletters.

    Also they are not a dead method – but perhaps your content and frequency is not working.

    I must say you do email us very frequently!!

    This is also something you could advise in your initial “welcome email”

    And if you are want to chisel down you subscriber list why not send an email asking people if they want to unsubscribe – do it here, now.

    This works to keep you on target with your audience.(you can then chose to unsubscribe those that don’t even open your email)

    Good luck.

  14. Martha Murphy says:

    Four things to consider:
    1) Some of us read your newsletter only once-in-a-while. Because of the nature of my job, I like to sample a variety of newsletters, but it would take all day to read every issue of all of them. Your summaries and link to your web page are very helpful.
    2) Some organizations have Internet firewalls that automatically decide certain messages are spam and file them accordingly. At home, I receive two different kinds of regular e-mail from the same organization. One kind automatically goes to my inbox, the other to my spam folder. I don’t know why!
    3) Due to the current recession and resulting layoffs, many of us have been forced to take on additional tasks and, as a result, have less time to keep up with outside e-mail and newsletters.
    4) Make that unsubscribe link more prominent!
    5) In paragraph 2, you misspelled “affecting.”
    Best wishes!

  15. prfuel says:

    Thanks Martha. I’m sticking with effecting. http://www.answers.com/effecting

    Best,

    Mickie Kennedy
    eReleases

  16. Sarah says:

    Mickie,

    I completely agree with your analysis. I think email newsletter is dead. Instead of “pushing”, I think the future is in “pull”. What I mean is this, instead of sending newsletter via email, you can just have RSS Newsletters. All your subscribers have to do is to subscribe to your RSS Newsletter feeds.

    So you don’t have to worry about Spam any longer. Besides, there is network clog. You are freeing up a lot of network bandwidth and traffic. This is also good for SEO juice. A search on search on Google can take potential or prospective customers to your newsletter page.

    Take a look at http://www.PopularNewsletters.com and tell us what you think.

    Thanks for your article.

    Sarah

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