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How To Use Email To Alienate Your Users

Spam! Monty Python may love it1, but the rest of us are not so convinced. But what is spam? Are you spamming users without realizing it? And is there any place in the world for email marketing?

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with email. Its one of those necessary evils. Nowhere is our relationship with email more confused than when it comes to spam.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link2

For a start, spam is hard to define. Google defines it as:

Sending the same message indiscriminately to (large numbers of recipients) on the Internet.

But what does that actually mean? The truth is, what one person considers acceptable, another could hate with a loathing.

Without a clear definition of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, it becomes easy for email marketing to alienate users, rather than win them over.

Should we, therefore, give up on email as a marketing tool entirely? Absolutely not.

The Benefits Of Email Marketing Link

Done right, email marketing can be a wonderful tool, not just for you but for your subscribers, too.

Email marketing does not all have to be about pushing readers into completing a call to action (although it is very effective at that). It is also about keeping your brand in their mind so that when they do need your services, they will think of you and not your competitors.

Email communication has the potential to be a great way to build a lasting relationship. It’s a chance for a more personal level of interaction than a website normally provides. You can ask questions, encourage discussion and gather feedback. Good email marketing is a dialogue rather than a monologue.

Good email marketing doesn’t just benefit the sender. It should also provide real benefit to the reader, too. It should help them solve problems, keep them informed and provide tangible value. After all, that is what they expected when they signed up.

The problem is that often subscribers do not make a conscious decision to sign up, and they don’t really want the emails in the first place.

“Why Am I Getting This Email?” Link

Notice that I am presuming that some level of consent has been given by subscribers. I hope you know better than to email people unsolicited.

That said, the term “unsolicited” can be interpreted in many ways, and you may have strayed into a gray area without even realizing it.

First, let me be clear: buying an email list gathered by a third party is, in my opinion (and I suspect the opinion of those on the list), unsolicited email. If you don’t want to alienate people, don’t go down this path.

Secondly, just because someone has signed up to your service doesn’t mean they have agreed to receive email from you.

This is an important distinction. As part of the sign-up process, you may have indicated that you will email them, or you may have even provided an option for them to opt out. However, if the user didn’t spot this, then you will still alienate them, despite being entirely within your rights. The email is still unsolicited in their eyes.

I have no memory of agreeing to an email subscription when I bought a Stardock app, but I still regularly receive email from the company.

Notifications, which have become increasingly popular, are another example of this gray area.

“I Don’t Want To Be Notified” Link

On the face of it, notification emails seem innocent enough. It makes sense that if a friend signs up for the same service as I have, I would want to know. Equally, if someone comments on something I have done, then being informed of that via email would be useful.

Unfortunately, these emails have increasingly had little to do with helping the user and everything to do with pushing them to re-engage.

When someone signs up for your website, service or app, remember that if you wish to send them notifications, then you need to make this transparent and allow them the opportunity to opt out.

How you handle the addition of notification emails at a later date is also important. Recently, Twitter started emailing people with a summary of their Twitter stream. I imagine Twitter thought this to be a useful tool that would encourage users to participate more. Instead, all it did was alienate them.

Twitter started sending out notification emails without specifically asking people to opt in. This alienated many users.

Many people had old Twitter accounts they no longer used and suddenly found themselves getting unsolicited email from Twitter. To make matters worse, unsubscribing proved to be extremely difficult.

“I Just Want To Unsubscribe” Link

Enabling users to unsubscribe from email updates should go without saying. Not offering this option means that users will mark your email as spam, and that could ultimately get your emails permanently banned.

However, just because an email has an unsubscribe option doesn’t mean it won’t alienate users. Take the Twitter example again. You had an option to unsubscribe from its emails but only once you had logged into the service. If you are receiving email notifications for a defunct account, chances are you cannot remember your log-in details.

I would love to unsubscribe from Twitter’s notification digests, but I cannot because I don’t know my log-in details.

Unsubscribing should be as easy as clicking a link. Anything else, and you risk annoying the recipient even more.

Of course, what you really want is for users not to unsubscribe in the first place. A good way to avoid this problem is to stay on topic.

“This Isn’t What I Signed Up For” Link

When people do subscribe intentionally, they do so with certain expectations. Meeting those expectations is important if you do not wish to alienate them.

Keep a consistent tone across all of the digital channels through which you communicate. If your website strikes a formal, conservative tone, while your email is much more conversational, the contrast will unsettle users. The “story” and “character” need to be consistent. Social media, email and your website should all speak in a single voice and with a consistent message.

People have expectations not just about how you speak to them, but about what content you deliver.

For example, people who sign up for my newsletter expect the latest Web design-related news. That is what I told them they would get, and that is what I have to deliver. If I start pushing my Web design services instead, they are going to feel lied to, and I would alienate them.

Remember, it is rare that a user will subscribe to email updates purely to be sold to. They almost certainly have other expectations. Just receiving sales pitches holds little value to them.

Users rarely want email subscriptions to be nothing more than endless sales pitches.

In many ways, a subscription to your mailing list is a contract. The user entrusts you with their personal contact details, in return for something of value. They will tolerate some degree of departure from that topic to hear your sales message, but it is easy to take things too far.

What they will not tolerate is continually being pressured into following the same call to action.

Even if a user has signed up to, say, a charity newsletter, that newsletter should consist of more than constant appeals for donations. The emails also need to share success stories, educate the audience and provide some sense of value.

The RSPCA animal charity’s newsletter is a good mixture of appeals and informational content.

Providing value is so important not only because it will keep the audience engaged, but because it shows you are putting the subscriber’s needs ahead of your own.

“You Obviously Don’t Care About Me” Link

Too many mailing-list owners are so busy pushing their agenda and maximizing click-throughs and conversions that they show little interest in subscribers.

Their emails are read for what they are, mass broadcasts. I work long and hard to make the emails I send out each week sound personal, as if I were writing to just one person.

To keep our subscribers, we need to treat them as people and not as open rates or click-through statistics.

This can manifest itself in two ways. First, our emails need to avoid marketing jargon and instead read like any other personal email. The writing style of your average marketing email is fascinating; you would never write like that if you were writing to just one person.

Marketing copy and poor personalization really can make a subscriber feel completely unappreciated.

Secondly, email is supposed to be a two-way medium, and we need to treat our marketing emails in that way. This means allowing users to reply, and not sending emails from addresses like

We should be actively seeking to engage our subscribers in discussion. We should ask their opinion, encourage comments and post the occasional poll. By doing so, we demonstrate that they are more than an email address to us.

This, of course, all depends on whether they can read our email in the first place.

“This Is Impossible To Read” Link

In their enthusiasm to increase email conversion rates, many mailing-list owners resort to ever more elaborate email designs. Unfortunately, this all too often leads to unreadable emails that send recipients instantly to the “Unsubscribe” (or, worse, the “Spam”) button.

Unlike many Web designers, I see nothing wrong with HTML email. It does statistically generate a higher conversion rate, and that cannot be ignored. However, HTML emails do take work to get right, and they need to be tested thoroughly.

To make matters more complicated, it is now vital to consider mobile devices. A huge percentage of users now access their email on mobile devices, and the email clients on these devices don’t display HTML email particularly well.

Too many HTML emails are not tested on mobile devices and, consequently, are unreadable.

Fortunately, you can make HTML email responsive, and companies such as MailChimp14 even provide tools to do so with no programming knowledge required.

Of course, if all else fails, a plain-text version should be available to those subscribers who want it.

“I Just Want Some Respect” Link

Ultimately, the secret to not alienating subscribers is simple: treat them with respect.

You can’t go far wrong if you follow the old adage, “Treat others as you would have them treat you.” If you hate being signed up for stuff without your permission, being constantly sold to, and not being able to easily unsubscribe, then others likely feel the same way about your content.

No matter how important you feel your emails are, they are probably like any others to your subscribers.


Footnotes Link

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Paul Boag is the author of The User Experience Revolution and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Joakim Hedlund

    February 11, 2013 1:20 pm

    Great read!

    Though, using Twitter as an example for required logins for unsubscribing is unfair; even in your screenshot you are clearly not logged in when visiting the unsubcribe-page. ;-)

    • 2

      That was my point. I didn’t know my login details and so couldn’t stop the emails. Without logging in I couldn’t unsubscribe.

      • 3

        I think you must’ve missed something; it clearly says you unsubscribed (without logging in) :-P
        I drew a circle on top of your screenshot:

        The only login details you need to unsubscribe from Twitter emails are your credentials for Gmail/Outlook/whatever mailbox you use.

    • 4

      I was glad to see Twitter called out even though it is a large and popular service. I know my login details and have still been unable to figure out how to stop receiving emails whenever someone I’m following makes a re-tweet of someone *they* are following’s content.

  2. 5

    “Unsubscribing should be as easy as clicking a link” <— THIS!

  3. 6

    I gave up RDIO free trial after just 3 days because they sent me ONE MAIL PER DAY with the usual useless social b***s*** (“discover what your friends are listening”, “create your profile”, “share your playlist” etc).
    A good example of what NOT to do.

    • 7

      Very good comment and one that EVERYONE that sends emails to users should read!

    • 8

      I quit using RDIO for the exact same reason. Silly spammers.

    • 9

      Worse than that: I tried to send them an e-mail, and guess what? the link “Email Us” in their web site leads to a page where… you have to sign in in order to send an e-mail!
      ah! ah!

  4. 10

    Little things infuriate me more than unsolicited emails. Companies that think that because I sent them a compliment/complaint that it gives them a right or somehow qualifies as me giving expressed permission to add me to some solicitation list is nothing less than aggravating.

    It shows a complete lack of respect and that the company sees you as little more than another opportunity to make a buck at your own inconvenience. To this day, there are a handful of companies (some of which I liked) that I have not done another cent’s worth of business with because they felt the need to harass me with email campaigns.

    You either give me the option to knowingly opt in, or you give me a 1 time, across the board, no questions asked ability to opt out (and have it stick), but either way, you DO NOT ADD ME without my permission. It’s like taking control over someone’s mouse on a website. You simply don’t do it. Users should remain in control of their experience, and an email marketing campaign is just a different type of experience. Sending someone email without their consent is akin to hijacking their computer and taking them to a different website (or popping up windows on them).

    • 11

      Just to be a devils advocate, surely a company’s goal is to make as much money out of every single opportunity?

  5. 12

    When signing up for an account on websites, sites that have the “Subscribe to an e-mail” button unchecked as default shows me that they are thinking about the whole e-mail process and are okay with people who do not want an e-mail.

  6. 13

    I agree with almost everything in this article. Many businesses are using email marketing to bully their way into personal emails. This year, I started migrating my personal email away from Google and realized how many e-Newsletters I would receive daily that were unsolicited.

    Personally, I think email marketing should be simple. Generally, marketing should allow users to opt in (only send emails to all users if it is an emergency situation), read short and to the point content, unsubscribe or change their email address, and receive minimum emails (preferably once a week).

  7. 14

    Paul, I like the way your subscription is setup on your site. Did you play with an API to get that integrated or is your signup form part of a service you use?

    • 15

      Not really. It was just a mailchimp form. I added their code to my site and the job was done.

  8. 16

    I recently signed up for a website that sells second hand children’s clothing. I ordered some items on the 1st, and got my items on the 8th. In those 8 days I received three emails from them, one saying it was time to buy my child the next size up. I commented on their facebook that three emails in eight days was too many, and we hadn’t even had time to wear the clothes we just got, let alone need the next size – Rather than take that as an opportunity to rethink their mailing campaign, they just told me how to unsubscribe.

    I still want their coupons, just not 3 emails a week! I still want to know about their sales, just not be told to buy more clothes the day after. There is a happy medium between NO email and spam. They aren’t interested in finding it I guess.

    (And yes, I have to login to unsubscribe.)

    • 17

      Unrelated, but when I’m typing in your comment form and hit TAB to try to get to the Submit button, it takes me to your home page instead. That’s a major fail.

  9. 19

    Great read and interesting points. I feel like this post has taken all my personal concerns about e-mail I get from companies and products I’ve signed up for.

  10. 20

    Didn’t get chance to read all this article but absolutely HATE it when you can’t unsubscribe without logging in. Trip Advisor wouldn’t let me do it, I had to reset my password and log in to ‘update my e-mail settings.’ Not cool!

    Unsubscribe should always be just one click of a link, and maybe a confirmation click too.

    • 21

      Worse is when they do that and the password reset doesn’t work. You’re stuck getting the emails forever. Just what they want.

  11. 22

    Good read.

    I like the point: ‘just because you sneakily got permission to send your users something by making your subscribe box default to ticked and tiny, hiding in the corner, it doesn’t mean they’re gonna like it’…

    I say: Be open and honest. People don’t like being tricked.

  12. 23

    Getting emails unrelated to what you opted in for is such a key point. I see this way too often and many of my own clients are big-time offenders, contrary to my advice. There is this great fear that, given the option, people will not opt in to receive emails about sales and offers, and I don’t think this is entirely true. If people like your products or services they will want to receive news about them, provided you don’t then inundate them.

    I’ve been working with responsive emails for a little while now, and they are very finicky to say the least. One of the biggest issues I have come across is the gmail app on android, has anyone had any experience with this?

  13. 24

    Thank you for the post Paul. Very useful. Nothing impossible, just a little bit brains and your message to users will be perfect!

  14. 25

    Getting e-mails irrelevant to what you decided in for is such a key factor. I see this way too often and many of my own customers are big-time violators, in contrast to my guidance. There is this excellent worry that, given the choice, individuals will not opt in to get e-mails about revenue and provides, and I do not think this is entirely real. If individuals like your goods and solutions they will want to get information about them, offered you do not then inundate them.

    I’ve been dealing with sensitive e-mails for a little while now, and they are very picky to say the least. One of the greatest problems I have come across is the googlemail app on android operating system, has anyone had any encounter with this?

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  15. 26

    Thanks for mentioning twitter! Even though they’re trying really hard, they’re no match to LinkedIn, which notifies you each time someone scrolls their mouse in one of the groups you’ve joined. And as far as I know, you have to unsubscribe from each group’s newsletter individually. As soon as you join a new group, you either head straight away to email settings, or you can expect a new mail in the morning. I tried to look for some global group settings once or twice, but it’s well hidden, if it’s even there. Ultimately, they made pretty sure I won’t ever join a group again.

  16. 27

    Funny thing… The twitter notification mail brought me to this article… Campaign Monitor tweeted the article.

  17. 28

    Sebastian Green

    February 15, 2013 3:51 pm

    A lot of people sign up for a service, or purchase something and fail to read the small print. It clearly says that they may receive some marketing emails.

    Some may argue that the company should make it opt in, or clearer for the user to understand, but at the same time surly the user is able to read? They should read.

    Users in general are far to quick to click the ‘Next’ or ‘Purchase’ button without reading all the instructions/information and they then get annoyed at the company for something which was clearly stated, yet the customer was too lazy to read it.

    It works both ways. Companies need to be transparent but there is only so much they can do.

  18. 30

    It’s bad enough when they leave the “opt in” box checked. What’s worse is when they send you emails after you make a point of clicking to turn it off.

  19. 31

    Its a very nice…


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