How to Lose Customers and Alienate Subscribers

Posted by Casey Swanton on

Are you looking for ways to destroy your subscribers’ perception of your email program or even your brand?  Are your preferred performance metrics unsubscribes and spam complaints?  This post outlines some simple and commonly used techniques to help make your email program work against you.  

Before diving in, it should be noted that email is the preferred channel for permission-based brand communications (The 2012 Channel Preference Survey).   As a result, the average email user receives 416 commercial emails per month (The Inbox is a Battlefield), breaking down to approximately 14 marketing messages per day.    With so many messages going in and out of the inbox, it can be hard to make an impression, especially if you are attempting to make a positive one.  Luckily, it’s incredibly simple to make a negative impression.    By following the quick tips below, you can easily decimate the email program you and your company have worked so hard to build.

1. Break Your Promises

No one likes to feel deceived, so make sure that you treat your subscribers poorly from the very start.  During the opt-in process, promise exclusive offers, helpful tips, and important information, even if you know that you won’t ever fulfill those expectations.  You can also leverage the welcome message to reiterate the types of content that you’ll never send.

2. Ask for subscriber preferences that you won’t use

During the subscription process, encourage your subscribers to spend time providing non-essential information that you will never use.  Similarly, create a preference page that allows subscribers to enter interests or demographic information, specify the types of emails they’d like to receive, and how often, then disregard all of it.  In a recent Return Path study, simply requiring subscribers to enter information beyond email, name, zip and birthday during the opt-in process helped drive additional complaints throughout the email program.

3. Personalize every subject line

Now that you have plenty of subscriber information, only use first names and use them in every subject line and preview pane greeting.  This is even more off-putting if a subscriber accidentally misspelled their name or if the name you’re using is completely incorrect due to errors in your database.   According to a recent Return Path study, “personalizing” each and every email will reduce both your inbox placement and read rates.

4.  Be Selfish

As a brand, your needs and goals are far more important than those of your subscribers.  If your email program is completely centered on the marketing agenda of your brand, you’re definitely on the right track to alienate subscribers, contribute to tune-out, and drive complaints and unsubscribes.   Focusing on unsubscribes alone, 25% of subscribers shut the door on future communications because content wasn’t relevant to their needs and interests from the start (The Social Break-Up).

5. Send tons of emails

When in doubt about how often to send, it’s best to throw caution to the wind and blast away.  Subscribers ranked this as their primary irritant with email programs, with 54% unsubscribing from marketing messages because the emails come too frequently (The Social Break-Up).  Make the assumption that your subscribers want to hear from you as much as possible and track spam complaints and unsubscribe rates to confirm that recipients feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume you (and fellow marketers) are sending.  Better yet, don’t track these metrics and just assume you’re doing the right thing. Keep in mind  that these carefully crafted over-sending practices may be hampered by ISPs.  According to Return Path’s recent study, senders who deploy campaigns more than once per week saw a 63% lift in spam folder placement. 

6. Make sure that your special offers are not special

You’ve encouraged subscribers to sign up for exclusive offers, so now is the time to constantly bombard them with a slew of deals that can barely be differentiated from each other.   For added effect, only send offers that are already available on your website.  In addition to training subscribers to only read emails when they need to buy something, you can negate the perception of your program’s importance.

7. Keep content monotonous and boring

If you really want your audience to tune out, be sure to avoid anything interactive, engaging, fun or surprising.   According to The Social Break-Up, 49% of subscribers have unsubscribed due to the fact that content was boring or repetitive.  That said, polls, relevant videos, genuinely helpful tips, top ten lists, humor, or unanticipated rewards should be scratched off your to-do list.  Stick to sending those similar “limited time” offers ad nauseum.  Refer back to #5 for more details.

8. Make it difficult to get anywhere

Do you include simple navigations bars or helpful footer links in your email templates?  Get rid of them.  Strip out any attention grabbing call-to-action buttons and ensure that subscribers are unable to click on your logo or images.  If it’s difficult to click through, impulse clickers will fall by the wayside.  Burying a solitary and discreet hyperlink well below the digital fold should help discourage any clicks. If possible, direct clickers to a landing page that has nothing to do with the content that they’re seeking.

9. Never say die

Laugh in the face of danger and ditch your inactive strategy.  Ignore this great post about identifying inactives and mail to everyone, regardless of how long it has been since you’ve seen signs of life.    While this practice can drive spam complaints, increase your unknown user rate, increase spam trap hits and ruin your deliverability, you may still be able to wring a few dollars from those ancient email addresses and non-responders.   Since many of the major ISPs are now making filtering decisions based on engagement rates, these practices can prevent even engaged subscribers from receiving mail in their inboxes.

10. Make your messages look suspicious

There are several techniques you can use to cast doubt on your emails for both subscribers and ISPs.  Leveraging a combination of these will give you the best odds of being marked as spam.  Try including attachments and use all caps and/or “too good to be true” offers in your subject line.  You can also strip out any recognizable logos and be very inconsistent in the look, functionality and branding of your templates.  Also, be sure to add a healthy dose of urgency and include spelling or grammar mistakes.  One thing to keep in mind is that spammers are getting more sophisticated and some are even leveraging key best practices.  The more confused subscribers are about which mail is legitimate, the better, so avoid learning more about Return Path’s Anti-Phishing and Spoofing solutions which help protect marketers and subscribers from malicious activity.

11. Don’t offer an easy out

If you’ve successfully applied the recommendations above, a respectable percentage of subscribers will be looking for the exit.  Hide your unsubscribe and preference center links within your boilerplate footer copy, making it difficult for them to bow out gracefully by unsubscribing.  If you’re really bold, you can blow off the whole “single page opt-out” requirement and give subscribers an extra (and illegal) hoop to jump through.  Sure, you could get slapped with huge fines for violating CAN-SPAM, but wouldn’t it be worth it to make dissatisfied subscribers suffer a bit longer?

12.  Take forever to remove unsubscribes and complainers

Under CAN-SPAM, you’ve got 10 whole days to remove subscribers who have opted out.  You may as well bide your time and send out a few more emails to subscribers who have clearly (and politely) expressed the desire to be removed from your list.   In addition to annoying recipients, this activity may even drive some additional spam complaints, so really it’s a win win.  While you’re at it, forgo signing up for feedback loops or ignore the data you’re receiving and keep complainers on your send files.  This will give those unhappy subscribers the opportunity to continue marking your messages as spam. 

13. Give your subscribers ways to vocalize

After you’ve insulted the intelligence of your subscribers, bombarded them an overabundance of messages and made them think twice about the integrity of your brand, be sure to promote your social pages.  This will give them an ideal sounding board to spread the word about their experience.

Does any of this sound like a description of your current email program practices? Are you ready for a change? If you would prefer to keep subscribers satisfied and engaged or would like some help reworking a potentially problematic strategy or email program component, please contact us for more information on how we can get your deliverability or subscriber response back on track.


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About Casey Swanton

Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”

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