My column for MediaPost this month is called “Take Unsubscribes Personally.” Very often we hear that following best practices is, well, a best practice. But doing what everyone else thinks is suitable only puts you in the middle of the bell curve. Sometimes we need to put in a little extra effort to be remarkable. And by remarkable, I mean better than our competitors. How you regard your unsubscribe requests is such an example. More than any other metric, each time you see activity in unsubscribes is a chance for you to learn something about your email program, and improve it.

Take Unsubscribes Personally
by Mike May
Published on 12.15.10 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

Of all the metrics and analytics available to email marketers, none is harder to countenance than the unsubscribe rate. Not coincidentally, it is also the metric most often ignored or at least dismissed by email marketers, in favor of numbers that speak instead to the success of our messages.

On top of being a little uncomfortable to acknowledge, unsubscribes are also easy to rationalize. They are like the C- you got in sociology: it stings a little, but if you ace your other courses you can make Dean’s List this semester.  For most email marketers, unsubscribes constitute a relatively small percentage of a list, and can certainly be marginalized by focusing on the aspects of the email program that drive the business forward.

But relatively is a dangerous word. It means we are rationalizing a failure, instead of learning from it. It’s standard operating procedure to wave off unsubscribes provided the rate remains low (anything under 1% in any metric is easy to ignore) and/or holds steady over time. But standard operating procedure is a lot like a “best practice”: following it puts you right in the middle of the bell curve. Being exceptional (that is, outpacing your competitors) requires extra effort, and a heightened sense of urgency. Every time someone unsubscribes from your list is an opportunity to learn something that most of your competitors are glossing over.

Given the limited resources available to most email marketers, is scrutinizing unsubscribe requests really worth the energy? Prioritization is hard, particularly when deliverability, open rate and click-through seem like much larger levers to pull. Determining whether or not you should prioritize unsubscribes presents a Catch-22. If your email program is strong, you can put it on auto-pilot for a stretch and spend some time working on incremental gains at the margins, like unsubscribes. But if your program is not as strong, your unsubscribes may need attention more urgently — same as every other metric you track. So for many companies, a dedicated unsubscribe study would be extremely valuable, but is never going to climb near the top of the to-do list.

But there are a few ways you can start to acknowledge and even exploit your unsubscribes, that don’t tax your resources too heavily:

1. Run a baseline report. Track how your unsubscribes have trended in the past. The further you can go back, the better. Come up with a baseline unsubscribe percentage that represents where you are currently, but also be cognizant if it is higher or lower than a year or two years ago, so you can see in which direction your organization is headed. For the purpose of the baseline exercise, I recommend you track absolute numbers along with percentages. As your list grows, a small percentage starts to become a significant number — and that number represents actual people who used to be willing to do business with you, but aren’t any longer. Absolute numbers give some perspective.

2. Work unsubscribe data actively into reports. Many organizations measure their email programs with a snapshot of data that includes deliverability, open-rate, click-throughs and (depending on the business) conversion. Unsubscribes should also be at the top line of your regular reporting, so you are summarizing your entire email program, not just the activity that has a positive impact on your business. The email landscape is not going to get any easier, and a metric that shows you — with each message — where you’ve turned off a subscriber is going to be more vital by the week.

3. Build a culture of discovery. Last month, CNBC aired a documentary on the comeback of the Ford Motor Company called “Rebuilding an American Icon.” The show focused on new CEO Alan Mulally, and the impact he has had both on the company’s operations and also its culture. When he arrived, product managers invited to the senior management strategy meetings in “The War Room” would unfailingly report that everything was right on track – the project charts peppering the walls were marked with nothing but green bars. But shortly after Mulally arrived and started to encourage more openness within the company, one executive placed a yellow bar on one of his charts, signaling a problem with his product and opening the floodgates to similar candid reports from other executives. What Mulally did was to create a culture where identifying problems is not an admission of failure, but an act of discovery. Once you start to acknowledge unsubscribes in your regular reporting, the next step is to invite open discussion about them, in a way that is constructive and proactive.

Each unsubscribe request you take personally and research enough to determine the cause sheds some light on the dark recesses of your email program. Better to flush them out into the open now, while they are small and manageable, than to let them grow undetected into a bigger problem.