Ask HN: Is it rational to be afraid of mailing my list due to unsubscribes risk?

36 points | by semicolonandson 35 days ago

28 comments

  • jacquesm 35 days ago

    Unsubscribes are part and parcel of running a mailing list.

    If you want to reduce them:

    (1) make sure your content is important to the largest fraction of your audience

    (1a) make sure each mailing contains at least something for all of your audience

    (2) don't mail too frequently

    (3) gracefully deal with unsubscribers, confirm that you have unsubscribed them on the page, do not send them more email

    (4) really delete their email addresses, don't keep them around so you can mail them or sell them in the future

    (5) make sure that your sign-up message matches the content of the thing that will be received

    (6) of course, double opt-in every sign up to ensure that it is really the person subscribing and not some joe job.

    (7) there will always be a fraction of your new subscribers that immediately unsubscribe after receiving the first email; this is called 'first contact churn' or some variation on that theme. This is perfectly normal and tends to be much higher than the churn from users longer in your system.

    (8) Your list is as valuable as the engagement with your audience. People that do not engage with your content - whether you mail them or not - might as well not be in your system to begin with.

    • RandomBacon 35 days ago

      > double opt-in every sign up to ensure that it is really the person subscribing and not some joe job.

      Unfortunately many large US businesses still do not do this (or verify email ownership when registering for something). Other people enter their first + last @gmail when signing up for things (I have a common name), but that doesn't mean they have a business relationship with me, so it's legally defined as spam.

      I don't shed a tear when I mark it as spam.

      • freehunter 35 days ago

        I’m in a bit of a battle with Facebook right now (been going on for over a year) where someone has signed up for Facebook with one of my email addresses. I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I opened a support ticket and Facebook pretty much said “there is nothing we can do”. So I spammed the login page until Facebook locked the account. To which they then sent me a forgot password email which I clicked “this isn’t my account” and they again said “sorry about that but there is nothing we can do”.

        At this point I’m fairly confident that the person cannot get into their account that uses my email address, but every few months I get an email that they’re trying to reset their password and I click the “this isn’t me” and Facebook says “sorry... nothing we can do”.

        All because they don’t verify email addresses when someone signs up for an account.

        • Wowfunhappy 35 days ago

          I'm undecided on whether it would have been a good idea, but could you have reset the password (since it's your email), logged in, and deleted the account from there?

          • freehunter 33 days ago

            I tried resetting the password but Facebook does a security challenge and won’t let me through.

            • CodeWriter23 34 days ago

              Unless the 3rd party enabled 2FA

              • Wowfunhappy 34 days ago

                They didn't even verify their email. I'd be extremely surprised if they turned on two factor authentication.

            • tinus_hn 34 days ago

              I’ve turned to canceling their accounts and responding with pretty harsh messages implying the person using my address is a moron who can’t type his own address. It’s not very nice but a lot more successful in getting them to quit entering my address, being nice just results in some half hearted apologies while the behavior continues.

              • sova 35 days ago

                Definitely by design. "Introduce friction to prevent customer support tickets in the future? Ha!"

              • Macha 35 days ago

                Yeah, I have my first name and first initial of my surname on an old Gmail address, have at least 3 separate people who seem to put it in as their own email address

                • eli 35 days ago

                  What US law defines that as spam?

            • snickell 35 days ago

              TL;DR send per episode alerts as per agreed, but include a prominent easy "click here to switch to a monthly episode summary alert" link in the messages, splitting your list into two lists. Now mail without anxiety.

              1) 1% unsubscribe-per-mailing rate really isn't bad or unusual.

              2) I doubt I would want a per episode email, BUT if I did suscribe to episode alerts, I might also be very surprised if they stopped coming. So you probably have a mixed population of core fans who want per-episode alerts and are surprised they're not getting them ~weekly, and a bigger group of casual interest who want to remember to look at your website to see if it stays interesting in the future, but who's ideal email frequency is more like once monthly.

              That's probably ideally two lists, so ideally you need to split them. If you don't split them, I'd keep doing what they signed up for by default.

              3) Keep your simple clear call to action on the web, BUT send messages with a not-next-to-unsubscribe slightly prominent "Hey, you signed up for per-episode alerts, click here if you'd like to be moved to a monthly 'episodes this month' alert instead"

              That way the call to action on the web is kept simple (you know this call to action works, maybe don't mess with that), but people get used to there being an action between "do nothing and be annoyed" and "nuclear unsubscribe". This /might/ cut your per-episode-alert unsubscribe rate in half.

              I would find this to be polite and considerate mailing behavior, and you in turn could feel free to stop worrying about sending your per-episode alerts.... and focus on a clean simple monthly summary message besides.

              • soneil 35 days ago

                This is almost exactly what I was going to write. Don't be afraid to send episode alerts if people clicked a button labelled "episode alerts" and signed up for a mailing list caled "episode alerts". But if you see a value in less-frequent, make that an option.

                Or try to actually track it to see which is working. If you send every 3 episodes, do people watch all three? When you send a mail, do you see more eyeballs on the first, or more eyeballs on the more recent?

                I guess the risk here is that you're getting 33% of the engagement to save 1% churn. Is 1\1000 worth more than 3\990?

              • ufmace 35 days ago

                No, it isn't rational.

                IMO, an email per episode, when they're once a week, is just fine. Yes, your screencast and email notifications aren't for everyone, and that's what the unsubscribe button is for. Don't bother compromising on that in the hopes of winning back subscribers who just aren't really interested. Focus on the ones who do enjoy your content and do want to be notified when new episodes come out. Those are the people most likely to eventually pay something for your content. Those are the people you want to keep happy, not the people who are only tenuously interested at best.

                I predict there will be grumpy people here suggesting a ton of elaborate things to do. IMO, don't bother. If you have a "unsubscribe" link that is easy to see and just works with no hassle, you've already done enough, and are better than 99% of the industry. Trying to set up extra less-frequent lists or things like that is a waste of time better spent on making good content.

                Don't go around thinking like you'll have a "larger list" if you do something like what you've been doing. The opposite is infact true! The people you lose with more frequent emails (we're talking one a week here) were never interested in the first place, and just haven't bothered to actually unsubscribe yet. They may not unsubscribe with the less frequent emails, but they're almost certainly not viewing your content, and will never promote it to their friends. The people who love your content are the ones to worry about keeping happy. Those people may miss episodes they would have caught if they got the alerts, and every one they catch keeps them more engaged with your product and more likely to interact or share it with others.

                • semicolonandson 34 days ago

                  Your prediction was spot-on ufmace. Thanks for a powerful counterpoint to consider. My core value-add should be good content and if I get that right, the list will probably sort itself out.

                  Also it's reassuring to remember that the people I'm losing were probably never gonna be customers to begin with.

                • maxk42 35 days ago

                  A ship is safest in a harbor. But that's not what ships are built for.

                  • ThrustVectoring 35 days ago

                    It's a good analogy, but large ships are safer out on the ocean, where they can't be pushed into things on land.

                  • semicolonandson 34 days ago

                    Very pithy and memorable. You have a great economy with words.

                  • rsynnott 35 days ago

                    Personally, if I sign up to be notified of something, I want to be notified of it. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to sign up.

                    Naturally some people are going to go "meh, I'm not interested in this anymore" and hit unsubscribe. But those people presumably weren't engaging with your thing anyway, or else are engaging another way (for instance, seeing new ones on Twitter or something). So why worry about them unsubscribing?

                    This is assuming that people actively opted in, of course. If you're signing people up via them not clicking an opt-out checkbox or something, well, that's a different story, but also, stop doing it, it just annoys people.

                    • snuxoll 35 days ago

                      Look - if I go out of my way (read; not missing a checkbox to opt-out) of a mailing list it’s because I’m interested. My interest may wane because I decided down the road that it was no longer a fit or I found another way to get the content that doesn’t contribute to making my inbox a mess (this a less a problem these days as Zoho has an option to automatically shunt newsletters to a dedicated folder, but I don’t like grooming it all the time either).

                      Unless people are flagging you for spam, it’s just a lack of continued interest - which is expected and frankly useful, as it weeds out those that aren’t as engaged.

                      • jacquesm 35 days ago

                        Check-boxes for opt-out are illegal in Europe. And should be elsewhere.

                        • snuxoll 35 days ago

                          Would be nice - I get tired of looking for the pre-checked box at the end of every registration form just to ensure my inbox stays clean.

                          • smabie 35 days ago

                            That just incentives organizations to not even provide an opt-out.

                            • Macha 35 days ago

                              The requirement is that mailing lists should be opt in. This means both no opt out option checkboxes that default to opting in are non compliant.

                              Laws and regulations are not code, especially in Europe, a "well technically" approach is not going to get you far

                              • jacquesm 35 days ago

                                Then they would violate the specificity requirement, which states that you can not use data for a purpose that you did not disclose when you originally gathered it.

                                • CalRobert 35 days ago

                                  Which is why making things opt-out by default and forcing an explicit, voluntary opt-in is a key part of GDPR.

                            • forgotthepasswd 35 days ago

                              I had a Mailchimp list on a very specific niche, and a website with the sole purpose of offering the signup. Lots of people signed up. I used double opt-in, lost a few there. Then, every email I sent had the conspicuous unsub link right on the top. Few people unsubscribed. That list had some 20% open rate and 12% click rate IIRC. That was many years ago.

                              I noticed some correlation: the larger was the time since signup to receiving the first newsletter, the more people were likely to unsubscribe.

                              I'd say, send those newsletters, or your subscribers may forget about you.

                              • dhruvkar 35 days ago

                                I had a mailing list ~1500 people for a keto newsletter.

                                I also worried about mailing too much, not mailing enough etc. and saw the same churn.

                                The way I thought about it is you want a group of CORE 1000 fans. So people that unsubscribe are not CORE, and they naturally fall off.

                                Open up to your community, have one-on-one conversations, and you'll get feedback on what makes sense for your audience.

                                Provide value and keep the feedback loop going, and don't worry too much about the natural churn.

                              • gk1 35 days ago

                                Sounds like fear of rejection. Despite 99% of the list seemingly getting some value from your emails, you’re more concerned about the 1% that’s rejecting you.

                                My suggestion is to not take the rejection personally. There are so many reasons someone might unsubscribe, and none of them have to do with you personally... maybe they are too busy and any extra emails in the inbox adds to their stress, or maybe they are no longer interested in this topic, or maybe they were confused and thought the emails would be about something else, and so on... Why be offended or worried when someone unsubscribes for those reasons? Good, unsubscribe, I don’t want to bother you if you lost interest in this topic!

                                Think about the other 99% of people who WANT to hear from you, but you’re making them wait for the sake of a few people who shouldn’t be on your list anyway.

                                • semicolonandson 34 days ago

                                  Said fear is also a problem in my personal life too. Guess these demons have an analogue in business too.

                                  Thanks for the spiritual boost!

                                • renewiltord 35 days ago

                                  If you don't mail them, then they're not subscribed to anything.

                                  • aprdm 35 days ago

                                    Not from first hand experience but @dvassallo on twitter says how his audience is very organic, people unfollow and follow (equivalent of unsubscribe / subscribe I guess) all the time depending on the message he is sending and that's OK.

                                    If you have an user base that stops liking your content then maybe other users will start liking it and subscribe?

                                    Full disclosure I don't have much SEO experience and dislike the culture of selling people data and/or email addresses and/or optimizing for gathering more people.

                                    I feel that if your content is good and you're happy posting new updates it will either attract people or not and attracting people shouldn't be the end goal you optimize for but rather good content.

                                    • ocdtrekkie 35 days ago

                                      If you used to send it every episode, it's likely a chunk of those subscribers are relying on those emails to tell them your episodes are up. I'd honestly worry about losing eyeballs because people missed episodes they weren't notified of.

                                      EDIT: Also note that the subscribers you are losing for sending too many emails probably weren't watching anyways, which is why they unsubscribed. Value your real connections and don't worry about losing people who have already lost interest.

                                      • ghostbrainalpha 35 days ago

                                        https://www.semicolonandsons.com/

                                        Is OP's screen cast website if anyone is looking for it.

                                        The videos are high quality content but I really dislike the layout of his page.

                                        It shows most recent videos and makes it semi difficult to find the First video in a series. I wish it had the some "start here" buttons at the top with the names of the different series.

                                        • semicolonandson 34 days ago

                                          Glad you enjoyed the content.

                                          Re: the layout on the home-page. Good point. I think I'll organize it in terms of linear "tracks" instead.

                                        • II2II 35 days ago

                                          If it is just 1%, you are doing a great job. If those numbers start climbing, at least your content isn't time sensitive so you have the option to adjust your schedule accordingly.

                                          One suggestion: place the email and RSS subscription links in the area adjacent to the video. Perhaps not the whole "want to become a stronger programmer" message, since that would bury your description and show notes, but it the subscription options should be more prominent. The part about the RSS feed is particularly important since some people will not subscribe to any mailing list no matter how much you want them to subscribe to your list.

                                          Otherwise I like your choice of content and mostly enjoy your presentation. Keep up the good work.

                                          • 0898 35 days ago

                                            I can relate to this. I publish a newsletter for about 2,000 UK agency owners. I have a high open rate (45%) because the emails are really stories about other agencies, rather than about myself. But it's really hard to overcome that "fear of send".

                                            Each time I send a broadcast, I will go back 5 minutes later – see who's unsubscribed – and Google them because... I don't even know!

                                            One thing I do now is schedule my broadcasts, instead of sending them "live". I will even schedule them to go out in 5 minutes' time – for some reason that's way easier than hitting send.

                                            • jeffasinger 35 days ago

                                              What I would do in your situation is try to measure the incremental value of future messages, the likelihood that a given message causes an unsubscribe, and the value of the current message to come up with a good balance.

                                              For a small list like this, it may mean separating users into two segments:

                                              * Actively engaged, send them a weekly update

                                              * Not engaged, only send them big new announcements.

                                              Marketers tend to look at link clicks, email opens (measured via embedded images), and engagement with the actual product (if you have it) for segmentation like this.

                                              • saaaaaam 35 days ago

                                                It kind of depends what your motive for your mailing list is. If you are trying to sell then actually people “self cleaning” is not tat big an issue - you just need to make sure that it’s at the right point in your funnel. If it’s brand building it’s more of a problem. 1% (as other people have said) really isn’t bad. Maybe you need to offer more options - a monthly digest or something.

                                                • QuinnyPig 35 days ago

                                                  I recently began emailing my 20,000 (confirmed opt in) member newsletter list twice a week instead of once. I view the slight bump in unsubscribes as a benefit; these are presumably people who weren’t particularly interested in what I had to say in the first place.

                                                  Frankly I would rather that they unsubscribe versus filtering the newsletter to a folder where it never gets read.

                                                  • pasquinelli 35 days ago

                                                    yeah, there's no intrinsic value in the number itself, it's an indicator of interest. there's a saying about turning a measure into a goal making it useless as a meassure.

                                                    • QuinnyPig 35 days ago

                                                      Counterpoint, subscriber counts do drive sponsorship rates.

                                                  • hymnsfm 35 days ago

                                                    You only want to speak to readers who are interested in your message anyway. Anything else is just wasted.

                                                    • 3stripe 35 days ago

                                                      This is like saying you’re afraid to speak because some people won’t like what you have to say.

                                                      • jrockway 35 days ago

                                                        I don't think people like email lists. I certainly don't. I don't know how I end up on them, but as soon as the first email comes in, I unsubscribe.

                                                        You might consider a Discord server. Users can chat with each other, and you can post announcements.

                                                        • gk1 35 days ago

                                                          You’d be surprised, then. I often manage or have access to tech companies’ contact lists and they are very very large. (I’m referring to legitimate opt-ins.)

                                                          Email is a terrific one-to-many communication tool for companies that have something useful to say and for people who want to hear it.

                                                          • ghaff 35 days ago

                                                            And I'd just add that many of us get a ton of email. (For one thing, in the before times, I went to a lot of events including in the capacity of media.) Every now and then I'll go on a bit of an unsubscribe jag for companies I was never that interested in in the first place and literally never open. But, by and large, the emails that I end up just skimming past aren't a big deal and every now and then something actually catches my eye.

                                                          • majikandy 35 days ago

                                                            This isn’t true. Many people like being subscribed to content they actually want. I know I do! If I’m on the list, email me.

                                                          • wolco 34 days ago

                                                            Netflix sends three things I might like only when one of those things are can't miss.

                                                            Give them the option of fewer emails at unsubscribe time. Perhaps they want a summary once a month. Offer them that if they ask to leave.

                                                            • quickthrower2 34 days ago

                                                              If you send good stuff and they unsubscribe it means they don’t care about the topic or are too busy. That’s fine and normal. Churn is normal.

                                                              • paulie_a 35 days ago

                                                                What unsubscribe risks?

                                                                Either it is a legit list that unsubscribes or it's a scam. So who cares?

                                                                • smabie 35 days ago

                                                                  Just do the math. Maximize the function of total new views over some time period.

                                                                  • tkeAmarktinClss 35 days ago

                                                                    Nah, be more concerned about spam/bounces.

                                                                    You are weeding out soft fans.

                                                                    • srik 35 days ago

                                                                      Consider it a good thing - you’re pruning your list.

                                                                      • semicolonandson 34 days ago

                                                                        Very true. Those who leave early were very unlikely to buy any paid offerings that may one day appear.

                                                                      • justinzollars 35 days ago

                                                                        This is crazy talk. Yes this thought is irrational.