April 04, 2017

Email Marketing Chart: Why consumers unsubscribe from brands’ email


It’s hard to get permission from customers. To get them to actually raise their hand and say, “Yes, please contact me about your company.”

The last thing you want to do once you get that permission is lose it. After all, building an email list is a net number. Beyond gross ads coming in, you don’t want to unnecessarily lose email subscribers.

So, in this week’s MarketingSherpa Chart article, we explore the reasons consumers say they unsubscribe from brands’ email.

by Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute

As we were planning the content for MarketingSherpa Summit 2017 in Las Vegas, we conducted online research with 2,400 consumers, sampled to reflect a close match to the U.S. population's demographics, to better understand their preferences. We split them into two equal groups —  we asked members of one group about a company they were satisfied with, and we asked the other group about a company they were unsatisfied with.

As we reported previously, a satisfied customer is 154% more likely to stay on your list than an unsatisfied customer. Here’s how one survey respondent explained this phenomenon, “For companies in general that I like, they could be more selective with respect to the marketing emails, letters, etc. that they send. Too much of anything is not good. For a company like [retailer name removed] — I never, ever want to hear from them again after they refused to honor a warranty on a $3K lawn tractor — after I'd been a loyal customer for over 20 years & spend thousands of dollars there. Idiots!”

However, while satisfied customers are more likely to stay on your lists, the stated reasons both satisfied and unsatisfied consumers choose to unsubscribe are pretty similar (like the email frequency mentioned above), so we grouped them together in the below chart so you can see answers to the question…

Why do you unsubscribe from the email lists of companies with which you are [satisfied/unsatisfied]? Select all that apply. 

To see 35 more charts from the study, download the free reports.

Email volume the top reason customers unsubscribe

The top reason customers unsubscribe from your email, at least according to the customers themselves, is that they get too many emails in general (26%).

Volume was a common theme — the third-most frequent response was “I receive too many emails from this company specifically” (19%).

While these numbers give us the 10,000-foot view, let’s listen to the voice of the customer in their own words to really feel what they are experiencing.

Consumers who responded to the survey described this email overload by advising, “Don't spam us with so many emails, it becomes frustrating and discourages us from purchasing items from them” and “Don't send emails/mail excessively!  I already get so much and usually delete/throw away without even reading who they're from.”

Let’s dive deeper into consumers’ qualitative responses to see what else we can learn.

How frequent is too frequent?

The above data can seem disheartening at first to the email marketer. However, from previous MarketingSherpa research we discovered that 86% would like to receive promo emails at least monthly, and 15% would like to receive promotional emails every day.

And really, this question of frequency isn’t unique to email. It applies to everything in life. If I asked my elementary school-aged daughter if she would like vanilla ice cream with sprinkles on top for breakfast, lunch and dinner, she would likely be very happy. However, after experiencing this cadence for a few days, we would both soon realize that this is not the optimal frequency.

So how much email is too much? As I mention from the previous data above, there isn’t one correct answer. Different groups of people on your list will want email at a different cadence, and you should either test to determine the optimal frequency for your list as a whole — or, if you can’t get that granular, test across your entire list and average it out. This means you will underserve some customers who want more email but also alienate less customers who do not want as many as the high water mark.

Because as you can see, in consumers’ own words, the level of frequency that will alienate consumers varies. They describe too frequent as:

  • Multiple times per day

“Don't send me 2 or 3 emails a day. It's annoying.”

“I think that overall people don't like to receive multiple emails a day from the same company. I like receiving coupons but sometimes my email is just too full of marketing.”

  • Daily

“If someone gives the email, don't email them every day.”

“Don't overdo it. If you email me everyday, I am going to unsubscribe.”

“Stop sending too many emails, like don't do it every day or more than once or twice a week. Send stuff when there are good coupons or promotions.”

  • Multiple times per week

“Don't send too many emails. I sometimes get three or four from [retailer’s name removed] per week! Way too much.”

Can behavior-based sends help?

One way to cut down on email overload is to send email more frequently when customers have taken an action to indicate they would like to hear from you.

As one consumer advised, “Not sending emails to people that don't open them.” With a marketing automation platform, you can determine who is opening (and clicking through) your email. You can then send that group more email without overloading the rest of your list.

However, even behavior-based triggers can be overdone. As one consumer responded, “Don't send me an email EVERY time I visit your website. I know that I've been there, and if I want to buy something, I'll return on my own without an email reminding me to do so.”

Give customers options

“Don't contact customers too frequently. I have one company which I love — EXCEPT that they send me an email EVERY day! I am not exaggerating. They literally do this every day. I have contacted them, and my choice is to receive the everyday email or nothing, when all I want is maybe once a month, but not to cut them off entirely. It is very irritating and is the one black mark against them.”

As the above consumer suggests, give customers options for how often they receive email from you. You can do this by having multiple lists in a preference center, offer multiple frequency options, or instead of only offering consumers the option of unsubscribing, give them the choice to “opt down” to less frequent emails.

According to previous MarketingSherpa research, half (49%) of consumers would like to subscribe to receive emails at a frequency they chose, versus a quarter of consumers (24%) who prefer to subscribe to receive emails at a frequency chosen by the brand.

From that MarketingSherpa research, we also discovered that only 14% of marketers surveyed said they actually let their subscribers choose email frequency preference. That data wouldn’t surprise the consumer who said, “Too many companies send out way too many emails, and then don't give you an opportunity to say one time a week instead of every day.” 

Frequency is only one piece of the puzzle; the email must still be relevant…

As much of a hot-button topic as email send frequency is, content also played a role in unsubscribes. One-fifth of American consumers (21%) unsubscribe because the emails are not relevant to them. This was the second-most frequent response.

As one customer plainly put it — “If you put out a newsletter or email, make it worthwhile to view.”

Aside from generally practicing customer-first marketing by understanding how you can help your customers (even when they don’t buy from you), lifecycle email marketing can play a role here as well.

As one respondent remarked, “I may have purchased from them and no longer need them.” How can you keep a relationship with customers and keep sending relevant email to them throughout their lifecycle with your brand or product?

This is especially important for less frequently purchased products. Right after the purchase, you could focus email messages on how to get started with the product. Then later, you could share ideas around little known features and how other customers are getting the best use of the product. Farther down the line, you can talk about warranty protections. And as it gets close to product replacement time, provide tips for researching products and special, owner’s-only discounts.

…and useful

“The emails are always trying to sell me something” was tied for the third-most frequent response, with 19% of consumers expressing this frustration.

So, make sure you take a customer-first marketing approach to your email in general.

Starting with the content. Is your subject line selling the customer or serving the customer? As one customer responded, “Don't use deceptive subject lines (like ‘you've won xyz’). As soon as I'm deceived once, I unsubscribe and block the sender!”

Is the overall content focused on how to help the customer achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle? Another customer said, “The emails are obviously pushing sales without regard for what would be helpful to me in making a responsible decision on a purchase.”

Does your company deliver on the propositions you communicate in your email marketing? As one customer responded,after talking about email frequency, “… [insurance company name removed] needs to act on what they say. They have most certainly been there for themselves and charge a high price for their services and have not been there for us.”

And now for some good news

Naturally an article with data about why consumers unsubscribe is going to skew to the negative. So, let’s find some sunshine.

An element that many in the email marketing industry thought could be a major cause of unsubscribes — email that doesn’t look good on smartphones — was actually the reason least often cited by consumers for unsubscribing (7%).

This may be because brands have gotten better at creating mobile-friendly email. Or, it could simply be that unsubscribing while conducting “email triage” on a smartphone while you’re on the go is just too much of a hassle.

More good news — keep in mind that email was consumers’ most popular digital channel, according to our research. One of the positive consumer comments was “I only like to receive marketing that has coupons, and I prefer only email.”

Find what is most effective for your unique audience

At the end of the day, this data is general and represents all American consumers. But unless you’re a behemoth, the audience for your marketing is not all American consumers — it is your unique niche that you provide value to in specific ways. So, use this data as inspiration for hypotheses that you then test with your audience to ultimately find what is most effective.

An approach that one of the consumer respondents advised as well, “Don't bombard every angle possible to market products. Find out which route has the best return and utilize that. Sometimes too many ads is too much and could possibly make the consumer block emails or delete apps.”

Related resources

Hear inspirational stories of customer-first email (and other forms of marketing) at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017 in Las Vegas

B2B Marketing: How an accounting solutions firm uses a daily digest newsletter with industry content to build trust with audience

Optimize your Email in Three Steps: How one marketer tripled revenue from their house list (Discusses testing to discover what to say, when to say it, and how to listen)

Email Marketing Chart: How send frequency impacts read rate

Email Marketing: 6 bad habits to avoid when testing emails

Optimize your Email in Three Steps: How one marketer tripled revenue from their house list

Get more data and analysis like this (plus marketing case studies) delivered straight to your inbox

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions