Unsubscribe: The Noisy Death of Email Marketing

August 27, 2017

A few years ago I created an address specifically to receive offers by email. Whenever I bought something online, I’d enter my newsletter address in the email field, and leave the “Yes, I’d like to receive promotions” checkbox ticked. I expected the send volume to be high enough to overpower other messages, hence the new address, and indeed it was. Subscriptions ramped up quickly.

The premise of the experiment was that oftentimes merchants really do have great deals, and for a few in particular you really need to know about them. If you buy something at Banana Republic with anything less than a 40% discount (which appears roughly every other week) or walk into a Bed, Bath & Beyond without a 20% coupon code, you’ve been had. In the beginning, it mostly worked as intended. I saw a lot of content and took advantage of more than a few bargains.

But somewhere along the way, the dull background noise crescendoed into a deafening roar. I was getting somewhere on the order of 50 messages every single day. Some were interesting, but the vast majority were not. The value proposition of combing this inbox dropped to something vanishingly small. Eventually, I stopped reading it.

It’s not that deals weren’t being sent, but that they were being drowned out by everything else. Companies would send a message every day whether or not they had anything worthwhile to say, and the worst offenders up to two or three. The overwhelming majority were pinnacles of non-deals; for example the industry-wide favorite of apparel companies: 20% off clearance items 1.

Ironically, email marketers are going to kill their own industry through a classic tragedy of the commons. By racing to send more volume with correspondingly less quality, they’re training their subscribers that nothing they send has value. Even if many people don’t explicitly hit the “unsubscribe” button, it’s only a matter of time before they’re not going to be reading those messages.

Today, I’ve cut my subscriptions back to practically none. I haven’t missed them yet.

1 And available ~365 days a year.

Unsubscribe: The Noisy Death of Email Marketing was published on August 27, 2017.

Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.