How to Stop Consumers From Hitting 'Unsubscribe'
The "spray and pray" approach to marketing is dead. So before you hit "send" on consumer communications, first ask what they really want.
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In the business world, persistence is considered one of the highest virtues. It's certainly the stuff of sales and marketing lore.
Everybody remembers that scene from Glengarry Glen Ross — a star-studded 1992 film featuring Alec Baldwin, among others. Baldwin plays the hard-driving trainer, Blake, brought in by the owners of a real estate company to boost flagging sales numbers. In his most famous speech, Blake tells the reps: "A-B-C. A—Always, B—Be, C—Closing."
After berating them for their failures, he announces that only the top two salespeople will be allowed access to the firm's most promising leads; the rest will be fired. "Only one thing counts in this life," he barks out. "Get them to sign on the line that is dotted!"
As out-of-touch as that approach now seems, it's still the default position for many marketers: Keep trying and trying with that pitch until somebody signs on the dotted line. Coming out of the pandemic, there certainly was a push from many brands to hold on to customers, no matter the cost. According to Forrester's Predictions 2021: B2C Marketing report, marketing message volume — emails, texts and push notifications — was forecasted to increase by 40 percent in 2021.
Persistence is facing consumer resistance
But persistence doesn't work as well as it once did — especially in the digital age. You only have to look at the growth of email-blocking and "unsubscribe" services to know that this is true.
Some believe that unsubscribes aren't such a bad thing: As tech entrepreneur Neil Patel describes it, "You should always expect that a certain number of subscribers will eventually ditch you. That's the nature of email marketing." He argues that "you can't have "dead weight' hanging around," because it only hurts your marketing metrics.
But I'd argue that there is a better way to engage with consumers — one built on establishing a relationship of mutual value, where you're not simply "spraying and praying" that unsolicited messages find a way through.
Marketers like to talk about the "relevance" of communications — the idea that, because they've read the data entrails, they know exactly what their customers want. But that's a rearview-mirror approach: looking at what customers wanted last week, month or year. How about right now?
Ian Bogost captured this dilemma perfectly in an August 2021 Atlantic article. "The irony of people's supposed desire to receive emails from their favorite companies is that more than half of consumers in the United States and Canada say they receive too much promotional email," he wrote. "Personalization is supposed to make relevant messages get through and irrelevant ones falter. But what "relevance' means is constantly changing. If I need new pants, an apparel ad might be welcome. If I don't, it's just annoying."
True personalization means having a conversation
The challenge with email (and specifically, email marketing platforms) is that it's an inherently wasteful way to communicate. Because it costs so little to send out a message, many marketers simply don't care about being unsubscribed, blocked or ignored. Across the industry, it's considered "acceptable" if you get a 1% hit rate when you spam a database — meaning brands will send out millions of emails to get a couple thousand responses.
But acceptable to whom? Consider your favorite retailers. You do a lot of business with them — and yet many inundate you with messages that don't speak to your needs. As much as you might like their stores, the way in which they communicate can be a real pain. Daily emails, promoting everything from socks to sun hats, might connect with some consumers, but they also might force you, its most loyal customer, to take your business elsewhere.
Email overload is a real thing, and it's something that brands and marketers need to address. Research shows that younger consumers like Gen Zs and millennials are ignoring email. So if you want to better connect with your customers, it's time to look beyond the email inbox.
A conversational approach to marketing could solve this problem and build more efficient promotional campaigns. What if the next time you were in that retailer's store — or had their product delivered to your home — you received this follow-up message on your phone: "Out of the 10 products we're promoting, what are three things you care most about? Tell us, and we'll give you a promo code for next time." This way, if you're not in need of socks but really do need some summer clothes for the kids, the retailer will know and craft its next pitch accordingly.
Email doesn't allow for this sort of tailored approach. As Ian Bogost explained in that Atlantic article: "Email isn't a sign of what you want. Not really. It represents the traces of what technology companies think you want."
So ditch the "spray and pray" approach to marketing communications, and give consumers more of what they really want. By not "closing" on them — by opening your ears to their true needs and desires — you'll open up a whole new world of opportunities.