Email Permissions Aren’t Given – They are Earned.

Email marketing is one of the most important things your marketing department does in the e-commerce business. It’s by far the easiest channel to reach existing customers that bring in more than 40% of the revenue.

But as you hum along with email marketing, you will inevitably stumble across the subject of unsubscribes. You know, people that once thought you had something interesting to say or give. People that trusted you with their email addresses. People that … are now gone.

Below are some of the questions we encounter regularly when talking with our customers about the subject of unsubscribes:

  • Are unsubscribes a normal occurrence?
  • Can we do something to lower the number of them?
  • Can we learn something from it?
  • Is there a pattern where unsubscribes happen more often?
  • Can we even use it in our favour?

The 3 most important reasons people unsubscribe to your promotional emails

This is a highly researched topic and others have done a stellar job writing about it in length before me. So let’s just reiterate the 3 most important reasons people unsubscribe that I see in most of the research articles:

  • Frequency of emails (aka. you send too many emails)
  • Relevancy of emails (aka. you send emails that are not interesting to your user base)
  • Non-mobile optimized emails (aka. your customers have problems reading your emails on their devices)

These reasons might seem obvious.

And it’s because they are. That said, I still see way too many, otherwise great, e-commerce companies sending emails too often (sometimes on a daily basis) and I still get tons of emails with subject lines implying that I’m a granddad (obviously miscategorizing me). And I probably even don’t have to mention all the emails that are filled with small product pictures and tiny text when I open them on my phone.

Email is a product. Think holistically about your customers’ journey

You pay great deal of attention to your website, right? (Or at least some other people in your organisation do.) You design it carefully, you measure it carefully, you think about how your customers feel while interacting with it, you constantly check the bounce rates, form performances and other performance details.

Now think about it for a minute: are you as diligent thinking about your email strategy considering e-commerce email campaigns are one of the best ways to reengage returning customers?


Treat email marketing like a product and you’ll bear much better results. Measure everything you can and don’t try not to fool your customers (even at the expense of a few lost subscribers). Maybe you do manage to lure people in, but I’m sure that eventually they’ll figure it out and unsubscribe or even report your emails as spam (Google is actually making it really easy lately to do this within Gmail – so be extra careful).

Remember: customers are not stupid! Show them respect like you do in your other interactions via website, customer support and in-person and everything will be just fine.

Good news: 3 easy fixes for unsubscribes

Let’s start with the good news: a lot of the fixes and improvements can be done pretty easily. Some are just copywriting issues, some are quick website implementation issues and some take a bit of patience. Let’s dig into them.

1) Auto opt-in subscription forms might seem like a good idea. It’s (probably) not

Yeah, I know what you think right: “But everyone does it!” Well – do you want to repeat everyone’s mistakes? Want to take your customers for fools and start email relationships with them in this way?.

I certainly wouldn’t.

Don’t assume people want to opt-in to your email promotional campaigns just because they bought something in your e-store. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give them an option to receive promotional emails from you – but instead of an auto opt-in, give them a compelling reason to fill in that check-box. Promise them a great multi-email content campaign or a special, immediately redeemable discount voucher. If you really do your best to earn their permissions and give something of value, you’ll establish a relationship not many of your competitors have.

Overstock auto opt-in example. Not cool.

Overstock auto opt-in example. Not cool.

According to eMarketer’s research, more than 35% of email marketers make the auto opt-in mistake (from my personal experience I would bet the real number is even higher). Of course, if you don’t go the auto opt-in route, you risk growing your email user base more slowly. And so what? Isn’t it more important that you earn “real” permissions from people that are going to return to your shop and potentially become high value customers?

Of course, if you don’t go the auto opt-in route, you risk growing your email user base more slowly. And so what?

In the end, profit is the king. If you are willing to try out this approach, create an alternative checkout form and A/B test 2 different approaches (one with auto opt-in and one without) over a longer period of time. Naturally, the non-opt-in one should include a compelling call-to-action and an offer that delivers on the promise in the first email. It will take some time to draw any conclusions, but in the end you’ll know that you are doing the right thing for your bottom line.

2) Turn opt-outs into opportunities

Ok, you failed.

It’s fine, we all do sometimes. Your customer is trying to abandon your email list for some reason and presses the dreaded unsubscribe link.

Some might say that you should forget about them or try to somehow confuse them with lots of links on the unsubscribe landing page. But if you look at this problem from the “email-marketing-as-a-product” perspective, you quickly realize that this is just a part of the overall product experience. I believe that if you create a compelling and consistent overall experience (even when people want to unsubscribe from you) some customers might actually be surprised or delighted and give you another chance. Sometimes they decide to stay just because you are different, because you treat them with respect. And after all, we all know that it costs 7 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. So why wouldn’t we try to make whatever is in our power to retain an unhappy customer?

Let’s look at how one of my favorite e-brands handles the unsubscribe page. unsubscribe page. Nice, on brand and treating customers with respect. unsubscribe page. Nice, on brand, treating customers with respect.

I then spent a few minutes researching Twitter to see if there is anyone praising’s unsubscribe page. Bam – happy “lost” subscriber!

3) Mobile optimized email campaigns in 2014 should be a given

I’ve said this a few times before but I really can’t stress it well enough. Yes, email clients aren’t that friendly to HTML email responsiveness as normal web browser are, but that simply can’t be an excuse not to optimize email for mobiles. Especially when it’s a well known fact that mobile email growth is exploding and mobile email consumption has surpassed all the other means of reading emails. You can read more about it in our previous blog post.

Nicely done mobile optimized email. If only they nailed the relevancy as well...

Nicely done mobile optimized email. If only they knew what I was interested in.


It basically comes down to how you as a business want to treat your customers. For me, the best proxy in this kind of situations is to ask myself how I would like to be treated as a customers.

And yes, I don’t want to be subscribed to every email list from every e-retailer I buy something for. But if they treat me with respect and offer something in return, I am usually more than willing to subscribe (especially if I like the brand in the first place). The same goes with the opt-out: if I want to unsubscribe, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to buy anything from your store anymore. It simply means I was annoyed/bored at your promotional material and tried not to receive it again. If I see you play nicely in this scenario and potentially even offer me something to stay on the list… well, then we might be in the game for a longer lasting relationship.

Mobile optimization: just do it. People hate receiving illegible emails and it’s one of the fastest growing reasons people actually unsubscribe. Not only that, according to a research by Equinox from July 2013, only 12% of all emails are mobile optimized, so it can actually present a competitive advantage if you act fast.

Bad news: some things are just hard. (Well, maybe not that hard.)

Remember the 3 most obvious mistakes I listed above?

Turns out frequency and relevancy are pretty hard to get right today. In fact, there are not many e-commerce business that do it well. If I had to pick one that does these 2 properly, I would probably choose Amazon. That said, Amazon is also a technology company by nature and invests hundreds of millions into their big data customer analytic technologies. So, yeah, they should be good at it.

But what about if you don’t have 20 data scientist sifting through the data – can you still get better at sending more personalized emails? You probably won’t get to the Amazon quality, but there are some tricks and tools you can use to get better at both frequency and relevancy – even if you operate a mid-size e-commerce business trying to get into the big leagues.

1) Frequency

I can’t give you a straight answer to this one and the results of it might be very impactful to your bottom line. So the best way to figure this one out is to actually test it on your own subscribers. You might end up realizing that your demographic segment prefers to be mailed 3 times a week when another e-commerce marketer will only need to email his list once a week. It varies. From my personal experience and when talking to other people in the industry, I would really advice against mailing your customers on a daily basis. It might be profitable in the short term, but it will gradually degrade both your profits and brand equity.

Let’s take for example again.

I’ve previously mentioned that I love the company, but frequency of their emails is slowly eroding their brand value in my eyes (look at the dates on the screenshot below). For now, I’m ignoring it (remember, I love the site), but if they continue in this pace and when they catch me on a bad day … I’ll press the unsubscribe button. Such a waste considering I’ve already spent tons of money on their site. mailed me daily this December. Unhappy me. mailed me daily this December. Sad me.

2) Relevancy

If frequency is hard, this one is even harder to nail.

Imagine the problem: you are trying to please everyone on your email list. Yet you know that your e-commerce site caters to a wide demographics: from runners to swimmers, from teenagers to elderly people. When they come to your site, they look at different products, different categories. They are genuinely interested in completely different stuff.

We all know that. Yet how do we translate it into a viable and scalable email targeting?

Some brands (like Zalando below) decided to tackle this problem in a very interesting way. They simply send a reeeeally long email with promotional images basically covering most of their demographics. I guess their logic is: let’s try to display offers for many different customer segments and customers can scroll down and find what’s interesting for them.

A small portion of the very long email I received from Zalando.

A small portion of the very long email I received from Zalando.

That’s an option. Another option is to use some kind of specialized e-commerce analytics solution like Omniture that helps you segment your customers. That’s a progress, yet you are still left with the work of picking the right content to present to these customers and then crafting different email campaigns for them.

And then there is the third option.

Services like ours help e-commerce brands not only with segmentation, but also with picking the right content for specific audiences. And what’s unique about Mojn is, that it inserts “personalized recommendation images” in your emails automatically and on-the-fly (no need to switch your email service provider of choice). Thus, it solves the 2 major problems of modern email campaign relevancy: segmentation and selection of the right content. You can read more about it in one of our cases.


The optimal email frequency problem is best solved by A/B testing. Pick big enough segments (statistically significant) of your email database and start testing different outgoing email campaign frequencies and the subsequent impact on the bottom line over a longer period of time.

Relevancy is even harder but there are new age email marketing tools popping up that might help e-commerce marketers personalize email campaigns without a 20 person data science team. We are working on one of these tools – Mojn Performance Email Targeting. Let us know if we can help you out.

Let’s focus on healthy and personalized email growth

Your email marketing list and success doesn’t need to be at the expense of your brand equity. If you follow most of the advice above, you should be able to avoid the most pressing issues e-commmerce brands face on this subject right now.

If you’ve experienced any other problems or have more ideas on how to help with these issues, please let us know in the comments section and we’ll update the blog post or write a follow-up. Always love to learn more!