Accepting that You Can’t Change People… or Subscribers or Inbox Providers


You can’t change people. You can only change how you react to them.

That is something we say a lot in our household. It’s a hard-won pearl of wisdom from years of working with therapists so my wife and I can be better parents to our autistic son, be better spouses to each other, and better cope with the passing of our parents and other stresses.

I’ll be honest, this lesson has been particularly hard for me to learn. Empathy is hard. It can be difficult to accept that other people don’t view things in the same way you do, and that other people’s logic doesn’t work like yours does. That kind of acceptance can be painful, even identity-crushing.

I see this same resistance in some of my fellow marketers, who resist accepting the email channel as it is, especially as it evolves. Instead, they try to bend it so it conforms to their worldview. Consumer behaviors become problems. Inbox providers’ rules become unfair. Blocklist operators’ actions become unjust. 

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Here are some examples of marketers struggling unnecessarily against the realities of the email channel:

Worrying about Which Gmail Tab Their Emails Are In

Given that it’s the 10-year anniversary of Gmail Tabs, it’s fitting to start with this. From Day 1, marketers have been concerned about their promotional emails being routed to the Promotions tab, which is viewed by some as akin to the spam folder. Not only is the Promotions tab nothing like the spam folder, but having your emails routed to the Primary instead is no guarantee of better down-funnel activity.

Despite where you think your emails deserve to land, marketers should trust Gmail to route emails appropriately and for Gmail users to re-tab any emails they feel are out of place. Time and energy spent trying to tweak the design, coding, and copy of your promotional emails to get your email routed to the Primary tab instead is time and energy that could have been spent much more wisely on creating better experiences for subscribers.

Overly Aggressively Pursuing Abandoned Carts

When a shopper abandons a shopping cart, some brands see it as an utter failure. If that shopper is opted in to receive promotional emails, SMS messages, or push notifications, they’re quick to send out an abandoned cart message that tries to get them to convert.

However, abandoning shopping carts is a perfectly natural and common shopping behavior. Shoppers often use their cart to collect potential options so they don’t lose them—like bookmarks. Sometimes they need to talk with a spouse about the purchase, sometimes they’re weighing their product options, and sometimes they’re wondering if they can justify the purchase. The reasons vary, but the behavior is natural. So the idea that every cart is recoverable is a complete and utter fallacy. The majority of carts aren’t even recoverable.

That’s not to say that brands shouldn’t send cart reminders. However, marketers should stop treating them as aberrant behavior. First, that means paying attention to the natural rate of return for abandoned carts. This is the average amount of time it takes for shoppers to return to their carts organically—that is, without prompting of any kind. Avoid annoying or hounding shoppers by not sending cart reminders before the natural rate of return for your brand.

And second, have your cart abandonment messaging address some of the reasons people might be sitting on their carts. This opportunity is especially large if you’re using a cart abandonment series. For example, your first message might be a simple reminder, but your second message could also feature alternative products to help shoppers who are unsure if the product they have in their cart is the right one for them.

Trying to Force Clicks on Desired CTAs

Some brands get distressed when subscribers click on navigation, administrative, and other links that are considered low value in comparison to the primary call-to-action of the message. For example, Dan Metz recently told the Litmus community about a client that’s getting upwards of 50% of their email clicks on their logo “instead of our CTA.” One solution that was being debated was the removal of the logo.

Dan argued correctly that subscribers expect to be able to click on the logo in an email and go to the brand’s homepage. From a brand recognition standpoint, it would also be dangerous to remove the logo from your emails, as it would likely lead to lower engagement and higher spam complaints due to uncertainty.

There are occasions when it makes sense to remove navigation, social, and other links from emails to focus attention on a primary CTA, such as in a double opt-in confirmation request email. However, most of the time, this just deprives you of clicks during a time when marketers are hungry to get more clicks because of Mail Privacy Protection.

While we spend a lot of time crafting a high-impact message, sometimes subscribers simply aren’t interested in that message. However, the email showing up might remind them of something else they’d like to purchase or explore at your brand. In those cases, if they don’t just open up a browser and go directly to your website, they’ll open the email and click on your logo or nav bar links.

Are those the links you hoped subscribers would click on when you spent all that time agonizing over your email design and copy? Probably not. Are those clicks valuable and an indication of a healthy subscriber and customer relationship? Yes they are.

Trying to Force Conversions in Desired Channels

Many brands don’t have great visibility into customer behavior across channels. Add that to the fact that channel-attributable results are still key to budgeting at most brands and channel managers have a lot of incentives to drive results they can directly measure.

While it’s fine to incentivize the usage of channels you want customers to try or ones that have excessive inventory, for instance, this mentality is greatly at odds with the multichannel world brands have created and the omnichannel world they’re trying to transition to. Long-term, the superior cross-channel visibility and activation of customer data platforms are the solution.

But in the short-term, brands should use customer surveys, customer panels, and proxy measurements to better understand how activity in one channel affects activity in another. That intel should be used to adopt a multi-touch attribution model that does a decent job of reflecting customer behaviors and equitably distributing credit for sales. Whatever model you end up adopting will almost assuredly be more accurate than any single-click attribution model, all of which are wildly out of sync with today’s multichannel shoppers.

Discouraging Unsubscribes Through Poor UX

Subscriber churn is a universal concern among email marketers. Every subscriber who unsubscribes is a subscriber who has to be replaced before your list can actually grow. At some brands, the question gets asked: Are we making it too easy for people to unsubscribe?

Merely asking the question typically leads to design and UX changes that try to discourage unsubscribes. Unsubscribe links in preheaders are removed. Unsubscribe links in footers are made smaller and light gray, and the underline is removed so it looks less clickable. Perhaps the link is attached to an image rather than HTML text, making it disappear when images are blocked. And the ways to make unsubscribe pages frustrating and confusing is too long to list.

But the truth is we can’t stop anyone from opting out. If we make our unsubscribe links hard to find, subscribers just opt out using either the native unsubscribe link provided by their inbox or the report spam button. The latter means we not only lose a subscriber but our sender reputation is potentially damaged as well, increasing the risk that our message won’t reach all of our subscribers who actually want our emails.

Ironically, by making our unsubscribe processes harder to use, we often increase our opt out rates, as well as our inactivity. It turns out that subscribers are generally comforted by easy-to-find unsubscribe links. It increases their confidence in the brand when they know they can easily unsubscribe if they want to. It’s a sign of respect and trust that subscribers then reciprocate.

And All the Other Injustices

Of course, that’s just the tip of the email iceberg. We can also be upset about Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, or we can adapt to this new age of email deliverability. We can be frustrated by Spamhaus’s more aggressive enforcement, or we can take their informational listings seriously in order to avoid devastating blocklistings. We can be upset about the end of third-party cookies, or we can embrace the need to collect more first- and zero-party data. We can be upset about Apple and Microsoft not supporting AMP for email, or we can make the most of CSS-based email interactivity.

Some problems aren’t problems at all. They’re just things that are out of our control. The problem is when we can’t accept that.

linus nylund Q5QspluNZmM unsplash 600Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash