Why Nobody Joins Your Mail List

Nobody Joins Your Mail List

Who wants to read your email?

By Kevin RR Williams

SOCIAL MEDIA I built my first website in 1995 during the age of Internet innocence. It was on the heels of dial-up bulletin board services, the AOL community and Apple's ill-fated eWorld. There was "wild talk" about commercializing the World Wide Web. I recall bemusing with a chuckle, 'Are we going to somehow begin printing footballs from our Laserwriters?'

Most websites had basic layouts — often just centered text beneath a photographic header with contact, and guest-register pages. Back then, it was exciting to receive email from anyone. This notion was even glamorized in the 1998 movie appropriately entitled, "You've Got Mail." It's time to stop living in a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan world.

Mourning the Age of Innocence

Fast-forward, 10, 15, 18 years and the Internet is nothing if not commercial. We can now buy posters, computers, cars, homes and, oh yes, footballs over the Internet.

Ubiquitous email has been so abused that most people have SPAM filters to discard dozens, if not hundreds, of unread messages each day. For the pieces that make it past automated security systems, our hands and eyes have become adept at the rapid visual scan-and-delete process. It generally takes no more than three seconds to decide whether to trash or keep an email message. It may seem that the only people interested in reading email these days are employed by Homeland Security. [1-3] If you have a blog, certainly you would appreciate a larger audience than National Security personnel.

Text messaging may be preferred over email for most people but email still has a place if used responsibly. Before we can begin sending out email en masse, we need to make ourselves presentable.

You Don't Seem Friendly

When I was child, I recall tearful-eyed kids, frustrated by the outcome of a situation who voiced the frightening ultimatum: "I'm not going to be your friend." It may be somewhat amusing in retrospect but that same attitude permeates the Internet among adults. Here are some reasons why others may be hesitant to join your email list or wish they hadn't. Warning: childish name-calling ahead.

    Knock Knock

    1. I don't know you. Someone unexpectedly rings your door. You look through the peephole but don't recognize the face. You ask, "Who is it?" In an unrecognized voice he responds, "It's me." What's your response? A few people might extend the evasive exchange while most would just bolt the door. This is a type of SPAM filter.

    An individual must specifically request to receive your email.

    Receiving unsolicited email is not only suspicious, it is illegal. [4] Subscribers must opt in to receive messages. Don't assume that because someone provides an email address for one reason that they agree to receive email for any commercial purpose or that you can give the addresses away to friends and business associates in exchange for personal perks or that you can join email services that piggyback your message to a list of "opt-in' subscribers. An individual must specifically request to receive email with advertisements from you or you risk being fined. For your protection, the form collecting the opt-in request should record the IP address.

    Pants On Fire

    2. You're a liar. Likely you've received a catalog in the mail — sometimes multiple copies. You may put up with it until concluding that the landfills are crowded enough or that the extra weight in your trash cans is contributing to your low back pain. So you follow the carefully concealed 6-point-type unsubscribe instructions on the back cover. Later, you began receiving seven times more catalogs.

    Don't ask and then ignore the opt-out checkbox.

    You'd rightly be angered. While not justifying the behavior, in today's digital age, you might blog, tweet, and otherwise disgrace the company bullying you with unwanted back-breaking, landfill-stuffing, mail-crushing catalogs before calling to let them know in no uncertain terms that you are not going to be their friend. What's the lesson? If someone opts out of your email list, promptly comply with the request within 10 days. It's the law. [4]

    An opt-in checkbox during other online purchases makes obtaining additional information more convenient, especially since they are typing it anyway. To prevent ill-will, don't ask and then ignore the opt-out checkbox when they have expressly opted out. The checkbox in Store.ClinicalPosters.com is honored. To be clear, there is a difference between transactional email for receipts and tracking numbers and advertisements. Providing email for the former does not automatically grant permission for the latter.

    Broken Mirror

    3. You're ugly. Ouch, that one hurt. But to readers, it's not your personal appearance that draws the criticism. It's the method of signing up. A scary pop-up with an ugly looking interface can frighten subscribers away before you've had a chance to play ball. Complex decryption of human readable codes with a long list of mandatory fields to be filled out before accepting registration is daunting.

    Scary pop-ups with an ugly looking interface frightens subscribers.

    For email lists, little more than a name and email address is required; some SPAM filters discard email addressed to recipents without a valid name. Other information about subscribers can be useful. If voluntarily offered, interests, content preferences, geographical location and social media contact may help better craft your newsletter to meet the needs of subscribers. You may ask for such details, perhaps on a follow-up screen, but don't make it a requirement for signing up. Keep the opt-in requirements simple and offer a little something in return.


    4. You are shallow. At family gatherings there is usually at least one relative that tells the same story over and over again. The first half dozen times you feigned interest. Now you rather sit at the kids' table than lip-sync Uncle Bob's story again.

    Offer valuable advice and occasional gifts.

    If you sell a widget and someone is gracious enough to sign up for your mailing list, recognize that they do not want to keep hearing how big and shiny the widget is. And they certainly don't want to keep reading your pleas to buy the widget. In order to "be your friend" you need to provide something beyond a shallow sales pitch over and over again. Write content that benefits "friends." Offer valuable advice and occasional gifts. Eventually, when they are in the market for widgets or run across another friend who is interested, they will remember you.

Be My Friend

Most marketers appeal to consumers' fear, greed or need. To feed fear, a telemarketer might phone to tell you that in response to three recent burglaries on your block, he is offering free home security installation in exchange for small signage in front of your home (that lets would-be burglars know that you have a crappy security system in place). Greed is satisfied by offering a disproportionately large payoff for comparatively little cost. Once you are able to filter out these two marketing gimmicks, you just have to identify what you really need in order to avoid becoming a victim of unscrupulous business practices.

When asking people to join your mailing list, share something they actually need — friendship. Talk to them like people, not monetary vending machines.

To get off to a proper start, ClinicalPosters.com is ignoring its customer list. Instead, we are creating a new opt-in list for 2013. Our first newsletter was published this week. The goal is to highlight some of the marvelous health tips posted here on A Bit More Healthy blog. More health-related information is featured on Twitter. Occasionally, a few of those interesting topics discussed on other sites may be extracted for members to enjoy. Pinterest opens up an image-focused blogosphere. Monthly, our online store indicates appropriate posters that can be featured during various health awareness months and there are periodic promo codes that unlock discounts.

Join my mailing list.

You are welcome to follow each of our online presences or allow us to highlight headlines for you by opting into our mailing list using the sidebar form. We have the content and delivery mechanism. Barring exceptional circumstances, we don't anticipate more than four emails per month — perhaps twice that if you're a customer interested in promo codes. Requests to opt out will be honored and your contact info will not be sold to third parties. Looking forward to chatting with you soon, my friend.

Illustration by Bert Monroy; art direction by Kevin Williams for Allume Systems.

  1. CISPA, “National Security,” and the NSA’s Ability to Read Your Emails. eff.org ^
  2. If the head of Homeland Security refuses to use email, is she a Luddite? zdnet.com ^
  3. Peace Activists Beware: Homeland Security May Be Reading Your E-Mail, and Passing it on to the Pentagon. progressive.org ^
  4. CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business. business.ftc.gov ^