Should I care about the unsubscribe rate for my new email?

FADE IN ON TWO CO-WORKERS LOOKING AT A DASHBOARD. A CHART IS POINTING UP AND TO THE RIGHT.

Jenna: The new email is performing really well… we’ve already seen a 5% increase in app opens, and a 3% increase in conversion rate on the website.

Mike: Wow that’s awesome. But I heard from Finn that there might be an issue with unsubscribes.

Jenna: Well, it’s true that we had 150 unsubscribes. But I’m not too worried about it.

Mike: 150! That’s a lot! We only have 10,000 people on that list, so that’s a significant bunch of users. If we lose that many every week then we’re really going to be in trouble.


So, is this a problem? Or is Jenna right not to worry? Here’s how I’d recommend Jenna and Mike deal with their dilemma:

  1. Find out what I can about the 150 people that unsubscribed. Were they engaged, valuable users? Did they click on emails before they unsubscribed? I might even email a couple of them to ask for a bit more information about why they didn’t want the email (and yes, I’d likely acknowledge the irony). Mostly try to answer the question: were they important users, and does their unsubscribing actually matter?
  2. Focus on the metric that matters: if the net result is more engaged users, that’s an important win.
  3. Wait it out. See how the open, unsubscribe, and downstream engagement rates settle over the next couple of weeks. And then focus the question on whether or not long-term engagement is benefiting. Decide whether to keep, improve, or axe the email based only on this criteria.

Here are some other things we should bear in mind when thinking about email unsubscribe rates:

The rate will probably drop over time

  1. Something new is likely to attract more attention, and therefore more likely to be opened. Both clickthrough and unsubscribe rates will likely be higher for the first few emails, and then level out.
  2. Lots of diligent un-subscribers will do so as soon as they get an email for the first time. Once they’ve unsubscribed, they’re gone, and can’t unsubscribe again. It’s a one-time flush.

Loss aversion means that you likely care too much

If all subscribers were equal then a new subscriber should be an adequate replacement for someone that has just unsubscribed. But Loss Aversion tells us that we care disproportionately more about losing the existing subscriber.

This is compounded by the fact that we feel that we did something (sent the email!) to cause the unsubscribe action. So we feel even worse about it.

They probably weren’t that into us anyway

They didn’t want to hear from us. They probably were a lot less likely to buy our product, open future emails, click on an ad, etc.

If they were effectively dead users, the only real consequence of losing them from the top of the funnel is that our future conversion rates will go up… nice!