Prevent Subscriber Burnout with our Healthy Email List Handbook

Keith Perhac
Founder @ SegMetrics

Your email list is like the goose that laid the golden egg.

As the old fable goes, a lucky farmer finds a goose that lays one perfect golden egg every day. The farmer thinks there must be even more gold hidden inside the bird, and in a moment of greed, he kills it. Sadly, there’s nothing of value to be found inside — and now the farmer has killed off his only source of gold.

Like the goose, your email list is your fortune. Day by day, with plenty of patience, it creates “gold” by converting new paying customers and delivering results.

Now, we’ve talked before about the importance of your email list. We’ve shown you how to build your own list using enticing carrot content. How to optimize your emails for the five different types of email users. And the importance of list engagement over list size.

But today, we want to talk about what can happen when you “kill your goose.”

If your email list has stopped delivering results, or your open rates are dwindling while your unsubscribes are skyrocketing, you may have an almost-dead goose on your hands.

This is a common problem, and it usually happens when you over-message your subscribers in pursuit of more gold. They get tired of too many emails and too much selling, and they stop responding to you.

We call this phenomenon “subscriber burnout” or “list fatigue.”

Don’t worry, though. Unlike geese, email lists can be brought back to life!

What is subscriber burnout?

Subscriber burnout happens when your email list becomes exhausted by your emails, and you stop getting results. It happens for two reasons:

  1. You send too much email, and your recipients become overwhelmed and tune you out.
  2. You send too many sales-focused emails, and your recipients grow tired of being sold to all the time.

A burned-out list is full of frustrated, disinterested, and annoyed people. They start to wonder why they signed up for your list in the first place. They feel like you’re abusing the bond of trust that was established when they agreed to give you their email address. They start to ignore you altogether.

Let’s take a closer look at the two distinct kinds of fatigue.

Subscriber Burnout Version 1: Too much of a good thing

Have you ever experienced a nagging mother-in-law?

When you first got married, you were so excited to bond with your mom-in-law. You really hit it off, and everything seemed great. She would call you once a week, and you’d have a quick chat to fill each other in on your lives. Every month or so, you’d get together for lunch. The relationship was just the right balance: a little bit of communication, a little bit of distance.

Then she started calling you twice a week.

Then every day.

Then multiple times a day.

You got so frustrated, that you stopped answering the phone. You let it go straight to voicemail. You even deleted all the voicemails.

What happened to your rosy relationship? Now, you just want her to go away and leave you alone!

This is exactly what happens with the first kind of list fatigue.

Your relationship with your email list starts out just right. You send out fantastic, informative, high quality emails chock full of solid content. You email about once or twice a week.

Soon, though, you start emailing more and more frequently. The content of your emails is still superb, but you’re over-sending.

It’s too much of a good thing.

If we’re being honest, this is the best kind of subscriber burnout you can have, because you’re doing one thing right: focusing on quality.

But people don’t have time to consume all of that content. They begin ignoring, archiving, or just plain deleting your emails. They may never have the time (or the interest) to go back and open what you’ve sent. If your emails aren’t opened within 48 hours, the chances of them ever being opened are incredibly low.

You may find you get quite a few unsubscribes, too. Even if your emails are awesome, people are easily annoyed by high frequency.

Don’t be the nagging mother-in-law. Give your list some space.

Subscriber Burnout Version 2: All taking, no giving

Have you ever had a friend who’s always asking for a favor?

They need you to help them move, they want to borrow a few bucks, and they need an emergency cat-sitter on Saturday night when you already have other plans. Oh, and would you mind picking them up from the airport while you’re at it?

After a while, there’s too much “taking” and not enough “giving” for you to want to sustain that lopsided friendship. You feel like you’re being used. You start wondering “what’s in this for me?”

You start looking for a way out.

The second kind of list fatigue mirrors this situation exactly. It happens when you’re asking too much of your subscribers (usually, hitting them over the head with sales messages), and not giving enough in return (like helpful information).

This is your worst case scenario of subscriber burnout, because you’re sending too many emails, and they’re overwhelmingly sales-focused.

We had a client who fell into this trap. He averaged about 16 sales emails per month. Just sales emails alone! It was overkill, and he paid for it with a huge number of unsubscribes.

It’s easy to fall into this trap if you don’t have an active editorial calendar to keep track of what emails are being sent and what they contain. You don’t realize that you already sent two sales messages last week, or ten already this month. So you keep sending the same, boring “buy this!” email.

Another way it happens? You forget that people entering your evergreen sales funnel are also on your newsletter list, getting both sales emails and newsletter emails at the same time. If the newsletter has unique information to offer, that’s no problem. But if both sets of emails are all about selling, you’ve got a redundancy problem.

You might also slide into “all taking, no giving” mode if you’re feeling desperate to sell your products. When you get desperate, you lose focus, and you end up frantically emailing over and over. You’re throwing the rules of email marketing out the window trying to make a quick buck.

Remember that your relationship with your list has to be balanced.

Don’t break the cycle: Trust → Engage → Purchase

If your list is healthy, you’ll see it follow a cycle of Trust (people opting in to receive emails) → Engage (opening and engaging with your emails) → Purchase (buying the products you sell in your emails).

You might not realize it, but each new person who joins your email list is signing a sort of “trust pact” with you. Every one of them experiences a thought process along these lines as they’re signing up:

The Email Trust Pact

Hey, I like you.

I like you enough to give you my email address — the most important piece of personal data after my Social Security number. The email address that’s a direct connection to me, anytime, anywhere, because I check my email multiple times a day…sometimes a LOT of times.

I’m happy to give you my email address because I care about what you have to say, and I want you to deliver your opinions and products right to my inbox. I know that when I give you my email, you’ll treat it with respect:

    • You won’t sell my information to third parties.
    • You won’t send me too many sales emails.
    • You won’t message me a million times a day.
    • You won’t send me stuff I don’t care about.

That’s because I believe that you like me as much as I like you. I believe that we have a mutual agreement of trust, and that we’re on the same page. So, here’s my email address.

I can’t wait to see what you send me.

Signed, Your New Subscriber

The Email Trust Pact is part of the reason why email lists are so effective. People WANT to hear what you have to say. They are eager to open your emails. They are excited to click the things you tell them to click, and buy the products you tell them to buy.

But when you violate any part of the Email Trust Pact, you immediately begin to lose your subscribers’ confidence in you. That’s what can turn a group of engaged, active people into a useless collection of email addresses emails with no one on the other end…no one picking up the phone, so to speak.

You don’t want that.

You also don’t want unsubscribers. It’s a mistake to assume that once someone is on your list, they’ll stay there forever. A study by Merkle, a CRM agency, showed that 73% of people who opted out of email subscriptions did it because they received too much email. They were fatigued! A disinterested list can be re-engaged some point down the line, but the odds of getting back an unsubscriber are dismal.

Subscriber burnout really starts hitting home, though, when you start losing revenue. How does this happen, exactly?

Let’s say you have a list of 10,000 people. You’ve been sending high quality emails with really great content, and your efforts are paying off. Your open rate is 35-40% per email. That means that you have around 4,000 people reading any given email, with probably around 6,000 people who are generally engaged on the list.

Then, you start to email more frequently.

Because you’re having a harder time coming up with interesting content to fill each email, you start including more and more sales messages. All of a sudden, you’re asking too much of your list. They stop responding.

Slowly, your open rates decrease to 30%…25%…20%. Now, you’re only reaching around 2,000 people per email, only 50% of the people you were reaching before. So even though your overall subscriber numbers may be growing, the number of people who are paying attention to your message is shrinking.

It’s a logical progression from decreased open rates to decreased sales. The fewer people who open your email, the fewer people will buy.

We’re going to go through some math here. And if you’re like us, it’s way too easy to get confused trying to keep too many numbers in your head — so we’re going to break it down step by step.

Let’s say you have a rather healthy purchase rate of 10% from opens on your sales funnel. With a 40% open rate on your 10,000 person list, that means 4,000 people are opening your emails. If 10% of those openers buy, you’ll be making around 400 sales.

Those are some great numbers. Now, let’s consider what happens if your open rate drops in half, like we showed it would when you start to bombard your subscribers with too many emails. Now, with a 20% open rate instead of 40%, your sales are cut in half — only 200 customers will purchase.

Yep, you read that right. Same size email list, but lower open rates = lower sales.

If your list is unhealthy and your open rates are declining, you’ll see your subscribers follow this progression: Trust (people opting in to receive emails) → Disengage (getting too many emails or too many sales-focused emails, no longer opening) → Broken Trust (feeling their trust was violated) → Unsubscribe (opting out of the list for good).

Diagnose your list: Healthy or unhealthy?

There’s good news! It’s easy to diagnose the health of your email list. Here are the five symptoms of subscriber burnout. How many are have you experienced?

  1. Your email open rate has declined over the past six months.
  2. You’ve noticed an increase in unsubscribes.
  3. More than 25% of your emails are sales-only. That means less than 75% of your emails are content-rich, information driven emails that build a connection with your list.
  4. You’re consistently sending more than two emails a week to your full list. (It’s okay to send more than that if your subscribers are experiencing a short-term campaign or a specific sales funnel on top of your regular newsletter emails. But don’t let it become a consistent thing.)
  5. Or, you don’t have a solid grasp on how many emails you’re sending and/or the percentage of sales vs. informational content.

Okay, how many symptoms did you check off? Tally them up:

0 symptoms: Congratulations! Your list is healthy. Keep up the good work.

1-2 symptoms: You are in dangerous territory, and your subscribers will be fatigued soon if they isn’t already. Take action now to prevent any further damage to your list.

3-5 symptoms: Uh-oh…your subscribers are burned out. Take immediate action.

5 steps to reducing subscriber burnout

The simple way to solve the problem is to increase the quality and decrease the quantity of your emails.

Here’s how to put that plan into action.

1. Review your editorial calendar

Take a long, hard look at your editorial calendar and strategic plan, where you should be outlining all of the content you release across all of your channels: your website, new products, email, social media, blog, etc.

Your calendar should be planned three months into the future so you have an eagle-eye view of what you’re promoting and when. Whether you’re launching a new course, doing an affiliate promotion, or sending a weekly email, it should be in your calendar.

This is the perfect place to spot content overlap. Is your evergreen campaign running over your editorial calendar? Will you be pitching two things at the same time to your list? Are there any other conflicts that might cause your list to feel overloaded?

Maintaining a current calendar will help you spot those issues and resolve them before your list gets bogged down.

2. Evaluate your email content

Your subscribers have mentally signed the Email Trust Pact. They’ve made a choice to join your list, and it’s because they expect great things from you. How are you reinforcing that they’ve made the right decision? How do you demonstrate your value?

With value-packed content, of course.

Your email funnels should be about 75% content-driven, and 25% sales-driven. Even in a sales campaign that includes eight emails, only 3-4 of those emails should be solely about selling. The other 4-5 should be content only (or at least a mix of the two).

Newsletters should be all content, all the time. Prove to your newsletter list that you can provide value by sharing, teaching, helping — anything but selling.

3. Pace your email frequency

It’s time to change up your email deployment schedule. Here’s what it should look like:

Newsletters: Send 1-2 per week. Never more than 2 per week. 3-4 days between each newsletter.

Sales campaigns/funnels: Send 8 emails total over 1-2 weeks. At least 2 weeks in between each sales funnel. Make sure you aren’t putting any one person through more than one funnel per month. (This doesn’t apply to upsells, down-sells, cross-sells, and other purchase-dependent funnels. Learn more about those here.)

Sequel Sales: When a student is in the second-to-last week of their course, it’s time to sell them on the sequel to that course. Maybe they’re finishing up Beginner’s Spanish, and you want to recommend Intermediate Spanish. Whatever the sequel is, make sure you aren’t sending them sales emails about it until they’re nearly done with their current course.

4. Check your statistics

Always keep tabs on your subscriber activity. We recommend that you start by taking a snapshot of your averages now vs. your averages six months ago. This wide time period gives you a better view of subtle changes that happen over time. It’s hard to spot trends (either positive or negative) if you’re only looking at stats from the past week or month.

You should be pulling reports that include:

    • Unsubscribe rate
    • Open rate
    • Clicks within the email
    • Conversions from the email

One thing to keep in mind: All email reporters tell you the rate of clicks against the amount of email you’ve sent, not the rate of clicks against the amount of actual opens. You can do a little math to give yourself a clearer view of the percentage of people who opened your email and then clicked.

For example:
You send 100 emails. You have 36 opens and 12 clicks. Your open rate is 36%, and the click rate you’ll see from your email reporting is 12%. But the percentage of people who clicked after opening is 33%. Not too shabby.

Another thing to check is how many people opened your emails after 24 hours of receiving. If you have a high number of after-the-fact opens, you might be sending too much email, with your subscribers playing “catch up” later on.

Also, check yourself against industry standards. Current industry-wide benchmarks are:

Typical Open Rate: Somewhere between 18%-30%
Typical Click Rate: Somewhere between 1.5%-6.65%

Check out the detailed benchmarks specific to your industry at MailChimp.

5. Sign up for your own list

If you aren’t getting your own emails, how can you understand the experience your subscribers are having?

Put yourself in their shoes. Create a special email address just for this purpose (either an alias inside your regular email, or a separate account). Then sign up for your own list, and monitor how often you’re getting those emails and how it feels:

    • Overwhelming, with too many emails?
    • Like you’ve been forgotten, with not enough emails?
    • Or just right, with about 1-2 emails per week?

Do the same thing with your evergreen sales funnels. Whatever communication you’re sending, you should also be receiving.

Your list is everything. Keep it healthy!

Keep up your end of the Email Trust Pact. Treat your list with respect, never taking advantage of their time or asking too much from them. Show them your value by sharing advice, tips, and news that can help them grow. And pace your communication so that your subscribers aren’t exhausted.

Only when your subscribers are happy and healthy is it time to make a sale. And you’ll find it easier than ever to sell when your list thinks you’re awesome!

Keith Perhac

Founder @ SegMetrics

Keith is the Founder of SegMetrics, and has spent the last decade working on optimizing marketing funnels and nurture campaigns.

SegMetrics was born out of a frustration with how impossibly hard it is to pull trustworthy, complete and actionable data out of his client's marketing tools.

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