How to Get Readers to Unsubscribe From Your Newsletter

by Nate Hoffelder

After a decade of running The Digital Reader, Nate is a veteran web publisher with experience in design, maintenance, recovery, and troubleshooting. What little he doesn't know, he can learn.

January 6, 2020

If there’s one problem that everyone with a newsletter shares, it’s not knowing why readers unsubscribe. While it is normal to lose a few subscribers every time you send a newsletter, I have been told (and can confirm from personal experience) that if you are losing more than a half of a percent of your mailing list after sending a newsletter, you have a problem.

It might be that you are emailing too often (or not often enough), or your subscribers might be getting bored with your newsletters. They might also be bothered by political rants, or by proselytizing, or if you engage in a lot of hard sell tactics.

Each former subscriber has their own reason leaving your mailing list. (Who knows, they might just be too busy to read all the mail they receive?) It’s impossible to say why someone is losing subscribers without examining the specifics of their mailing list, but I can give you a bunch of possible causes to consider.

Back in May 2019 I asked my newsletter subscribers, and authors in the FB groups SPF Community and 20Booksto50K a simply question: “What would make them unsubscribe from a newsletter?”

I received several hundred answers, and I collated the responses for this post. Here are ten reasons that people subscribe from a newsletter

1. Send Too Many Newsletters

The single most common complaint about newsletters was getting them too often. There is apparently a significant number of authors who send not just an email every week, but an email every day. Or even worse, there are some authors who send multiple emails to their mailing list every day.

I can’t imagine why anyone would think this was a good idea, but it seems some disagree. While we can have a difference of opinion on this point, those who use this practice should take a look at their unsubscribe rate and ask themselves if their subscribers are happy or not.

Remember, a healthy unsubscribe rate is around half a percent. If your unsubscribe rate is two percent, or even higher, that is a sign that your readers are unhappy.

2. Let Months Go By Between Newsletters

Taking things to the other extreme, another way to lose subscribers is to let months go by in between newsletters. This will not offend any of your subscribers but it will give them a chance to forget you and forget why they subscribed in the first place.

Sometimes you can’t help taking a break from sending your newsletter, and that is okay. Just remember that the first newsletter after the hiatus will have a higher unsubscribe rate than usual.

3. Use Profanity

The first of our “well, obviously” entries on this list involves language. There are readers who are offended by more colorful idiom, and if you use swear words in your newsletters you will drive them away.

On the other hand, there are authors such as Chuck Wendig for whom swearing is part of their brand. If you fall in that group then you can ignore this advice and carry on.

4. Discuss Politics, Religion, or Sex

The second of our “well, obviously” entries on this list involves the Big Three of controversial topics: sex, religion, and politics. Annoying readers with divisive topics is a surefire way to get them to unsubscribe.

One might conclude you should avoid such topics, but let’s not forget that it might be difficult for a thriller writer to avoid politics or for a romance author to avoid discussing sex, so for many authors this piece of advice is strictly optional.

5. Spelling and Punctuation Errors

While I am fairly tolerant of spelling and other errors, some readers are not. Several authors who subscribe to my mailing list told me that they will unsubscribe from a newsletter if it contains frequent spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors.

I would rate this as a relatively minor issue, but it is also one that is relatively easy to fix. Have someone proofread your newsletter before it is sent, and you will never have to worry about it.

6. Bore Readers with a Too-Long Newsletter

Many readers would prefer that writers get to the point quickly, or at least provide a lot of useful info when writing at length. They think that writing a lot and saying little is a trick that should be left behind in English Comp classes, and they will unsubscribe from newsletters that break this rule.

7. Frequent Sales Pitches

Subscribers know that they are going to get pitches and deal offers when they join a mailing list, but they will grow unhappy if they get too many. This will make them unsubscribe from your mailing list, which is why you should carefully limit how many pitches you send each month.

The other downside to sending a lot of pitch emails is that they tend to drown out your other correspondence. For example, I was once subscribed to a mailing list where I got 40 pitch emails in a single month. (I counted my trash folder the day I unsubscribed.) The several emails I wanted to read got lost in the deluge because by that point I had stopped even reading the subject lines.

So how would you know that you are sending too many sales pitches? Your unsubscribe rate should be able to tell you that.

8. Resend Unopened Newsletters

Some mailing list experts will tell you that you can boost your open rates by sending a second copy of a newsletter to anyone who didn’t open the first.

While this might work some of the time, several authors told me that this would get them to unsubscribe from a mailing list. (Also, this trick has never worked for me; the only thing that happened was a spike in my unsubscribe rate.)

9. Teach Your Grandmother How to Steal Sheep

There is a common beginner’s error where after we learn something new, we excitedly try to share what we learned with others. This is true even in the field of writing, where, for example, a writer who has mastered one of the trickier parts of writing a novel might want to expound on that lesson in their newsletter.

Don’t do this. You never know who might be reading your newsletter, which is why any advice or instruction should be written under the assumption that you were not the first to figure something out, and that an expert might be reading. (I break this rule all the time.)

10. Share/Sell a Subscriber’s Email Address

This doesn’t happen much with authors, but businesses will sometimes try to maximize their income by selling their mailing lists to other companies. They figure that if they can’t make a sale, your email address is no good to them, so they might as well sell it.

Not all subscribers will notice that their email address was sold, but those who do notice also have ways of identifying who sold their email address. They will unsubscribe and tell all their friends about the incident.

Over to You

So tell me: What would it take to get you to unsubscribe from a newsletter?

Hi, I'm Nate.

I build and fix websites for authors, and I am also a tech VA. I can build you a website that looks great and turns visitors into fans, and I can also fix your tech when it breaks. Let me fight with tech support so you don’t have to.

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1 Comment

  1. Phil Cobb

    Too many emails too often.


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