I think you’ll agree with me when I say breakups suuuuuck.
In email marketing, an unsubscribe is the digital equivalent of a breakup. And it stings when someone—especially someone you know, like, and trust—says they don’t want to hear from you anymore.
If you take it personally and feel like you’ve been stabbed in the heart when someone opts out of receiving your emails, you’re not alone.
Online entrepreneur Stu McLaren recalls the heartbreak of his first unsubscribe, and his surprise when his buddy dropped this nugget of wisdom: “Dude, an unsubscribe is a really good thing.”
“Look, if you’ve got an unsubscribe, think of it as like a cleansing process,” his friend explained. “They’re just somebody who has said, ‘You know what, this stuff isn’t right for me,’ and that’s okay. Because now you’ve got a smaller, tidier list of people who are really into everything that you’re sharing.”
I agree with this 100 percent. But just like a breakup, an unsubscribe is also a learning process. We have a unique opportunity to look at the role we played, be accountable for our mistakes, and improve our future relationships.
Here are five useful things breakups can teach you about unsubscribes and help improve your relationships with your clients.
Respect is required
Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect. This means treating someone in a thoughtful and courteous way, considering and honoring her preferences, and making her a priority.
When respect dwindles or isn’t there, it’s obvious. The relationship is one-sided and all about the needs and wants of one person. There’s no space in the relationship for anyone else. There is zero time or consideration given to the other person.
How disrespect can show up in email marketing:
- Non-consensual relationships. Giving consent and having our requests respected is important—in sex, in life, and in email marketing. Yes is always best; build your relationships on express consent.
- Always selling, never solving. Sales are a byproduct of solving your clients’ problems. Focus on building relationships, not making sales.
- Disregarding preferences. If a subscriber expresses a preference (how often he wants to hear from you, what he wants to hear from you), always honor it.
Effort is a must
Healthy relationships require effort. Sure, a relationship may start like a fairytale, but when you’re in a relationship with another human, things get real and require a little nurturing. Making an effort means being present, staying curious, and practicing vulnerability.
When effort isn’t made, a relationship is put on auto-pilot. The connection isn’t maintained because things get comfortable and the details that made everything so magical in the beginning are completely overlooked.
How lack of effort can show up in email marketing:
- No value added. Sending something is not the same as sending information your client will find useful.
- Irrelevance. Use your sign-up form to collect additional information about your subscribers, and utilize drip campaigns to discover what’s important to them.
- Being robotic. Be yourself, let your personality shine, and be human. It’s hard to let down our guard and reveal ourselves to others, but it’s worth the effort.
Consistency is key
Healthy relationships are all about setting and meeting expectations. Showing up regularly demonstrates reliability and certainty, and it creates confidence.
When relationships are inconsistent, it causes anxiety and stress because we don’t know where we stand or what to expect.
How inconsistency can show up in email marketing:
- Uncertainty about what to expect. Let your subscribers know what information they can expect to receive from you and how often.
- Sporadic contact. Set a schedule for your newsletter and stick to it.
Communication is crucial
Healthy relationships are all about making time for other people and demonstrating our interest in who they are, how they feel, and what they do. Communicating is how we nurture and feed our relationships. And it’s a two-way street.
When we stop paying attention and communicating, our connection withers and dies.
How a lack of communication can show up in email marketing:
- Being unresponsive. Never use a “do not reply” email address. Make yourself available to your subscribers by giving them direct access to your inbox, and always respond when they engage with you.
- It’s all about you. Put on your detective hat and get curious about the people on your mailing list. Ask questions, take surveys, run polls—there’s always more to learn to keep your subscribers engaged.
Trust is everything
Healthy relationships are based on action, not just words. Over time, showing respect, making an effort, being consistent, and communicating with intention deepens our trust in others.
When trust disappears or wobbles, it’s a vote of no confidence. No one likes playing an emotional guessing game.
How a lack of trust shows up in email marketing:
- Unengaged subscribers. When you lose trust, you lose engagement. And unless you regain and rebuild the trust, you’re headed for a breakup.
- It’s just about interest, not relationships. Your goal isn’t showing up in your subscribers’ inbox or just keeping their interest—it’s growing your relationships.
This relationship advice comes from my own personal mistakes and experiences. Over time, I discovered that what works in my real-life relationships also works with my database. Because my database isn’t just a mailing list—it’s a list of my relationships.
If you’re not getting the results you want with your email marketing, try looking at your list through a relationship lens and giving these suggestions a go.