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Evan Ferguson
9 January 2018
Reading time: 11 min

The Unsubscribe Effect: What Makes Users Hit the Unsubscribe Button?

Everybody uses shortcuts to make decisions. From which clothes to wear to which food to eat — humans rely on emotional intuition at every turn. Time is limited.

So when we make a quick decision like whether or not to open an email, we have to ask ourselves if it’s worth the time and our attention. If the answer is no – we close it, delete it or archive it.

The decision is made in a matter of seconds, but understanding the complex psychological frame-work at play is vital to maintaining customers and growing your brand. So why do people unsubscribe? Well, there are several reasons.

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1. Your email looks like it’s meant for someone else

Personalizing your emails for different audience groups goes a long way in establishing a relationship with your customers. You certainly don’t need to send a separate email to each customer, but addressing the specific needs of your customer segments is great for rapport building.

For example, reaching out to a user on their birthday with a discount or adding dynamic content to create personalized images are great ways to make customers feel special. If you’re selling through an online store, consider sending out abandoned cart emails and follow-up emails. Any way of getting in touch with your customers that meets their needs and references personalized information helps build trust.

2. Boring, sloppy or non-existent images

Images are a must in your email marketing. Text-only emails look spammy to users unless they come from a recognized email address. They also look spammy to email hosts. Messages containing only an image and a few lines of text are at a very high risk of being marked as spam.

You want to aim for a text-image ratio of about 60/40. If you’re still unsure of whether your email has a high chance of being marked as spam, you can always take a look at the Spam Check tab in the check-up section to check if any text in your email is likely to trigger spam filters.

Studies have shown that there is a high correlation between a person’s emotional state and what they’re perceiving visually. Users are responsive to images that resonate with them on an emotional level and make them feel high-energy emotions. You want to select an image that excites your email recipient and adds to the story of your brand.

The worst kind of image to use is one that’s generic. Your images should be interesting, professional and build on the established character of your brand. Have them taken professionally if you can afford it. If not, use free stock photos that work with the aesthetic of your brand.

It’s also worth noting that moving images have been proven to attract more attention and drive more conversion than static images. If you’re stuck on figuring out how to capture the attention of your viewer, consider the use of cinemagraphs or GIFs in your email marketing.

Another great option for your image is to include an infographic in your email. However, be careful not to include too many details in the infographic itself if it throws off your text to image ratio. Not only does this help avoid the spam filter, but it’s also going to help your customers search their inbox for the email if the need to go back to it, since their email host will be able to read the text, but not the infographic.

3. Stiff, mundane, uncharacteristic copy

Good copy is lively, unambiguous and addresses its audience directly. Avoid using academic or industry-specific terminology (unless your audience is industry insiders). Always use the language and vocabulary of your subscribers. What’s right for a millennial audience isn’t going to be the same for senior citizens. Something like an emoji in your subject line is a great way to grab the attention of certain audiences but might come off as unprofessional to others.

Focus on the customer in your writing and address them directly. If you’re promoting a product, tell your audience what they can do with the product rather than what the product does. If you’re promoting content in your marketing email (like a video or article), be brief with your explanation. Let the content speak for itself. The purpose of the email is to direct the user to the content.

Always be as brief as possible in your copy. Cut out information that’s redundant or wordy. If you can say it in fewer words, do. Write in the active voice, use simple present tense (“Buy now!”, “Save up to 50% this weekend!”). Not only is simple present tense less wordy than other tenses, but it also situates the user in the present and adds a sense of urgency to any calls to action.

Finally, you want to remember to have someone else proofread your copy. Our brains have a tendency of unconsciously filling-in-the-blanks when info is missing, which can make it tricky to catch typos in your own writing. Have a friend or co-worker take a final look before sending the email out.


4. Your subject line makes the email look like it can wait

Humans have a natural fear of missing out (FOMO) – so the language of your email headline needs to create a sense of urgency. As in your copy, you want to use the active voice and get to the point. Sending a passive email is sure to garner a passive response. Compare the headlines below:


Good email subject lines are short. They get to the point right away, use action verbs and time-based phrases like “today only” or “act now” to create a sense of urgency. Email subjects should have a sense of mystery about them. Users should need to open the email to get the “full story”.

Think of your subject as being the trailer for your email. You want to entice your audience, but you don’t want to give away the ending.

5. Users are unwilling to scale your unsegmented walls of text

Marketing emails are subjective. There’s ultimately no way to guarantee that all content will be interesting to everybody, so how do you ensure that you maximize the number of people who read your email? Simple: segments.

People like to read in segments. That’s why books have chapters and pages have paragraphs. In fact, studies have shown that reading comprehension increases the more text is segmented. This means that the message of your email will be more likely to be remembered by your customers if it’s broken up.

It’s easy to understand why. People tend to skim walls of text, making it easy to miss something important. Segmenting your emails allows you to control the reading experience for the user and emphasize the important parts of your copy. People may skim walls of text but they take a deep-dive into sections.

6. No personality

Personality is nearly everything when it comes to brand. This is why brands that lack personality tend to be less popular on social media. People connect with brands on an emotional level and want to follow brands that they feel are indicative of their personality. Nobody wants to be boring, so why follow brands that are?

Have a brand-language that resonates with your audience and use it consistently. Use colors that are emblematic of the character of your brand. Your audience is going to have a harder time unfollowing if your brand feels more like a trusted friend than a company.

The idea here is to align the outward projection of your brand with how you want your audience to think of you. Are you a quirky fun-loving friend? A trusted, protective guardian? A wise and imaginative teacher? Think about what you want your brand to be in your audience’s mind and then become that.


People don’t always make decisions rationally, but by understanding the processes by which people make decisions we can better understand how to tailor our email marketing to those psychological triggers. When it comes to email marketing, consideration of these behaviors needs to dictate every decision made about your email – what are users going through when they see the email in their inbox? What about when they open it? If they follow a link?

Understanding how your marketing affects your customers every step of the way will give you a better understanding of how to make good emails.

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Evan Ferguson

I am a contributing writer and digital artist based in Toronto, Canada. I write about content marketing, futurism, and technology. I graduated from York University in 2012 with a degree in Journalism.

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