email marketing spam

How I pissed off plenty of email subscribers (& why it was worth it)

The story of my experiment to rejuvenate a stale e-mail list, and how I tripled click-through rate. The upside, the downside and everything in between.

It seems I’ve been pissing a lot of people off recently. First it was the residents of Adelaide, after an article of mine made it to the front page of (I received hate mail for days regarding a throwaway line in the article), and more recently because of something I did with one of the e-mail lists I manage.


This particular e-mail list is a reasonable size, with around 165,000 subscribers. It’s in a potentially “sexy” industry (travel), but the product itself isn’t all that interesting (car rental). It’s the kind of thing that people wouldn’t use even if you gave it away for free. Unlike flights and accommodation, if someone’s not already planning travel then they aren’t interested in booking a rental car. It’s the last thing to be booked in the travel booking process, so most people aren’t going to plan a holiday just because they got a good deal on car rental (whereas they may be prompted to take a holiday by a great deal on flights).

As such, the purpose of the e-mail list is just to keep in touch with previous customers and keep the brand name front of mind when they are looking to book a rental car in the future. The list is a “monthly newsletter”, though for a long time it was only used to give away a small prize each month, and didn’t actually contain any content (let alone “news”). When I took over managing the list I started adding in some content to try and get more value out of it. This worked reasonably well – we were able to communicate more information (destination guide, promotions, travel tips etc) and it didn’t affect the open or click rate too much. The competition remained part of the newsletter).

angry subscribers


For various reasons the list’s open and click rates started to decline. Partly it’s because the list is getting stale; some people have been on the list for years, and it wasn’t actually used until more recently. There has been no clean out of the list at any point, so there are lots of people that have never even seen or opened the previous e-mails. Certain e-mail providers like Gmail and Inky now have a “Promotions” or “Newsletters” tab by default which means any e-mail sent from e-mail list software like MailChimp, AWeber, Campaign Monitor etc is automatically sent to these tabs, and doesn’t show in the user’s inbox.

If you’re like most people (myself included) you probably sign up to certain e-mail lists with good intentions, but after time you end up deleting them as soon as they hit your inbox. I feel this is what was happening with a lot of recipients, so I needed something that would cut through and get them to actually read the message. This e-mail list is not unique; as you can see in the graph below, click-to-open rates have been declining steadily since 2008.

declining email clicks


To cut through, I decided to write a “personal” e-mail to everyone on the list that hadn’t opened or clicked-through on the recent newsletter. I listed my own name as the sender of the e-mail (instead of the usual company name) so that people didn’t just see the sender and click “delete” as usual. I also made the subject line intriguing so that people would want to open it to find out more. I wanted not only to cut through, but also to get feedback from the list members as to what they value (or hate) about the newsletters, so I included some 1-to-1 questions, and signed the e-mail with my name and signature, and had my own personal address as the reply-to address.


From: Luke Chapman
Subject: Are you getting sick of all my e-mails?

Hi there,

I noticed you haven’t entered our competition to win an iPod Touch for Christmas yet. Even if you don’t think you’ll use one yourself, it would make a great gift to give to someone else! It’s really simple to enter (takes about 30 seconds), and you can go straight to the entry form at

We have been making some changes to our monthly newsletter recently, and have tried to include useful information about travel destinations and tips on how to save money, as well as some sneak peeks behind the scenes of [Company Name]. If you find our monthly e-mails aren’t as useful as the could be, or are just downright too annoying, don’t forget you can easily unsubscribe by clicking on the “unsubscribe” link at the very bottom of our e-mails (including this one). However, this is your chance to help shape our future communication by suggesting how we can improve.

I’d love to hear your feedback – is the content of our e-mail newsletter relevant to your interests? What would you like to see in future e-mails? Just reply back to this e-mail and I’ll use your suggestions to help improve our next e-mail newsletter.

We love to give away a prize each month to reward our readers and customers. This month it’s the iPod Touch and previously we have given away GPS units, iPads, Kindle e-books, car rental vouchers, magazine subscriptions and others. Is there a prize that you would love to have the chance to win? Let me know and I’ll do my best to give you the chance in one of our future competitions.

We’ve had a massive year, and it’s all because of people like you. Thanks for your continued support of [Company Name]! If there’s any way we can improve, please e-mail me at and I’ll bring your feedback up for discussion with our team.

Wishing you a great weekend ahead.

Luke Chapman
Marketing Manager
[Company Name]


The campaign had some interesting results, some of which I hadn’t expected. The intended results were achieved (see the stats below) but I also received a slew of hate mail. Okay, of the 140,000 or so e-mails I sent out there were only 4 or 5 rude replies, but I wasn’t really expecting it. I had people swearing their heads off for sending them “spam” and making threats if I didn’t not stop sending them e-mails. Firstly, this was a list that they signed up to by choice, and secondly, they’ve always been able to unsubscribe at any time with the simple click of an “unsubscribe” link.

I also got plenty of e-mails (probably 100) from people asking to be unsubscribed, again not actually realising that it would’ve been quicker to click the unsubscribe link rather than write out a whole e-mail. But at least they weren’t rude. I happily unsubscribed each and every one of them, and sent them each an e-mail letting them know we were sorry to see them go, and also letting them know they can contact me directly if they have any suggestions or questions about our website at any time.

I also received quite a few e-mails from people giving suggestions on what they would like to see in future editions, as well as from people that just wanted to say thank you and express their gratitude either for the great service, or just to say that they appreciated the e-mail. So I guess I didn’t annoy everyone.

But the best thing of all was the result on open and click rates.

According to the 2013 e-mail benchmarks, the average open rate in the travel industry is 22.29% and the average click-to-open rate is 17.85%. The original newsletter was down to figures well below this, with 12.4% open rate and 7.64% clicks-to-opens.

After sending the experiment above to those that didn’t open or click, we achieved… wait for it… a 26.4% open rate and 23.36% click-to-open rate for the newsletter mail-out!

That’s a 3x improvement in clicks!

Most importantly, it’s meant that the people that don’t normally see e-mails from us (the ones that normally delete it, or don’t see it because of filters) were able to interact with us and it drove thousands of extra visits to visit our website. That’s thousands of extra people seeing our brand, and hopefully most of them will remember our name when they need to rent a car.

Of course the e-mail also prompted plenty of people to unsubscribe, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. If they’re not interested in the e-mails and they’re never going to open or see them, then it seems like a waste of money to keep sending them. It’s also worth noting that you can’t send this kind of e-mail every month. I’d say maybe once a year would be okay, but any more would be rocking the boat too much.


  • E-mail list was going stale, opens and clicks were declining.
  • Sent a personal e-mail to all non-openers from private address with intriguing subject line.
  • Despite some angry people, the experiment was successful, with a 3x increase in click-through rate.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate it! ❤️

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