Email Marketing In The Dead Zone: Are You Training Your List To Ignore You?

By June 27, 2012February 1st, 2018Email Marketing
Email Marketing In The Dead Zone: Are You Training Your List To Ignore You?

Even with all the hoopla around social marketing and engagement, for most small businesses email is where the real engagement happens. Believe it or not, all that “socializing” we do online is still not as effective when it comes to running a business, connecting with customers and making sales as the good old fashioned humdrum email.

And you want a piece of that, right?

I sure do. And while there are best practices and worst practices, no practice in the world will do you any good if you’re making the simple fatal mistake of getting your recipients used to ignoring you.

But how?? You may wonder. I’m charming! I’m witty! My products or services rule the world! Someone would have to be brain dead to ignore you, right?

Well, it’s quite possible that the reason your list is brain dead is because you killed ’em that way. How? Let’s find out. And see if we can zap a little Frankenspark back into them, too.

Your List Might Be Brain Dead If: You Email The Same Thing Over And Over

I should talk, right? I’m the one emailing the same thing over and over right from this very blog. Every time there’s an update, everyone on my list gets one in their inbox. Pretty same-y, isn’t it?

Alas, the conundrum – there is a difference between letting your readers know what to expect and simply lulling them into… well, brain deadness. I promised my list updates on this blog. I didn’t promise coupons or chocolate pie or anything else. There is a certain expectation that I’ve set here, and you’ve probably set one too.

The nuance is that within that expectation, you need to offer something new. Every email that comes from my blog has a new headline (and hopefully an interesting one!) and a new blurb to tease the post du jour. Now imagine I sent an email out again and again about the same post. Besides confusing the heck out of my audience I bet they’d either unsubscribe or go on auto-delete every time they saw my name.

In another context, imagine you’re a retailer and that you send out is a 20% coupon. That might seem like a win the first time. Maybe even the second. But after a while it’s just another 20% coupon. Been there, done that. Unless the only thing you want your list to do is sit around waiting for your next coupon, think about switching it up.

This isn’t to imply that you need to do a song and dance in every email. It only means that you need to pay attention to your message so it keeps the image of your business fresh in the minds of your email readers. Same ol’ “buy me now” message, same ol’ “get my ebook” message, same ‘ol any message is neither inspiring to your audience nor helpful for your business.

Spark up your email list again with something new. If you send offers, try a new offer. If you send news, make sure it’s new-news that’s actually interesting to someone else. If you’re just trying to promote the heck out of your ebook… try Twitter instead.

Your List Might Be Brain Dead If: You Never Ask Them To Take Action

Do you know what happens to your muscles when you sit down or lie in bed for a very long time? They start to atrophy. Stop using a muscle long enough and it will fail to function when you finally get around to remembering it’s there.

Your email list is a marketing muscle. If you don’t give it some exercise in the form of clicks or shares, it may just well atrophy.

This is one of the dangers of email “news”, especially if you plan to send more than news and hope someone will join, share or buy.

Newsletters are often full of blah blah blah about some company award or the latest move to a new office, maybe something about a charitable event you supported or an introduction to a new employee. Even if you can make all this “news” sound like the most fascinating stuff on earth, if you don’t have a single call-to-action in your email then you’re setting yourself up to combat zombie readers later.

If you want to share, post it to Facebook. But if you want to market, you need to include a call-to-action. It need not be obtrusive and you don’t even need to ask anyone to buy anything. You just need to exercise the click muscle. Get your readers used to responding to you. That may be by forwarding your email to a friend, visiting your Facebook page to check out some great new photos or even replying to a question you asked in the email.

Train your readers right and then when you do put the “buy now” button or the “sign up” link or some other revenue-generating action, it’ll be second nature for someone to click and check it out.

Your List Might Be Brain Dead If: You Use Email As A One-Way Street

What’s your response when you get a phone call and it’s an automated service that starts its tinny yakking in your ear? I don’t know about you, but this is mine: click.

That’s because we’ve been taught that phone communication is a two-way street. It’s a conversation, not an opportunity for someone to pour their words into our ears while we sit captive. Unfortunately, that’s the way a lot of marketers think about email. It’s their opportunity to pour their message into the eyeballs of their readers and sit back and wait for the sales to roll in.

I’ve got news for you. It doesn’t work that way any more than phone calls work that way. If the only thing you ever do with your email readers is pour pour pour, eventually you’re going to fill their little heads up until they pop. Then you’ve got brain dead email zombies on your hands and that’s no pretty sight.

Here’s the biggest problem with brain dead zombie subscribers: they will probably never unsubscribe. And so you’ll continue speaking into the dead zone, thinking you’ve got this big, awesome list when all you’ve got are a bunch of people hitting the delete key.

Big retailers can get away with this because we want them to keep the discounts coming. I put up with about 976 Williams Sonoma emails a year just so I can get that one where the cocoa is on sale. As small business people we have to work differently. We have to treat our email list not as a list but as a group of actual people who we communicate with.

Treat them as you would anyone else that you email with. Email, reply. Leave the door open to communication. Don’t send emails from a “do not reply” address. Why would you? Unless you’ve got groupies hanging on your every word, marketing is work! You’ve got to make the effort to build the relationships with people you want to do business with.

I don’t care how many Twitter followers or Facebook fans you have. You can market to them and broadcast to them all day long because as much as we talk about engagement, you’re still talking into a crowded room.

But if someone lets you into their email inbox, that’s personal. They’ve opened up the door to you and said hey, you’re kinda cool, I’d like to hang out with you a while and see where this goes. If you’re a smart marketer, you’ll take that to heart and ditch the tinny yakking in favor of a real conversation.

Show your email list some love. You know what happens if you don’t, right? Drooling, brain dead, unresponsive zombie-list that you’ve programmed to hit delete. Deleting emails is easy. Deleting people? Not so much.

What do you think? Do you agree with me on this or do you still think email is for broadcasting and sending out coupons? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

This post is part of the June 2012 Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here.

Join the discussion 54 Comments

  • Sandi Amorim says:

    “Here’s the biggest problem with brain dead zombie subscribers: they will probably never unsubscribe.”

    What a wake-up call that one line is! Thanks for the great reminder.

  • Loved “exercise the click muscle.” It’s definitely true that the more we can encourage clicking when it’s not about buying, the more likely a person is to click on a “buy now” button later. I’d say that’s also true about opening an email in the first place. I’ve learned that if I entice people with a free series of emails (rather than one free downloadable report), they get used to seeing me in their inbox and opening my mail. Definitely helpful!

  • Annie Sisk says:

    “Ditch the tinny yakking in favor of a real conversation” <– WORD. This, exactly this, is the bottom line.

  • Nicole Fende says:

    Carol this post made me think of Jeff Foxworthy meets zombies (yes that is a good thing). My favorite part of this entire post, ”
    Show your email list some love. You know what happens if you don’t, right? Drooling, brain dead, unresponsive zombie-list that you’ve programmed to hit delete. Deleting emails is easy. Deleting people? Not so much.”

  • evan austin says:

    Carol, you’re SO DARN QUOTABLE!! Great stuff. I have to work on sifting the worries of malicious subversion out of the concept of “training” people…I don’t think I’m there yet in terms of planning that carefully…I can BARELY scrape together an end-of-the-month email for my fledgling list of 18 ppl. As I proceed, however, I won’t be creating any zombies!

    • Sweet! A new feather for my cap… nobody has ever called me quotable before. Since your list is small you get to have more fun and you can be personal without sucking up a ton of time, so go for it!

  • Love this, Carol Lynn. I hear what you’re saying about ‘brain dead zombie subscribers’ – that’s why I prune every so often. Still, this post provides a kick in the pants to DO something with my subscribers.

  • clarestweets says:

    The Dead Zone! Zombie subscribers. This post is a great example of the famous writer advice — show don’t tell. You let me “feel” the brain dead list, not just read about it! I love your twist on how the consistency we all strive for can be turned into a a dead brain habit that kills the value of your list. Perhaps the truth here is that your list is brain dead because so is your approach! Thanks for the wake up call.

    • I seem to have an affinity for zombies… I suppose so long as they’re not eating my brain or my email list. There’s a fine line between consistent and boring and it’s challenging to figure out where that line is. Still, we try!

  • I love the statement “Your email list is a marketing muscle”…that says so much in a few words. My previous list was beyond dead…I was dead with it..Now bring it back to life with a plan…I will definitely utilize your suggestions and show them some love…once it grows again :)! Great advice!

  • Ha! I laughed out loud about the zombies because I’m a currently a zombie on some people’s lists! It’s nothing personal, but I think that’s part of the challenge with how newsletters work sometimes. You are interested in one aspect of a person’s site — a free e-book for example, and then you get stuck on a newsletter list just because that’s the natural next step for how the model works. So, while some newsletters are worth while for sure, I would like to see people make them more interesting or provide a different type offering for email subscribers.

    • It’s true… I don’t mean to be a deadbeat subscriber but sometimes there are so many of those darn emails. I batch delete quite often. Also one of the reasons I hesitate to “bribe” my list with free stuff because I’d probably get a nice boost in subscribers… and then a nice boost in unsubscribers. Such is the challenge!

  • Hi Carol,
    I have to say that was a short one according to your own standards 🙂 But a good one for sure.
    I think that a lot, I mean a LOT of email marketers think that their email is, indeed, a one way street! Just try to email them a question or reply and you’ll see. But, I know that you know that. Hope those idots will read this post. Sorry, for calling people name 🙂 But I don’t know what else to call those people who think that you are ever going to buy anything from them.
    Thanks for those needed reminders and also I’ve learned a few things. There’s always room for learning 🙂

    • I know, I know… I tried to keep it under 3000 words this time! Once in a while I feel a little guilty so I try to make the busy people happy.

      Lots of emails come from some “do not reply” address so even if you tried to reply it would just go into the ether. Big companies do that a lot because they just want to send out their coupons and product offers and stuff. But small businesses can’t do that – we have to be available or people will find someone else who is.

      I figure if you’re going to do email marketing, why waste your time unless you’re going to do a good job and get the most out of it that you can??

  • JennyBBones says:

    I love the way you make the clear distinction between big retailers and our ‘lil bizzes. For me, my favorite thing about having a list is the two-way conversations that often happen. If my list went braindead, I’d be very sad and also worried that the zombie apocalypse had begun.

    • Little biz definitely has to work harder. We can’t hide behind bureaucracy, CEOs or Twitter apologies. We have to be on all the time. I think email was the first “social media” but most people don’t think of it that way. It’s awesome that you have a good list. Better for biz and also a lot more fun.

  • donna_tribe says:

    Carol, I am laughing as I read this. I love the way you coined the phrase Zombie. It is so true. You just gotta clean up that list.

    When writing to your list, there are many ways to do it. My husband – David Merrill – is studying with Daegan Smith. His philosophy is to email your list in story form to get people’s attention. Engage them with emotions. Pretty cool. I have been hovering over David’s shoulder watching him in action.

    There are personalized story telling ones, and emails that will teach his funnel some how to’s. And then the call to action. It’s working pretty well and his list grows each month.

    Your email list is the most important part of your business. You can shout out all over the social platforms, but when it comes to results, email is the best bet.

    He does leave the door open to communication and a certain percentage have engaged with him, got to know him better, came to his FB Page and then opted into an opportunity.

    Great topic my friend, can you write part 2? It will help a lot of folks.

    • Always glad to amuse, Donna 🙂

      Sounds like you’ve got your own personal experiment going on – great to watch and learn! I hope you’re taking notes so you can try out his good ideas for yourself.

      Email is definitely important. It’s a lot more personal and also if people opt-in it’s because they want what you’re offering so you’ve already got them into your funnel, as you said. It’s entirely different than social media. I’m not sure there is even a good funnel for social yet.

      I’d love to write part 2 or 3 or anything you want! If you have a question or want an idea for something, just let me know any time.

  • Adrienne says:

    This is a great topic because everyone wants to build a list but many don’t because once they do, what do they share? Okay, I’m speaking from experience here. Scared to death.

    I hope my emails aren’t too boring but since I do let them know that I’ll be emailing them when I have a new post, I try not to bore them with what I share. I do my best to have enticing headlines and I usually share stories sometimes to give them an idea what’s in my post.

    Other times I do give them a precise call to action but I admit probably still having a long way to go. I think some people stay on my list because they like me so I hope my emails don’t totally turn them off. But, I do know I have some dead zombies hovering around there somewhere too. Just can’t escape that I’m afraid.

    But great points you’ve shared here Carol, as always. Now I need to step up my game right!


    • I’m sure your emails aren’t boring Adrienne unless you become a completely different person when you write them! Anyone who opts in wants them. So we just have to be smart about keeping people interested! Depending on what you want to do and the goals of your emails, you can come up with content to match. Emails don’t need to be long or works of art. They just need to connect with people and have a point!

  • Great idea Carol,

    I tend to avoid the “Brain Dead List” by ruffling some feathers – I make sure I say something inherently controversial, dangerous, naughty, or whatever. I want people to email me back and go, “You Ass” or “Right On”. Anyone in between is not worth the time!

  • Christine Brady says:

    Hi Carol Lynn,
    This is a great example of knowing your market and who your target audience is.

    Whenever I am composing an email to my list, I picture them sitting right in front of me. That way, I have a mental image of my market. Then, I send them something they would want to know, something that applies to them. Knowing who you are mailing to is extremely helpful in mailing the right content.

    Otherwise, as you said, you’ll have zombies for subscribers!

    Thanks for sharing!


    • That’s the best way to do it, Christine! If you’re picturing who you’re writing to, then it’s just like having a conversation and it’s not so scary. The only way small biz people can survive is by being present and connecting. No massive coupon spam for us!

  • AllieRambles says:

    I have neglected my email list for a long time now. I was speaking with a friend of mine and I told him it has been a while since my subscribers have heard from me. And then I said “yet nobody has unsubscribed”. To this he promptly stated “because they don’t know you exist” I got scared at that point. As soon as i send an email again will they see me again and leave? The point is consistently send to your email list.

    I like Nick’s idea to send controversial, dangerous and naughty. But how do you do that in the WAHM arena?


    • It’s true that nobody will unsubscribe if they’re not receiving emails from you, and when you start sending again you may get a few initial unsubs. So before you send again, think of something that would be fun/interesting/valuable to get people curious again.

      It would also be a good idea to remind them of why they’re receiving emails from you. Sometimes when I get an email from someone I don’t recognize, I’ll unsubscribe and later remember who the person was – if it’s been a while people may forget and think they’re getting unsolicited email. Remind them of who you are and why they signed up so they don’t think its spam.
      What works for Nick may not work for everybody! You have to know your audience. Think about who is on your list and what you promised them when they originally signed up. if you want to be ‘daring” you just have to appeal to people emotionally – sometimes that means getting them mad, though not necessarily at you!

      What does your audience care about? What makes them mad or crazy or what problems do they face? If you can take one of those things and “tell it like it is” without the usual marketing language, then people will appreciate that and you don’t have to throw down any f-bombs or anything like that. (Unless you;re audience would get a kick out of it!)

      So I would suggest really understanding who you’re emailing first and what you want to give them, then you can craft your approach.

      • AllieRambles says:


        Thank you so much for the info and the advice. I am surely to follow it.
        I have done exactly what you say. Someone sends me an email but it has been a long time and I do not recognize them so I unsubscribe to later find out I love her blog or book. And then go back to subscribe again.
        I decided to send out a monthly newsletter so I will start fresh and be sure they remember who I am with the first email out.
        Thanks a bunch!

  • Ileane says:

    Hi Carol Lynn,

    I don’t include blog updates in the content I send to my email list. If they want that I’m fine with them using RSS or getting the feed by email. I only want people on my list who need some extra content or who want to engage with me off the blog instead of in the comment section. Most of the feedback and questions I get are surrounding topics I’ve already answered on the blog somewhere and that’s when I give them the links. But at the same time they get the personal attention and instruction that they crave. So far this is helping me understand my audience better and eventually it will help me develop a product that really addresses the needs of my readers.

    Eventually one day, I’ll clean out all of the zombies. 🙂

    • That’s a great way to approach your list, Ileane. You’re less likely to have people who ignore you if you’re interacting with them instead of broadcasting. Sounds like you’re using email more as a learning tool so bet you have a lot less zombies!

  • Michelle says:

    This is a great post Carol – I’ve been on some lists that do the equivalent of the “20% off” email over & over again, and you’re perfectly right; I end up either unsubscribing or sending them to a special folder of newsletters that I never actually read, just skim through for coupons. That result might be okay with someone who has a list of tens of thousands, but for us small business peeps? NOT the action you want your readers to take. Thanks for an informative post!

    • Only big, popular retailers get away with that because really, why are we on their list in the first place? Probably not to chat with them, but just to get the coupons! It’s a whole different strategy for small biz. We have to be circus performers by comparison!

  • Sue Price says:

    A great post and reminder thanks Carol. You are correct it email marketing still works. There are a couple of lists I am on that I always read the email just because they are so well written. Others I don’t even open and I often do not unsubscribe. So as the recipient of way too many emails I guess I could fall into one of your dead zombie subscribers lol
    Emailing my lists is something I need to become more consistent and better at.
    Thanks for this great thoughtful post.


    • I think we all do that, Sue… so many emails and only so much time in a day. Email is a great tool but we have to use it well. It’s not going to do the work for us. And you’re right, I also get those emails that I read because they’re entertaining. And others that I completely ignore. I admit to being a zombie on a few lists!

  • Susan Silver says:

    I still don’t have a list. I am at the point of paying someone to set it up for me with all the fancy bells and whistles. I just can’t seem to get through my head how it is all supposed to work. Which is probably why I should not have one. Would hate to fall into the trap of your points above.

    • Hi Susan,
      If you don’t let have a list, then I’d suggest not starting with “bells and whistles”. Start small with something manageable. First of all, decide why you want a list! Do you want to send blog updates? Market your services? Sell something? First think about what your goal is and then you can decide on the type of email that you’ll send.

      Then I’d suggest getting a free Mailchimp account because it’s easy to use and… free! And you can test it out without stressing out.

      Then pick a schedule – start small, like once a month. and don’t do any fancy templates or anything. Mailchimp has a few preconfigured templates you can choose from so get one of the basic ones, stick your own header and content in and you’re good to go. It’s very drag-and-drop so you don’t have to worry about needing any special skills.

      And try to stay away from templates with a lot of columns and things. The problem is they look really cool but a month or two from now you’re going to be staring at those columns wondering what the heck to put in them and then you’ll get frustrated by the whole thing and either cram something in or give up.

      Free account, basic template. Mailchimp lets you track your opens and all that good stuff built right in. If you need help, just ask! I’d be happy to point you in the right direction.

      • Susan Silver says:

        You rock! Thanks, it is good to have someone in my corner. My big deal is what I should give away to get sign ups. I have done freebies, and I know it does not drive people who are actually interested in me. Is it best to leave that option open only for people who really want something more? I think I would just end up with a list with my friends on it instead of potential customers!

        • I debated the same thing – conventional wisdom says you need a bribe to get people to join your list, right? But really all you’re asking for is a trade-off – you give me your email and I’ll give you something I wrote that I probably would’ve written anyway on my blog and then you can unsubscribe in five minutes…

          In the end I decided not to bribe. If people want to sign up, they will – and it will be for the content.

          I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. But don’t let that be the hangup. Just ask for the signups by promising good content every time and one day if you have a giveaway, then offer it – just don’t let that stop you from building your list!

  • gjorgi says:

    Your post offers some really useful advices that I’ll certainly incorporate in my next email marketing campaign. I’m in the education business and I’m buying not creating my email lists. I’m buying them from and so far they’ve proven to be very effective and offer quit big return for the money invested.

    • You may have better luck with a purchased list because you have a very specific niche. Generally speaking, buying lists isn’t a great practice because people get a lot of junk mail and tend to ignore or unsubscribe from unwanted emails. I’m glad your option is working for you and best of luck putting together your next campaign!

    • Justin says:

      This is a bunch of hogwash! I have used this company (if you call it that) and they are liars. The lists I purchased from them were FILLED WITH ERRORS. When I called to complain they told me that I agreed to their terms and conditions so deal with it. They also refused to give me a refund. I should have known better! They don’t even have a physical address on their website and when you ask for one they refuse to give an address to you. THESE PEOPLE ARE CROOKS!!! STAY AWAY.

      • That’s definitely a downfall of purchasing lists. The information can be outdated and inaccurate. Unfortunately, some companies are also unethical which adds to the problem. Sorry to hear about your experience but it’s a good warning for others who may be considering the same thing.

  • Sonia says:

    I know for myself that receives email, I hate email that is always trying to sale me something. Normally I delete them or eventually unsubscribe. I love emails that let me know whats in it for me and not for them. What can they offer me that is going to solve my problem? I love emails that offer sessions on training or something of interest that has nothing to do with their blog, but something cool and unique for me to check out.

    Also, the more personal they make their email, the more I get to know the person behind the email. I get standardized emails from big brands, but from someone with a small business, they don’t have to sound big to get my attention either.

    • Oddly enough, I also like email that aren’t necessarily about anything but that let me get to know the people behind the emails. I get some like that from one company that I like, and their emails break all the rules… they’re really long, text only and more like a blog post. But I read them every time because they’re always interesting.

      As for selling, I just wait for the coupons from my favorite stores!

      • Sonia says:

        That was awesome Carol..I hear you girl…send discount codes and I am good. Especially around the holidays!

  • Jake says:

    I have a solid list for my campaign and have been using some of your strategies, but what do you suggest if they are “brain dead” and I need to bring them back as active users but they aren’t opening the emails anymore.

    • I’m not sure what you’re doing by way of marketing right now but if you are losing interest it could be that the content or subject lines are not compelling enough. Try switching it up a bit and running some A/B tests to see what kind of subject lines generate more interest.

      Sometimes you have to do a purge. Every few months, maybe twice a year, I go through my email list and knock off anyone who has not opened an email for a long time.

      If you are getting people on your list by way of an offer, maybe they want your offer but not your content (it happens – the freebie people). Or maybe there is not a strong enough relationship between your offer and content.

      If people aren’t opening the emails then you have to give them a subject to catch their attention. An OPEN THIS OR ZOMBIES WILL EAT YOUR BRAINS! type of subject 🙂

      You can use a bit of “shock value” (in a good way, nothing over the top) to get people curious again. Work on the curiosity factor to get them to open then give them something really compelling inside so they will want to check back next time.

      I would also check to see what your deliverability rate is. Are you emails going through? Getting bounced? Start there because if you have a poor delivery rate, nothing will help you get opens. Assuming that’s ok, go for some emotion-grabbing subject lines and test test test