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6 Manipulative Email Tactics that Disrespect Subscribers—And Hurt Marketers

While brands everywhere are embracing customer-centricity, many relics of brand-centric thinking are still out there. This is especially true in the email marketing industry, where we often vilify inbox providers and second-guess our subscribers’ intentions and intelligence.

Let’s resolve to focus more on serving our subscribers instead of trying to manipulate them, and to shift to respecting our subscribers’ intelligence instead of insulting it.

With those goals in mind, here are six manipulative email tactics that have no place in modern, subscriber-centric email marketing programs:

1. Using passive-aggressive email signup and opt-out language

Implying that people are lazy or stupid if they’re not interested in receiving your email newsletter or gated content is no way to start a relationship. And implying the same on your unsubscribe page if they go to opt out is a horrible way to try to salvage a relationship.

Even if this kind of language shocks people into thinking twice about closing out your pop-up form or completing your unsubscribe process, trying to guilt and shame prospects and customers is a sure-fire way to do damage to your brand and generate negative word of mouth.

Passive-aggressive email signup

2. Requiring all customers to receive marketing emails

Obtaining permission is fundamental to email marketing success. So it shocks us that there are still many large, established brands that are making email opt-ins mandatory as part of their checkout process.

Not only do you risk spam complaints by sending customers emails they didn’t ask for, but you create additional barriers and pain points in your checkout process and other customer interactions.

Consider this: If I know I’ll be spammed every time I purchase from you online, then I either have to put up with that annoyance or I have to stop buying from you online.

If you auto-subscribe all customers to your marketing emails, then you’re weighing the risk of the latter against the upside potential of increased sales from additional email opt-ins. However, it’s not the upside from all email opt-ins. It’s only the upside from subscribers who would have unchecked a pre-checked opt-in box, since that’s the next most logical opt-in alternative.

These are people who actively don’t want to receive your emails, which means that when your emails show up in their inbox, they’re very likely to delete them, unsubscribe from them, or—the worst of all possibilities—mark them as spam, which hurts your deliverability. Viewed in this way, the risk-reward calculation doesn’t look favorable at all.

Of course, there are legal considerations as well. While the US doesn’t have a problem with mandatory opt-ins like this, most other countries do. Most notably, ensure that you’re in compliance with CASL in Canada and GDPR in Europe.

2017 State of Email Deliverability

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3. Hiding behind people’s names to obscure your brand

When it comes to promotional emails, brand names are far more recognizable than the names of the people who work at those brands (although there are some very rare exceptions). All of the recent talk about human-to-human marketing has been interpreted by some as a green light to abandon their brand name and don the cloak of the everyman—sometimes even using a fictional name or the name of a long-gone employee.

However, being recognized in the inbox is critical, as emails from unknown senders are at high risk of being ignored or reported as spam. More consumers look at the from name first before anything else, so your email could be banished before even your subject line gets read.

Inbox at a Glance

If you’re tempted to use a person’s name instead of your brand’s, ask yourself:

  • Is it because you are afraid people don’t want to hear from your brand?
  • Is it because you get a low open rate when sending emails from your brand?
  • Is it because you think more people will open the email because they’re curious to learn who the heck is emailing them?

Answering yes to any of those should lead to some serious introspection regarding your brand’s email permission practices, marketing strategy, and even your brand image.

All of that said, if there really is a particular person behind an email and you’re determined to bring a human element to your email sender names, consider a hybrid approach where you use both your brand name and a person’s name.

For instance, when you download our State of Email Workflows research report, you’ll get a follow-up email from “Chad White, Litmus,” where, as the author of the report, I personally thank you for downloading the report, give you a link to it, and ask you to reply to the email if you have any feedback. Any replies about the report are flagged for me in Help Scout and I personally respond to them.

4. Using misleading, vague, and overly clever subject lines

The goal of your subject line isn’t to generate opens. It’s to generate openers who are likely to convert.

Misleading subject lines and those with little substance attract only the curious and lead to opener’s remorse and a loss of brand trust, which increases email fatigue, opt-outs, and spam complaints.

Deceptive Subject Lines

Instead, you should use descriptive subject lines—ideally supported by descriptive preview text—to attract interested subscribers. Marketers should do this for the very same reasons that they send segmented emails, set up triggered messages, and use personalization. All of those tactics reduce irrelevant messaging, which is the No. 1 cause of opt-outs among all age groups.

Top Reasons Consumers Report Spam

5. Trying to trick Gmail and other inboxes into retabbing your emails

While the concern over tabbed email interfaces has died down dramatically since Gmail started auto-organizing consumer inboxes into a personal, promotional, and notifications tabs in 2013, it hasn’t gone away.

Some executives and marketers consider the Promotions tab to be akin to the spam folder, which it’s not. It’s just another part of the inbox. In terms of deliverability, an email delivered to the Primary tab and an email delivered to the Promotions tab or Notifications tab are the same: Delivered to inbox.

Some executives and marketers also think that their emails will perform better if delivered to the Primary tab. There’s little evidence to suggest this is the case. Simply put, you want your emails to be delivered to the tab where your subscribers expect to find them—and if someone subscribed to your promotional emails, it’s the Promotions tab where they’ll look for them. Context is powerful, as it signals intent.

In a MediaPost column shortly after the launch of Tabs, I urged marketers not to ask their subscribers to retab their emails, which had become a trend. I argued:

By asking subscribers to move your email from the Promotional to the Primary tab, you’re essentially closing your store at the mall and deploying door-to-door salesmen that interrupt your subscribers’ conversations with their friends and loved ones. You’ll surely be more visible, but also probably more intrusive and ultimately less welcome.

That remains sound advice today, as there’s every indication that good email marketers haven’t been hurt by tabbed interfaces. And the lessons around tabs apply to other inbox features and third-party tools designed to help consumers manage their inbox better, such as and Apple’s Easy Unsubscribe.

The hysteria that bubbles up every time one of these comes along is unfortunate because it’s a distraction that keeps marketers from focusing on what’s really important: using segmentation, personalization, and triggered emails to be relevant to their subscribers. Because if you’re sending valuable emails that your subscribers want, you have nothing to fear from inbox management tools and everything to gain, as more organized inboxes mean more attention for emails that make the cut.

6. Hiding unsubscribe links

Only 76% of the top 200 e-commerce sites are using “clear and conspicuous” unsubscribe links in their marketing emails, down from 97% in 2015, according to the Online Trust Alliance’s 2017 Email Marketing & Unsubscribe Audit.

That’s alarming news, since it foreshadows more deliverability problems for brands. That’s because when subscribers find it difficult to unsubscribe, they use the never-fail report spam button instead. And unlike unsubscribes, spam complaints hurt your email deliverability.

Difficulty Unsubscribing Leads to Spam Complaints

Our Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam report found that millennials generally have less trouble navigating brands’ unsubscribe processes than older generations. Baby boomers, in particular, find it hard to opt out, so if your email audience includes a lot of boomers, a complicated unsubscribe process puts you at an even higher risk of spam complaints.

Our recommendation is to always use a two-click unsubscribe process: No more than one click in the email and one on the landing page. Anything more than two clicks and you’re getting too far away from the one-click simplicity of the report spam button.

While one-click unsubscribes are simpler, they don’t give you the opportunity to address what’s motivating the subscriber to seek to opt out. Offering them the chance to opt down to a lower email frequency or to change their topic preferences or newsletter selections can help save many would-be unsubscribers.

Change Your Approach

Instead of using manipulative email tactics like those, embrace subscriber-centricity by…

  1. Using respectful, value-based messaging on your opt-in and lead generation forms
  2. Giving customers the option to receive your marketing emails via at least a pre-checked opt-in box if you’re operating in the US, or an unchecked opt-in box if you’re operating in Europe or elsewhere
  3. Using a recognizable sender name, which is almost invariably going to be your brand name
  4. Using descriptive subject lines that attract openers who are likely to convert
  5. Focusing on sending relevant emails rather than trying to circumvent inbox management tools
  6. Making unsubscribe links clear and conspicuous, and unsubscribe processes simple
Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam

Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam

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Chad S. White

Chad S. White

Chad S. White was the Research Director at Litmus