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Mental Opt-Out

June 15th, 2010 by Bob Bly

A recent article in DM News used the term ?mental opt-out? to describe someone who does not unsubscribe from a list but just stops reading or even opening the e-mails.

In surveying my list, I discovered a lot of mental opt-outs among my e-zine subscribers: they hadn?t unsubscribed yet but they no longer read the messages.

Although mental opt-out isn?t included in the figures when you measure opt-out rate, it?s just as dangerous to your online business.

Reason: if people don?t read what you send anymore, it means they either don?t value the content or don?t trust you.

And if they don?t open and read your messages, they won?t respond to your offers.

According to a study reported in Target Marketing, after subscribers are on a list for two years, their propensity to open e-mail declines by nearly 40 percent.

How do you prevent mental opt-out? One way is to keep an eye on your open rate. If it sinks, that?s a sign people are mentally opting out and you need to do something about it.

Make sure your content is fresh and valuable. Surprisingly, many of your subscribers save or remember your e-mails, and if you try to recycle old messages, it won?t be received well.

If you suspect mental opt-out, try cutting back on the frequency of your e-mail blasts. Many subscribers are absolutely bombarded with e-mail ? yours and others ? and yours will stand out more if there are fewer per week. In the good old days of direct mail we used the term ?list fatigue? to describe a list that was being mailed to too often. Well, e-lists can suffer list fatigue too.

Send fewer sales messages and more content messages. A minimum of 50% of your e-mails should be pure content. I used to send two and even sometimes three sales messages a week. Now the majority of my e-mails will be pure content.

I found the best way to uncover mental opt-out was to ask my subscribers (including you) whether I was sending out too many sales messages and whether my newsletter contained enough content for them.

You can do this with your list, and believe me, your subscribers won?t be shy about speaking up for what they want from their subscription to your service.

Adjust what you are doing, give them what they want, and they will start to mentally opt in again, read your messages, and respond to your offers. But not overnight. It takes time to rebuild trust.

Do you know who is on your list and what topics they are most interested in? You can find out with an online survey using a tool like We did this and it really helped me understand my audience better. Your subscribers will also appreciate that you took the time to do a survey to find out what they want.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 at 2:52 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

28 responses about “Mental Opt-Out”

  1. Commercial Photographer said:

    Is it really worth the effort to offer email newsletters?

    I thought it was only the very ignorant that would make the mistake of signing up for a newsletter. Eventually everyone will have the bad experience of getting spammed shortly after signing up for a newsletter, and then stop doing it. Personally, I cannot think of a single company I “trust” enough to sign up for their email newsletter.

  2. Eric S. Mueller said:

    I’ve signed up for tons of email newsletters. I’ve mentally opted out of most of them though. I don’t have time to read them all, so I usually scan through looking for anything useful, then archive the newsletter. I mentally opt-out rather than unsubscribe because I trust these newsletters to provide good content, at least once in a while.

  3. Bob Bly said:

    Commercial Photographer: if you don’t offer an e-newsletter, how do you build an opt-in e-list?

  4. Commercial Photographer said:

    Bob Bly: I don’t. In my mind “opt-in”, “e-newsletter”, “e-list” and all such language has become synonymous with the term “spam”. I would even go as far as saying that by offering an e-newsletter on your web site, you could be creating the impression that you are not to be trusted – all because spammers often use this method of collecting e-mail addresses too.

    Or is it just me that feels this way?

  5. Joel Heffner said:

    Instead of email lists, I prefer to keep track of how many want to read blog posts. I tend to think that they “really” want to hear what I have to say.

  6. Bob Bly said:

    Joel: No more than the people who open my e-zines….

  7. Dimitri said:

    To: Commercial Photographer: You seem resigned to rather not try something out because you could end up being annoyed, which is understandable, considering the flood of “information” these days. But aren’t you basing your current decisions on past experiences, hence living in the past? Who knows, maybe things change? Try your favorite photo website perhaps. And you can always un-subscribe anytime these days…

    To Bob: I have enjoyed your News Letter for a long time, thank you. I don’t read every issue but, the head line and first couple of lines either catch my interest or they don’t. There is a delete button on my keyboard which I use. But when I do read an issue, I usually get value from it. I have also purchased an e-book of yours or two. If I hadn’t gotten value I would have asked for a refund.

    All in all, I think mental opt-out is a sign of the times. People deal with overload in their own ways. Maybe this is a signal for marketers to evolve, and they do.

    Permission marketing is the way of the future. It helps to better screen interested people from those who will never read or buy stuff anyway… a bit like like Professional Photographer. He simply reads and buys through other media. It doesn’t have to be an e-newsletter

  8. Permission Marketing said:

    […] from a list but just stops reading or even opening the e-mails." …you can read the rest here So yeah, times ARE changing whether we like it or not 🙂 __________________ Live the life you […]

  9. Commercial Photographer said:

    People who “mental opt-out” of newsletters are probably whose who have lost control of their email accounts. Sooner or later they will have to scrap that account and create a new one, if they have not done so already. And they will not make the same mistake again.

    So it is actually the other way round. It is not that people like me have not tried e-newsletters, it is that we *have* tried it, and found that it has some nasty consequences.

    Permission marketing has been destroyed by spammers. For it to work, a completely new e-mail system will have to be developed, one where the user has the power to give and take permission as he pleases.

    But that will not happen because there are already more effective ways for the user to get the information he wants: For example, he can visit web sites as he chooses, *and* he can do it at a time that he chooses. Also, RSS feeds allow him to see regular updates, *if* he chooses.

    The reason I am here on this site is because I bought and read Bob Bly’s book. I did that because of recommendations on If I had found this web site first, I would certainly not have bought the book. Why? Because the first thing you see, right there in your face is a *popup* that asks you to *subscribe*!?!

    And that is the point I am trying to make. Why all those negatives at a time when the person has no reason to trust you? So my question is still: The benefit you get from those that do subscribe to (and actually get to read) your e-newsletter, does it really outweigh the loss of those that you chase away?

  10. Mele said:

    I once completed a Request for More Information from a marketing “guru” who shall remain nameless (I received her name from your site, Bob). The form required an email address, of course.

    In her reply email, she promised to schedule a 20 minute intro call. I didn’t ask for this, but was impressed that she’d do that.

    She never showed up for the session (she was to call me and did not provide her number). I sent several emails asking what happened. No response.

    But you can bet that I get her email blasts almost every single day. People like that make it difficult for every marketer.

  11. DSM Design said:

    After reading this I realised I had a fair amount of emails a day from the same companies that I just never read, I think part of me didn’t unsubscribe because theres always that feeling of…what if they do a really good offer just after I opt out?

    It feels good to de-clutter! 🙂

  12. Tom Kulzer said:

    If you’ve seen some of Hotmail’s latest changes you might have missed their new “prompted unsubscribe” function. If you repeatedly just delete a particular senders email messages they will prompt you to unsubscribe after you do that several times.

    Return Path has some coverage on that change and a number of others on their blog.

  13. lesley peters said:


    I agree that many people stop reading emails. I did notice that you offer more content, and less sales than you did previously. I really enjoy your content issues (even though I know you also need to sell things).

    There are certain people (you are one) whose emails I enjoy, and save to open when I have time. I think if people offer quality content, they will get continued readership.

    What does everyone think?

    Lesley Peters

  14. Don’t Make This E-Newsletter Mistake | Fix Your Broken Marketing said:

    […] commercial photographer commented on Bob Bly’s blog last week complaining that email marketing has been destroyed by spammers. That anyone who signed up for one […]

  15. Marcia Layton Turner said:

    I always learn something new from you, Bob. Mentally opting out makes a lot of sense, based on my own behavior. And watching your open rate to monitor whether others have mentally opted out is something I will start doing. Thanks for the tip!


  16. martin start said:

    Honestly, I’m one of those people who just let emails come into my inbox then will eventually delete it. Though sometimes, I find time to end my subscription.

  17. Chris said:

    Commercial Photographer: I don’t think you are alone in your thoughts on this. I am in the process of establishing an email marketing strategy and my business partner is always on about sending out newsletters. I too like the idea of adding value rather than just asking for the sale each time. However, if this is what everyone is now doing, then surely it becomes a bland standardised business strategy that over time will only increase the mental opt-out. The reality is though that just getting in front of people can be enough to initiate the sale. You don’t create opportunities by doing nothing.
    You question whether it will chase away more people than you draw in. How does this apply to your revenue generation Commercial Photographer? Newsletters are just one way to stay in touch with potential customers. Staying front of mind so that when they do need a photographer, your name pops up in their head.
    Anyway isn’t photography by its very nature invasive? Sticking your lens in front of people and taking a slice of their sole in an image etc? Makes it difficult to comprehend why you’d be so annoyed with Bob’s pop-up subscription box.
    But yeah.. I found that a little annoying too. First thing I wanted to do was check out his website not subscribe (why would I subscribe before I know what it is I’m subscribing to?). You should watch this 3 minute clip of Bill Hicks on marketing it is well worth watching, and may give you some light relief.

  18. There’s No Opt-Out in Direct Mail With Smart Marketing said:

    […] then there’s the “mental opt-outs” described by copywriter Bob Bly. These folks don’t unsubscribe; they just stop reading or even […]

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