“Sorry to See You Go”: What unsubscribing has taught me about church emails

My email inbox can get a little out of hand.

"Out of hand" is putting it lightly; my inbox can be downright overwhelming. To stem the tide of promotions, reminders, newsletters, and special offers, I go through the occasional email purge. COVID-19 gives me all the more incentive to get my emails under control. I didn’t realize how many companies were "here for me" and "all in this together" until the pandemic.

My email purge is reasonably straightforward: I filter my inbox, searching for emails originating from a mailing list. At the bottom of each message is the word I'm searching for: "unsubscribe."


The process is quite freeing. Each click of "unsubscribe" is an act of digital decluttering that would make Marie Kondo proud. Then, following each click, I'm usually asked to leave some feedback: "Why do you no longer wish to receive emails from us?"

What makes me unsubscribe?

Sometimes the emails aren't relevant to me anymore. Perhaps I signed up for a newsletter at an event, but I no longer have an interest in the organization that sends them. Maybe I keep getting announcements for sales at a store I've only purchased from once. This is an excellent time to unsubscribe.

Often I just get overwhelmed. I donated money to a political candidate and then got multiple emails a day asking for more. Unsubscribe.

Typically, though, the decision to unsubscribe rests on a perception of value. When I unsubscribe, I'm effectively saying that the value these emails provide is lower than the cost of the inbox space. Therefore, it's time to go.

What makes me stay subscribed?

As I go through the process of unsubscribing and feel the relief that comes with removing myself from another mailing list, I will occasionally pause and let one remain. The reasons for staying subscribed are as varied as the reasons for unsubscribing, but they still tend to come down to value. And value is usually increased when the email meets some or all of the following criteria:

The information is beneficial. Maybe I find the messages engaging, entertaining, or enlightening. Perhaps the mailing list includes offers that I wouldn’t find elsewhere. Or maybe the information included is helpful to other parts of my life.

The schedule is manageable. I tend to appreciate messages that come at regular, expected intervals. I receive a couple of news emails every morning, and I like to start my day reading them. Frequency of emails is a factor also. I'm far more likely to stay subscribed to an email list if I don't feel bombarded by messages.

The connection is clear. I tend to prioritize emails from those with whom I have a personal relationship. A friend sends out an email each morning with some words of wisdom and encouragement. Missionaries from my church send regular updates. A poet I met at a show has a mailing list where he advertises his new works and events. These are all personal connections that are important to me. I'm not likely to unsubscribe from these lists.

So, what does this mean for church?

As the writer of my church’s mass emails, I try to be attentive to what value these emails offer to those who read them. Therefore, I seek to honor those who receive the emails by sending the kinds of emails that I would read. It's a campaign-email version of the golden rule: send unto others as you would have them send to you.

This starts by keeping the emails beneficial. I want each email I send to be engaging, entertaining, or enlightening. Often, I want an email to be all three. How this looks can vary, but keeping these three "E's" in my mind helps me write. It also encourages me to think about mass emails in relation to other communications from the church. For example, if an announcement is on the church's website, I don't need to repeat the whole thing in the newsletter. Instead, I should engage just enough to encourage someone to read the entire thing on the website (or just enough for them to realize this particular piece of information isn't relevant to them).

I also think about the frequency and schedule. How often should I send a newsletter? The answer to this question might be different in different contexts. I tend to treat the email newsletter similarly to a printed bulletin. Therefore, once a week is appropriate. For schedule: I think about when the information contained in the newsletter will be most useful to readers. In my church, I've found Thursday to be an ideal day for a weekly newsletter, though your testing might reveal differently.

Lastly, I make it personal. I don't suggest sharing private information, but I do encourage you to remember that you are writing to individuals (despite us calling them "mass" emails). I wrote about this in another article where I talk about finding your ideal reader. Making it personal means your message should not be just a list of all the events coming up. It's not just advertising. It's about sharing who you are as a church. It might mean highlighting the work of specific individuals, or possibly having a section called "did you know…" where you share some of the lesser-known things going on in the life of your congregation.

There's no perfect formula for composing effective email campaigns, though we'd always do well to remember to write as we'd like to read. Think about how you receive information via email and how you, as a writer, can offer information that is beneficial, manageable, and personable. In doing so, we seek to honor our readers, and we become better communicators.

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