Everyone needs a backup plan. For everything. You need to back up your computer’s hard drive, you need to back up your photos and your music, and you need a backup plan for your finances. If you are a small business owner, you need multiple backup plans – one for each major aspect of your business. If you are an email marketer, you need a backup plan for your email provider. This is an important and costly lesson I learned, thanks to AWeber, one of the most popular email service providers around. This is my story:
A few years ago, I opened an AWeber account. For those who aren’t familiar with AWeber, they offer a system that allows business owners to send a large number of emails and newsletters at once. Of course, they offer much more than that. They allow users to track the open and click through rates of their newsletters, split test their emails (test performance of variations), create an automatic newsletter series, track historical data for your marketing efforts, and much, much more. Using an email management system allows businesses to create entire marketing systems.
Why Businesses Need Email Management Systems
It might seem silly to pay a company a couple hundred dollars a month to manage your newsletters when you can send email for free. Here is how it works: anyone can send a few emails. But most free email accounts like GMail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or even the free email service from the web host using an email on a domain you own, cap the number of emails you can send in any given day. This is designed to prevent spammers from flooding your inbox. Newsletter providers such as AWeber, Constant Contact, MailChimp, and similar companies work with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to deliver large quantities of email. Even then, these companies have internal measures which help them control the quality and deliverability of the email. Too many messages marked as spam can get your account flagged, and possibly shut down.
Caught in AWeber’s Web
As I mentioned, I opened my AWeber account over two years ago. During that time, I have grown my newsletter list from zero to about 30,000 people. This is a decent sized list – larger than I could manage through a free email system, but certainly not one of AWeber’s largest accounts.
During this time, I set up my account, created a newsletter template, and sent thousands of emails. I also paid AWeber thousands of dollars in monthly fees.
Like most small business owners, I am a jack of all trades, but not an expert in any one field. I do what I can, and try to outsource the rest to people who have better skills than I. A good example is the spiderweb image you see here, which I had created on Fiverr (which I will remove if AWeber requests. I think it falls under fair use, but I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one online).
Being that I am a jack of all trades, optimizing a newsletter is not my strong point. I followed many of the tutorials AWeber sends out in their newsletters and I was consistent with my message and sending frequency. I clearly labeled each email with the sender name and subject title, I verified it passed AWeber’s internal system which checks the content for likelihood of spam. For the last year, I have sent out two newsletters per month. I think you know where this is going.
AWeber Closed My Account with No Notice
I received an email from AWeber last month on November 12, 2012, stating my account was closed. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. I simply could not log in to my account. Here is the kicker: they never gave me warning*.
Why AWeber closed my account: From the form letter they sent me:
“Upon investigating a number of spam complaints in regard to your account and subscriber process, it has been determined that you are using your AWeber account in a way that is generating an unacceptable number of complaints.”
I immediately called AWeber and asked to speak with a representative. She explained how the number of spam complaints from one account can affect their entire business. If too many emails from one account are marked as spam, it will affect the deliverability rates of all newsletters sent through AWeber. They need to maintain quality control, otherwise their business will suffer. Because of this, they closed my account, effective immediately, and they requested I never open an account with them again. She offered to send me all my data in a zip file, which she did.
I understand AWeber’s stance. 100%. But I strongly disagree with how they closed my account.
*I received a notice on November 14, 2011 (almost exactly a year prior to the date my account was closed) that I needed to monitor the number of emails marked as spam. I immediately made the requested changes. At the time, AWeber used a notification system with the colors green, yellow, and red to indicate the quality of the email broadcast. A green indication meant all was well, yellow meant you needed to make improvements, and red meant there were problems. Since I received the initial email a year ago, I have not hit the red mark, nor have I received any additional communication from AWeber regarding the quality of my broadcasts. Many of the broadcasts I sent were marked as yellow, but I was at no time given any indication that my account would be closed without further improvements. (I know the exact dates because I archive every business email I receive in GMail).
How Much Spam is Too Much?
Based on the people in the newsletter industry that I’ve spoken with, one spam per thousand emails sent is the rough threshold. More than that and you run the risk of harming the newsletter provider. Less than one email marked as spam per thousand emails sent, and you are probably OK.
I’m going off of memory, because the account records AWeber sent me did not include the number of spam complaints for each newsletter sent. I seem to recall my newsletters received around 15-22 spams per broadcast, with a few spikes here and there. My newsletter list was roughly 20,000 for most of the past year, which puts that right at one spam per thousand emails sent. As explained above, my newsletters were generally marked with the yellow color, indicating the need for improvement. However, there was never any indication from AWeber that my account would be closed for this.
Why was your spam so high, Ryan! To be honest, I think there are two primary reasons.
- I could been more proactive in culling my list. Running a large newsletter list is a tricky business and you need to be proactive with it. Some people simply get tired of receiving emails and mark them as spam instead of deleting them or unsubscribing. (note: each newsletter I sent had an unsubscribe link clearly marked at both the top and the bottom of the email, as recommended by AWeber and other email service providers). I should have been more proactive in removing people from my newsletter list. When I received my subscriber list from AWeber, I asked for them to remove all subscribers that had been a member for more than 6 months, but who had not opened an email in the last 6 months. That reduced my list by over 3,000 people, and also reduced the likelihood that some people would mark the email as spam without opening it. Making this small change earlier may have improved my spam rates.
- My newsletters were frequently forwarded. I noticed that some subscribers opened the newsletters up to 50 times. I like to think that I provide good information people can reference again and again, but I know the newsletters aren’t compelling enough to be opened 50 times by one person. But that could be the case if they forward the email to 50 people in their contact list. When someone marks the forwarded message as spam, it still counts against my account. Unfortunately, I can’t control that, and people who aggressively forward my newsletters could have contributed to the total number of emails marked as spam.
Update: I have since been notified by the folks at AWeber that forwarded emails are not a contributing factor. “When a subscriber forwards your email to another person, any spam complaints lodged would be be counted against the subscriber forwarding the email, not against you.”
What have I done to correct this? I have since moved to a new email provider, Constant Contact, and their support has been amazing. New customers with over 10,000 people on their email list get 90 days of free consultation with a dedicated account manager. I have sent out two newsletters since then with the following metrics:
- Newsletter 1: Sends: 27,621, Opens: 9,772 (35.8%), Clicks 5,987 (61.3%), Spam: 15
- Newsletter 2: Sends: 27,561, Opens: 9,457 (34.8%), Clicks 3,590 (38.0%), Spam: 4
As you can see, the spam rates are well within limits, and the open and click rates are both very good. In other words, the few small changes I have made have turned my account from an account of borderline quality, to one that any newsletter provider would be happy to host. And it only took one 30 minute phone consultation to achieve these results.
How This Affected My Business
The timing of this couldn’t have been worse, as I was in the middle of my biggest marketing event of the year. To put this in perspective, it was like someone shutting down a coupon site on Black Friday. Not only did they shut down my ability to add several thousand new subscribers to my email list, they shut down all the links in the emails I had already sent.
That means all the newsletters I had sent my subscribers were broken. They couldn’t get the information they wanted because all the links in the newsletter were routed through AWeber’s servers. When AWeber shut down my account, they shut down those links. I received numerous questions and complaints from my subscribers. The folks at AWeber were kind enough to turn on the links in the newsletters for a few hours that day, but I still lost the ability to access my account, records, or add new subscribers. The links were shut down again at the end of business that day.
I can’t put a firm number on what this cost me, but it was easily several thousand dollars in direct losses, lost subscribers, lost opportunity, time to find a competing product, time to learn a new email system, and time to create a new system of emails to welcome new readers, follow up with them, etc.
How AWeber Needs to Improve
AWeber needs to shut down illegitimate accounts. Immediately. There are CAN-SPAM laws, state laws, and other issues to deal with, such as the overall deliverability rates for their company. But they absolutely need to take some time to better communicate with their customers who are following all the rules and may need some help increasing their opening rates and other factors.
The metrics I showed in the above screenshot are very good. My account rep at Constant Contact was amazed at the results from the first newsletter send and was equally happy with the results from the second newsletter. How did we achieve those results? A 30 minute phone call and implementing a few recommended changes. (again, note that I asked AWeber to cull a portion of my list before exporting my subscribers; this likely had a net positive impact).
The point is that a quick consultation with an account rep at AWeber most likely would have achieved a similar net result. Instead, they shut down a customer’s account without notice – which cost both companies a lot of money. I put my losses at several thousand dollars, and AWeber’s losses at a similar number. At the time my account was closed, I had 30,000 subscribers and was paying in excess of $200 a month, plus their annual fee.
In other words, AWeber lost a customer of over two years, and an account worth $3,000 a year – all for something that could have been proactively handled with a 30 minute phone consultation.
AWeber Lost More Than a Long Time Customer
Losing an account worth $3,000 a year isn’t going to sink AWeber. But it certainly doesn’t help them. By closing my account, they got a quick fix on their metrics. But not a lasting fix. AWeber chose to use an an axe instead of a scalpel. With a small outlay on their side, they could have kept a long time customer and improved their metrics and deliverability rates. Not only would they have kept my business with this newsletter list, but they would have my business for any future newsletter lists I create (I currently run multiple websites, and have plans to build four more newsletter lists in the coming months).
AWeber also lost my recommendation. The newsletter industry is incredibly competitive – there are many excellent options with similar feature sets and price points. As such, it can be difficult to make a decision, which is why most people crowd source recommendations. I am a businessman, and recommendations from friends and colleagues are incredibly valuable when I make a business decision. I know many people are like me and crowd source advice when choosing new service providers. And now I will have a caveat whenever I mention AWeber to another marketer.
To be clear, I am not slamming AWeber here. I still believe they offer a good service. It is relatively easy to use, offers more functionality than many email service providers, and they have (had?) a great reputation in the Internet marketing community. But why take a risk when there are many other equally good options out there, many of which are proactive with helping their customer base? Any time I mention AWeber to another marketer in the future, I will disclose how they closed my account without warning. And I will tell them how much it cost my business.
I am Sharing My Story for Two Reasons:
1. Everyone needs a backup plan. If something is integral to your business model, then back it up. It doesn’t matter what it is – email list, customer list, backups of your databases, processes and procedures, etc. Find a way to back it up on a hard drive, to the cloud, hard copies, whatever. Then test your backups to make sure they work. With an email list like AWeber, Constant Contact, MailChimp, etc., it is a good idea to back up your emails in a text file, and keep a spreadsheet of any stats you want to keep for your own analysis.
2. AWeber needs to make internal changes. I understand why AWeber closed my account. But I disagree with how they closed it. It is possible all of this could have been avoided if AWeber had an internal system in place to flag accounts and contact customers who were potentially causing problems. If someone is blatantly breaking laws or causing problems, cut them. But if a simple 30 minute phone consultation can achieve outstanding results, then it is worth their time and investment. AWeber has dozens of employees. It is in their best interest to dedicate a few resources to 1) create a system to identify customers who could use improvements on their metrics, and 2) allocate a few account specialists to work with them. Start with the big accounts 100,000+ that aren’t meeting metrics. Schedule a call with the owners. Then do the same with customers who have accounts with 50,000 plus subscribers. Then go down to the accounts with 25,000, 10,000, etc. Your customers will love you for it, and you will achieve better long term results on your company wide metrics. Think scalpel, not axe.
Instead, AWeber closed my account without warning. They cost me thousands of dollars, and they cost themselves a customer of two years that was worth $3,000 a year to them, plus growth. This was badly done, AWeber. Badly done, indeed.