You know all those social media “experts” who go on and on about email marketing and the amazing numbers of subscribers they have? After paying careful attention to my own attempt at creating an email newsletter list, I now truly don’t believe them. I’m not at all convinced that anyone has anywhere near the number of real subscribers that they claim to have.
Why? Because after setting up a newsletter on MailChimp for my Child Abuse Survivor Site, over 90% of the people who signed up, and confirmed, are fake.
Here’s the story…
A few months ago, I decided to try out something different with that site, in an effort to see if I could grow my email subscriber base. Rather than just use WordPress to handle email subscribers and let them get posts as they are published, I wanted to try out something more, something that would let me send a weekly post wrap up, and potentially some other messages to those subscribers. I decided on MailChimp because I’ve read good things about the service, and I could use it free for under 2,000 subscribers, which I figured I’d never come close to.
At first a handful of folks signed up, as I sort of expected. It wasn’t much more than that until one day, suddenly, there were over 20 new sign ups. OK, I had decided to throw up a subscribe box on part of that site, but wow, I didn’t expect that kind of response to it, but ok cool. It went on like this for a few days, each day bringing in 5-6 or 10 new subscribers. Except, when my weekly email went out, the number of people who opened it didn’t go up at all.
I started to investigate, and discovered that most of these new subscribers had inconsistent information. Names that didn’t come close to matching the name of the email address, addresses that seemed likely to be fake (randomized numbers and letters, known spammer domains, etc.), and listed their countries as places that I don’t normally see much traffic from. (Who knew I had so many Icelandic readers, for example?)
That seemed odd, so I took to Google and Twitter to find out what was happening, discovering that I wasn’t the only Mailchimp user seeing the same thing, and that it wasn’t the only mail list tool where we could see the same thing. Another Google search of a sampling of the email addresses confirmed the truth, the results showed these addresses on blacklists for forums and comment systems. But, after this initial swarm, new subscribers seemed to die out for awhile. I figured maybe Mailchimp had solved the glitch or something that was letting people show up without ever confirming.
Until recently, when it started up again. That’s when I started investigating it further, and discovered the same kinds of signups to the WordPress mailing list here too. (Only WP doesn’t actually let you delete subscribers).
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, duh buddy that’s why I have double opt-in turned on for my mailing list, so people have to confirm their subscription before they count as a subscriber. Yeah, that’s been the popular belief, but here’s the thing, I DO TOO!
It would appear that the spammers have figured out a way to not only automatically sign up with random information, but also have a list of email addresses that can be used to confirm the subscriptions as well. They also appear to be signing up for any mailing lists or forum systems, in the hopes that they can then use these new, confirmed, accounts to post spam. My newsletter is announcement only, I’m the only one who can send a message, so it’s not as harmful. Or is it?
The way I see it, there are two risks here. One, you may be paying a higher rate for newsletter subscribers that aren’t real. The other is that these spammers are scraping the content that is only being sent to your subscribers, potentially to post on their own sites. I wouldn’t call either of those situations harmless.
I just finished going through another round of cleaning. Of the over 400 confirmed signups I’ve had for that list, I’m now down to 22 subscribers that aren’t obviously fake. That’s less than 10 percent.
Let’s be clear here. I mention Mailchimp and WordPress because that’s what I have used and where I’ve seen the behavior, but it’s safe to assume this is going on everywhere. In my opinion, these services should be taking steps to access a blacklist of known spammer email accounts and blocking any attempt to subscribe to newsletters. (Afterall, if I can Google an address and find it on a blacklist website, there must be some way to gather that up and make it available to email newsletter services.) On the other hand, they get more money from users who continue to grow their subscriber counts, so I’m not sure how much incentive there is for them to take an action that would limit the number of subscribers each list has.
Of course, that leaves open the possibility that one service will choose to do exactly this, and give themselves a leg up on the competition too.
So, go take a look at your email subscribers. Do you have fakes in there? Have you taken steps to correct that?