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Why Your Email Subscriber Numbers Aren’t as High as You Think

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Image by JASElabs

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?

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  1. I’ve been an email marketer for 5 years now, and I’ve seen the exact same thing as you describe.

    Not a lot of email marketers talk about this issue for 2 reasons:
    1) They like having the large numbers, even if they’re fake.
    2) They know how to block the bots.

    The fake subscribers are just bots that drag your website like Google does when it’s ranking your content in search results (which is also why you won’t see web traffic for your fake subscribers). These bots just look for a form, fill out the blanks, and probably have some sort of macro working in their inbox so they auto-click the first link in an email to ensure they’re subscribed in the case of a double opt-in.

    When I first noticed that I was getting fake subscribers, I also noticed that they were dropping off of my MailChimp list just as quickly.

    While MailChimp could blacklist subscriptions by those bad domains, they do remove bad emails from their list, and that helps.

    When I send an email from MailChimp to a bad email address, it always bounces. These bounces are either because the email address no longer exists (hard bounce) or the inbox is full or suspended (soft bounce). MailChimp removes subscribers who hard bounce and gives 2 more tries to soft bounce subscribers.

    But the best option is to add CAPTCHA to your sign up form. I use the CAPTCHA plugin on WordPress along with MailChimp for WP plugin. It stops bots well.

    Hope that helps.

    1. I may have to look at adding a Captcha type thing to the sign up form, much as I hate them.

      Unfortunately, at least in my case, the addresses are valid, not bounced, that’s how they confirm, right? So I wind up with a bunch of subscribers who never open the emails, because they aren’t real people. That’s why the easy answer to the problem would be a blacklist of known spammer email addresses, but I also understand how difficult that would be to keep up with.

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