Email marketing worst practices - a Nextdoor experience gone awry

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 2, 2016
Summary:
I have a soft spot for community networking site Nextdoor. Unfortunately their email marketing approach clashes with my fussy inbox. Here's six email marketing worst practices in action - and how to avoid them.

man-scratching-head
I am rooting for Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social networking site. It's been rocky so far. My well-documented love/hate with Facebook has spilled over into another dysfunctional relationship. Though part of this is really on my neighbors:

It's gets better. I'm not just a member of Nextdoor; I'm actually a "Nextdoor Lead" for my ward:

To be fair, my whiny eagle-eyed neighbors have alerted me to things I should know about, like a concerning arson issue, and wayward pets that need rescuing. My ward is a work in progress - only a few hundred members - so I hang in there, hoping to be a part of the spontaneous moments that community maestro Mark Finnern swears by in his San Francisco ward.

Nextdoor likes sending you email

Like most social networking sites, Nextdoor is fond of sending you email. (LinkedIn has been apologizing for sending email, and sending us lots more email, for a couple years now). Most web sites turn to email to "push" their way back into the attention span of their distracted constituents.

The catch: recipients soon reach the unhappy state of email-interruptus-overloadus. The solution? Reduce email frequency, and increase topic control and/or personalization. However - easier said than done.

Two ways for companies to solve email overdose

There are two ways to solve this email issue. The first is old school. Call it the LinkedIn way:

  • Create extensive categories of email notifications. Give the user the ability to customize those notifications to their liking. Caveat: this only works if EVERY type of email sent fits into a category a user can control. Once you start sending out rogue emails without a category of control, the system breaks down. There are flaws in requiring deep user customization; see my prior piece, Personalization vs relevance vs customization – confusion or opportunity?

Or:

  • Go the personalization/machine learning route. This means dumping extensive configuration for the challenge of sending "smart" personalized emails.

In the case of a complex site like Nextdoor, it could be powered by these options:

  • Send me daily/weekly/monthly updates on what my neighbors are talking about
  • Send me daily/weekly/monthly Nextdoor announcements relevant to my interests
  • Send me daily/weekly/monthly Nextdoor promotions relevant to my interests

The user can toggles frequency options for each; personalization starts from there (that's how diginomica does our content newsletters currently). You can get even fancier, and send emails based solely on user activity and behavior, but that requires a high degree of sophistication and trust.

Nextdoor is going the LinkedIn-style customization route. But: that caveat about rogue emails brought things to a head.

Nextdoor email dramas as my inbox blows up

We got into trouble over emails alterting me when someone leaves my neighborhood. People pack their lives into boxes all the time; that's not something I need in my inbox. I'd be just fine checking that on the web site at my leisure. I went looking for controls over. Turns out there are no controls:

You receive those emails because you are a lead for Nextdoor Ward 3. Most leads want to know why a member is no longer showing in the directory. Currently there isn’t an email setting for lead features. Would you like to be removed as a lead?

Email marketing worst practice #1 - a whole class of emails over which users, ironically key users to the site - have no control. Here's my Nextdoor email preferences:

Nextdoor email preferences

Outside of the handy daily digest of my neighbors' banter, Nextdoor doesn't have much leeway to send me anything. That sets up a promotional email I received on October 19:

subject: Local businesses on Nextdoor

body of message: A promotional message to push local businesses on Nextdoor, with the explanation: "This week, we'd like to take the next step by inviting these local, neighbor-recommended businesses to participate on Nextdoor and communicate with the neighbors who have supported them."

I think they meant "the next step towards monetization." I replied that this email didn't fit in with my contact preferences.

To which I received:

Hi Jonathan, Thanks for the email. This was a one-time email that was sent to our members to make them aware of our latest update. You shouldn’t receive any further emails. Let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.

Email marketing worst practice #2: so-called "one-time emails" that don't fit into a category users can unsubscribe from.

A few days later, with Halloween approach, I got another inbox bump:

subject: Jonathan, you're invited to join the Nextdoor Ward Halloween Treat Map

Body of message:

Back by popular demand, Nextdoor's Treat Map helps take the guesswork out of trick-or-treating. Add your home to the Nextdoor Ward Treat Map and help little pirates and princesses find their way to candy this year.

I wish the kiddos well, but trick or treating isn't viable in my building. I sent a short reply:

Seems like your email preferences don't include many types of emails you actualiy send?

After which I was "unsubscribed from all emails." which technically isn't true.

Meantime, the friendly support person from the "local businesses" encounter asked me to send all the emails I didn't think were warranted.  I replied, including the Halloween email which doesn't seem to fit into the "crime" or "urgent" categories.

The response:

Hi Jonathan, Thanks for the feedback.

The Privacy Policy currently states: “Certain member-related administrative emails cannot be turned off; the only way to end those is to delete or deactivate your account.”

Unsubscribing is also another way of preventing these emails. I’ve passed your request along to our product team for their review and consideration.

We really appreciate your help in building a better Nextdoor for your neighborhood. Let me know if you have any questions.

Classy reply. Nice without seeming insincere.

While the "unsubscribe" link note appears helpful, clicking on "unsubscribe" actually leads not to instant unsubscribe but to the preferences page, where my hands are already tied.

At any rate, even if "instant unsubscribe" worked, that's not really adequate for a site that sends multiple categories of messages.

Email marketing worst practice #3: clicking on an "unsubscribe" doesn't instantly unsubscribe you, but pushes you to a preferences page you may have misplaced the log-in for.

nextdoor-graphic

The mention of the privacy policy rankled me:

I'm not talking about a privacy policy, I'm talking about email best practices to win loyalty and build audiences. The best practice is transparency around the emails sent.

I really don't think promotions around local business and Halloween fit into the definition of "member-related administrative emails", that's really a big stretch on your part.

That said, I do appreciate your efforts listening to me and I don't expect any further responses, you've spent enough time on me.

Email marketing worst practice #4: stretching the definition of TOS-mandated "administrative" emails to include emails that are clearly promotional in nature.

Email marketing worst practice #5: pointing unhappy users back to the terms of service and privacy policy language rather than engaging them in ideation.

Email marketing worst practice #6: giving users "all or nothing" choices to accept the current circumstances or leave the site.

The wrap

Nextdoor's support reps were consistently classy and professional - moreso than I was. I was pushing the envelope to prove a point, and to learn how they handle preferences at scale. I'm still rooting for Nextdoor. Facebook really hasn't solved hyperlocal, real-time networking. I'm not sure that Nextdoor can do it, but I like the idea of neighbors helping each other out, spilling over from online to picnics. I'm still a ward lead, regardless of my email misadventures to date.

Nextdoor could fix these issues if they made it a priority; they are not unsolvable. I'm probably an outlier, so we'd have to see if other members have such beefs. I believe such efforts pay off in increased transparency and improved trust, but I've been known to howl into the wind sometimes.