What follows is something I wrote for an internal blog in 2013, at a time when one of my key responsibilities was managing email newsletters. Although it’s 5 years old, what I had to say on this subject seems more relevant than ever.

At long last, I’m tying up a loose end this week, converting the subscription form for one of our newsletters away from the Constant Contact account the stakeholders had been using for years and over to our more robust email deployment platform, where all of the other newsletters have already been living for months.

During this process, today I downloaded a list of everybody who had requested to be put on that newsletter’s “Do Not Mail” list, to ensure that they’re opted out accordingly on the new platform. There were about a thousand of these, and among the data was a column with the subscriber’s reason for opting out. The field was optional, so for most subscribers, it was left blank. But not for all. I found myself scrolling down the page, reading these.

In most cases, the reasons were rather banal …

  • “I don’t read the messages”
  • “My email box is overloaded ALL the time, so I am unsubscribing”
  • “Changing email provider will resubscribe with my new email”
  • “I never subscribed in the first place”

In other cases, we get a glimpse at some kind of career change …

  • “I am changing from the Youth Services department to the Adult Services department”
  • “I am leaving the school district and this email will no longer be valid”
  • “I am leaving my job to go traveling and will no longer access this email”
  • “I RETIRED!!!!!”

Or we’re reminded that our target audience has a limited shelf life …

  • “My daughters have grown out of this reading list”
  • “The books you cover are too young for my children.”
  • “Our children are older 15 and 17 and there is not much reviewed for their age group. Great resource for younger kids!”

Sometimes, the reason provided reveals a larger, more personal story …

  • “My niece is no longer working for you. Too bad. You lost a great worker when the new company took over.”
  • “I’m not {Subscriber Name}, and i’m fed up with her using my e-mail address!”

And sometimes, we’re reminded of the precarious times we live in …

  • “Our library lost its funding and is closing June 30th.”
  • “We are going out of business and my email address will be going away.”
  • “Our school is closing after over 60 years of educating young women.”

And then there were these two, which I will admit choked me up …

  • “Joshua has passed away.”
  • “My wife, who is a writer, has passed on.”

I must have read that second one over and over a dozen times. It’s almost poetry.

These last two reminded me of a moment last month, when I was processing some unsubscribes for another list, and happened to see a distinctive name. To protect her privacy, let’s say it was Jenna Mayweather. The name rang a bell, because I’d seen it only the week before in a newsletter article from one of our magazines: “Jenna Mayweather, Librarian and Advocate, Dies at 66.″ There was no reason offered for the unsubscribe, but in this case, it wasn’t really needed. And I remembered thinking at the time what a bittersweet task that must be for the family member who was responsible for maintaining Jenna’s email accounts: unsubscribing to newsletters Jenna wouldn’t read any more.

In many ways, my Gmail account is a detailed echo of my life. In fact, Google counts on that. They filter through all the words in all the letters that I send and receive, and based on that, they know I might be particularly susceptible to ads involving technology, science fiction, and autism (someone very dear to me is on the spectrum). And yet, it’s only an echo. We are each more than the sum of our parts, and we are certainly more than the sum of our emails, IMs, chats, tweets, and Facebook posts.

So as I read through those opt-out reasons today, particularly those last few, I was once again reminded that our newsletter subscribers do not consider themselves “subscribers.” It seems an obvious thing to say, but it bears remembering from time to time. They live, they have jobs, they change jobs, they get promotions, they retire, and some even decide to leave their jobs to go traveling. They have children who grow up and stop being children. They work for libraries and schools and companies that get the raw end of a bad economy — or maybe the raw end of a changing technological landscape — and close their doors. And sadly, sometimes they pass on. In fact, they all do eventually, whether we hear about it or not.

In short, these are not only “subscribers” or an “audience” to develop, but people. People about whom, for the most part, we know little to nothing besides their email address. If we’re lucky (from a marketing perspective), we know where they live, where they work, and what they do for a living. And occasionally, like today, we get a glimpse of something more. By necessity, we count our subscribers regularly, and we compare the numbers to previous months, previous years, and other lists. We categorize our subscribers in myriad ways, assign market segments to them, and quantify every single email they open and every single link they click on. We have to. It’s part of the science of the job.

But it’s important to remember that just because we count these subscribers doesn’t make them numbers. We should always treat the people on our list with respect, deploy to them responsibly, and if/when they choose not to hear from us anymore by opting out — whatever the reason — then we should do everything in our power to ensure that they do not. That’s what the transition of our lists to the new email deployment platform, which I’ve effectively tied up this week, was all about. And it’s why I take the responsibility of managing our subscriber list very seriously.