I Cannot Quit You

Inactive subscribers are a problem. They take up list space, don’t add value to your business, and can even affect deliverability (more on that in a moment). But, there are a number of studies that show many email marketers actually give up on inactive subscribers too quickly. Rather than pursue any kind of reengagement effort (or win-back campaign), they simply axe inactives after a certain time period and move on. Those often premature cuts can lead to the loss of valuable business, meaning marketers must find a delicate balance between patience and action for maximum efficacy.

Research shows that those senders issuing the most messages to unresponsive inboxes had, on average, the highest rates of non-delivery. That means it’s more than likely that at least a few of the names on your subscriber list need to go. This can be difficult to cope with because you worked so hard to get those subscribers, and there’s still a chance that they may be of value. But, cleaning your list is an essential part of effective marketing.

Additionally, flooding the inboxes of subscribers who’ve stopped caring about your email communications can result in an increase in SPAM reports. In this case, you didn’t do anything wrong – you’re just sending to someone who, at some point, decided they wanted to receive your emails. But, people are fickle, and if they get irritated for any reason, they can be inclined to punish you for simply following through on your part of the deal.

“But, how can I be sure a subscriber is truly inactive? What if they just don’t appreciate my marketing tactics?”

Great question, PersonIMadeUp. To determine whether or not a subscriber has genuinely lost interest in interacting with your business, you’ll need to evaluate a couple of different facets of your marketing approach:

    Does your email marketing create the kind of results you’re expecting? If not, you may need to reassess your marketing approach before whittling down your list. If you are seeing favorable returns, however, you’re likely running an effective campaign, and you shouldn’t put the onus on yourself for an inactive minority. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and dog gonnit, people like you.
    Do you operate a business with seasonal activity peaks? Do you sell Halloween costumes? Cater weddings? Manufacture and distribute snakebite anti-venom (hot summer sales!)? If so, you likely have peak seasons each year, so inactivity during off-seasons shouldn’t be taken as a sign of true disinterest. In these cases, it’s best to identify those subscribers that are only active during that peak period, and separate them into a new list so you’re not inundating them with worthless messages throughout the year.
    How many cups of coffee have you had today? I know you’re in “take action” mode, but you’re jittery and you may not be thinking clearly. So, instead of yelling “This is my house,” to the entire office, and then clicking delete until your fingers bleed, step back, take a breath, and start thinking about solutions.

Now that you’ve determined how to separate inactivity from trends and ineffective marketing, let’s create a clear definition for what constitutes an inactive subscriber. An inactive subscriber is someone who has not recorded an open or a click in at least three months or six sends (whichever comes first). When you’ve identified all of the names on your list that fit that criteria, you can separate them into a new list, and target them for a win-back campaign.

Win-back campaigns are brief email marketing campaigns that eschew traditional marketing and focus on simply determining a subscriber’s (or group of subscribers’) interest in receiving further communications. Effective win-back campaigns are usually comprised of no more than three messages (ideally two) that first lets the subscriber know that their inactivity has been recognized, and then provides an option for reengagement through a single call to action.

The principal call to action in a win-back email should be nothing more than asking the individual to engage with the email in some way to indicate interest. This can be by clicking a link to your website (consider incentivizing with a sale), re-confirming their subscription, or completing a survey about what kind of communications they would like to receive in the future.

Once you’ve segmented your inactives into a new list, and you’re ready to begin your win-back campaign, use the following tips to really get the most out of each send:

Be clear. The most effective win-back campaigns include clear, direct subject lines and headers that let the subscriber know exactly the point of the communication. Rather than continuing to hammer the same promotional material into your inactive subs’ inboxes, let them know that you’re interested in their engagement specifically. Not long ago, we here at MNB completed a successful win-back campaign among our Email Marketing Tips subscribers using the subject line “What Gives? You Disappeared.” As a result, we saw higher open and click rates than we had in previous sends to the same subscribers with more conventional subject lines.

Give them time. In a study conducted by ReturnPath (it’s pretty and has nice graphics – enjoy), surveyed senders indicated that among recipients who opened win-back messages, roughly 45% reengaged with future materials. However, it took, in some cases, more than a month for those recipients to interact with additional materials.

That teaches us two things about the subscribers in question. First, they’re not jumping over the moon to engage with your business, but they’re still active on some level, and that means they have some value. Perhaps these subscribers can be separated into a different sending list to better target them in-line with their reading habits. They want to patronize your organization; they just don’t operate on the same timeline as the rest of your active subs.

Second, they show us that it’s all too easy to give up on an inactive subscriber if they don’t respond within the timeframe we expect. Getting rid of inactive subscribers is an important part of improving your sending efficacy, but you shouldn’t be so quick to pull the trigger on that delete button. You will find different levels of activity among your subscribers, and every level has value. Give them a chance to prove their interest before giving them the axe.

But, not too much time. Remember that you’re running a win-back campaign to not only reengage inactive subscribers, but to also identify those who have expressed zero interest in maintaining the relationship (at least through this medium). Again, an excess of totally inactive subscribers can affect your ability to deliver emails in the future. So, if your win-back sends don’t net a response within 60 days (barring specific seasonal interest), it’s probably in your best interest to give those quota bloaters the boot.

Once you’ve completed a win-back campaign and waited the requisite amount of time to gauge interest, it’s time to take action. Don’t repeat the campaign to the remaining inactives. They’ve proven themselves unresponsive, so delete them and move on. It’s never easy to say goodbye, but soon, you’ll be thankful you did.