5 steps to identify and minimize inactive email subscribers


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Inactive subscribers – those who haven’t opened or clicked in some defined timeframe — have a significant impact on your email marketing program. Having too many of them can lead to reduced deliverability, inaccurate analysis of your email performance, reduced ROI and, most importantly, lost opportunity.

To best address and get your arms around the challenge of inactive subscribers, I recommend the following 5-step framework:

Define: Gain agreement across departments on what constitutes an “inactive subscriber.” First, differentiate between an inactive email subscriber and inactive customer. A customer may never open your emails, but is still making purchases or engaging with your content online.

Second, gain agreement on email behavior. I recommend looking at a combination of opens and clicks as opens are not always captured due to blocked images, viewing via preview panes, and slow load times. But a click is a click.

Thirdly, define the time frame based on your customer lifecycle. An inactive customer for a mortgage company is very different than one for a book retailer.

Determine the cause: Customers and subscribers become inactive for a variety of reasons including changes on their end, but also because of your company’s actions. To help identify the root causes of inactivity, consider the following:

  • Acquisition source: Look for patterns across inactive subscribers by acquisition source. One company I know held a daily iPad giveaway — it drove a huge amount of new email subscribers but they discovered that literally none of these subscribers purchased within several months.
  • Acquisition date: Some subscribers may now be inactive because they joined at the time of a newsworthy or one-time event: your company being in the news, the launch of major ad campaign, or introduction of a new product.
  • Customer demographics/Customer journey: Have customer segments outgrown your product? Or have life or business changes negated the needs for your offerings? Perhaps a customer has moved to a new location where you don’t have a local restaurant, theater, or fitness center
  • Product/Service changes: Consider if your company closed a location, sold off a line of business, or ended a product or service.
  • Timeframe of inactivity: Is there an interesting pattern of how long after people joined your database that a high percentage become inactive? If you are a subscription-based or freemium service perhaps a time-based offer ends or people simply see no value in your offering after a few months.
  • Email marketing program/changes: Did you significantly increase your email cadence or did your content change to nothing but promotions and little value-added content?

Minimize: Once you are able to identify the root causes, you’ll need to develop programs to minimize the percent of customers who will eventually become inactive. This might include eliminating certain acquisition sources or approaches, altering free trial programs, or changing your email cadence. You might increase the use of dynamic content and personalization based on capturing more customer data up front or inferring from their pre opt-in behavior. And you might manage expectations of new subscribers with a multi-email onboarding series instead of just a welcome email.

Initiate an “early warning system” that uses analytics and scoring to identify inactive contacts within the first few months of opting in. Consider moving these contacts into their own “activation” track designed to get them engaged through different types of content by inviting them to update preferences or by completing a survey.

Remove: Next comes the tough – and often highly political — decision: Which, if any, subscribers do you remove or suppress from your database? If you sell coffee beans online and subscribers haven’t purchased or opened an email in 3+ years, you might suppress these subscribers to help improve deliverability and have a better sense of how your database is actually performing.

If you sell cars, mobile phones, or kitchen appliances, however, your customers may only purchase from you every 4-5 years, so suppressing them could mean a future lost purchase. And if your deliverability and inbox placement rates are stellar, you might not need to anyway.

One of the smartest approaches is to leverage your AI and predictive analytics tools to determine which of your inactive segments are most likely to purchase in the future. While machine-based predictions will of course not be perfect, they can provide a strong data-driven method of deciding who should stay and who should go.

A word of caution. It is extremely important to understand how email subscribers are interacting with your brand in other channels. Are they buying from your website or visiting your physical locations? The sender name and subject line combination in email messages have a huge and often underestimated value from a brand and awareness perspective. Emails work like billboards and even when subscribers don’t open the messages, they might remind customers to stop by your store or restaurant, or open up your mobile app a few hours later.

If you do choose to remove customers from your active database, send them an email asking them to click a link to continue receiving your emails before suppressing them.

Rethink/Revise: All brands tend to have a sizable percent of subscribers who go inactive each year, but if the rate of inactivity is increasing or just becoming significantly large, then it is probably time to rethink your approach to email marketing.

One of the best approaches is to shift resources and focus from broadcast emails to adding multiple automated email programs based on a subscriber’s behavior and profile. It is typical for companies that embrace automated email programs to see these emails account for 30%-40% or more of revenue, from less than 5% of total emails that go out.

Inactive subscribers often account for 50% or more of a company’s email database, so ignoring them or simply sending “we want you back” emails is a recipe for failure. Allocate a significant part of your email marketing resources to understand the root causes of inactivity and move to a behavior-based email program so that you can turn your email inactive subscribers into engaged customers.

Want more help navigating email? Explore Campaign, our digital marketing platform.

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