How to Manage the 3 Kinds of Inactive Email Subscribers

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In the Third Age of Email Deliverability, many marketers are uncertain as to how to develop a long-term strategy for managing their inactive email subscribers—those that haven’t opened or clicked an email in a long time. While it’s tempting to want to boil down inactive strategies to a single operating principle, a more nuanced strategy is more effective.

The question isn’t whether inactive subscribers have value. As a group, they certainly do. Rather the questions to ask are:

  • Which inactive subscribers are the most valuable and least risky?
  • And conversely, which are the most risky and least valuable?
  • At what point do the deliverability risks associated with inactive subscribers outweigh the value they generate?

To answer these questions, two pieces of context are key: your subscriber’s and your organization’s.

Your Subscriber’s Context

The first is the context of the inactive subscriber, because not all inactives fall in the same spot along the risk-value spectrum. There are three major kinds of inactives:

1. Never-Actives

First are inactives who are new subscribers who have never engaged. Your tolerance for these inactives should be very low, as their lack of engagement is a signal that you don’t have a healthy relationship, such as:

  • They didn’t realize they opted in, which might be the result of poor permissioning practices.
  • They subscribed using a secondary or tertiary email account that they don’t check often, if at all.
  • They have subscriber’s remorse and immediately regretted subscribing.
  • They could be the result of bot activity if you’re using email signups for sweepstakes or other contest entries.
  • They were signed up maliciously—that is, someone other than the email address holder signed up the address.

The risks associated with these subscribers is high, while the potential value is low. When not using a confirmed opt-in process, marketers should strongly consider using engagement post-signup as confirmation of a subscription.

The cutoff mark may vary depending on your email frequency, but if a subscriber hasn’t opened or clicked any of the emails during their first 4 months on your list or any of the first 10 emails that you’ve sent them (whichever comes first), then that should likely trigger a re-permission email that requires them to click a link in the email to confirm they want to continue receiving emails.

One caveat: If you’re seeing a substantial number of never-actives, especially on a single email client, then it might be an indication that your emails there are being junked. Since few email users check their spam folder on any kind of regular basis, your emails could be going completely unseen.

2. Lapsed Customer Inactives

Second are the inactive subscribers who have also become inactive customers. Not only have they stopped opening and clicking your emails, but there’s also no evidence that they are buying, donating, or otherwise converting.

The risks associated with these inactives are moderate and the potential value is moderate, since they have engaged—and hopefully even purchased—in the past. For that reason, you want to give these inactives a reasonable opportunity to reengage.

While 6 months of inactivity is sometimes cited as a good trigger, that’s a pretty aggressive timeline and best reserved for high-frequency senders, those that send at least several times a week. For lower frequency senders that send less than once or twice a week, 13 months of inactivity will likely be a much more effective trigger as it accommodates once-a-year seasonal behavior, such as customers who only buy during the holidays and people who only donate at the end of the year.

Whether you use 6 or 13 months of inactivity as your threshold, that should trigger reengagement efforts, which could potentially last months, followed by re-permissioning efforts that ask inactives to actively confirm that they want to continue receiving your emails. It’s only if all of those efforts fails that you purge these subscribers from your active mailing list.

3. Current Customer Inactives

And third are the inactive subscribers who are known to be active customers. The risks associated with these inactives are low, while the potential value is high. Given that many of these subscribers may be influenced by your emails without opening them or might be opening them with images disabled and not clicking, it may make sense for your company to keep these inactives for years.

With current customer inactives, you not only need to define what an inactive subscriber is, but you also need to define an inactive customer. When doing so, you should keep your product and purchase lifecycles in mind. For instance, the purchase cycles for a car brand, tablet computer brand, and bookstore brand will be incredibly different.

How you treat your lapsed customer inactives and current customer inactives depends heavily on…

Your Organization’s Context

Not every organization can afford to react to those three groups of inactives in the same way. Some will have a much greater tolerance for deliverability risk, while others will have much lower tolerances. Ask yourself:

  • Does your organization have strong permission practices? Do all or most of your subscribers sign up via a double or confirmed opt-in process?
  • What percentage of your active mailing list has engaged in the past month? 3 months? 6 months?
  • Does your organization have good visibility into your deliverability? If you developed a problem, how quickly would you realize it?
  • Is your organization able to match up customer activity with subscriber activity?
  • Would you know how to remediate a deliverability problem if you developed one? Do you work with or have access to a deliverability specialist?
  • Have you had deliverability issues in the past? How much did those incidences hurt your business?

Depending on how you answer those questions, your appetite for deliverability risk will be different. For instance, if you’ve suffered painful deliverability issues in the recent past, you might start addressing your lapsed customer inactives at the 3-month mark and your current customer inactives at 13 months. And if your list has very low engagement, then you’ll need to be more aggressive at addressing inactivity.

Whereas if you have great engagement and deliverability and you have resources on hand to address problems, you might start addressing lapsed customer inactives at 13 months and current customer inactives at 37 months.

Also, if you don’t have enough of a single view of the customer to tell which inactives are current customers, then you have to have the same threshold for current customer inactives as you do for your lapsed customer inactives, since you won’t be able to tell the two groups apart.

There’s no “one size fits all” answer to how to manage inactives. Every organization needs to determine their own risk tolerance and then put in place an on-going process for how and when to deal with each of the three kinds of inactive subscribers to maximize success and keep the risks in check.

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