One of the hardest decisions you’ll face as an email marketer is when to remove inactive or unengaged recipients from your communications.

As email has matured as a channel, so has the way people interact with it.

Although unsubscribe rates are usually low (for example, less than 0.1% per campaign), there can be upwards of 50% of a list who are ‘emotionally unsubscribed’.

These are recipients that are actually subscribed, but rarely open or click, which may suggest that email is not an effective communications channel for them.

Is everyone emotionally unsubscribed? 

However, it’s worth taking a second look at this thought process before making a decision to cull a large percentage of your database.

Realistically, is it really that strange to not interact with various marketing communications of any channel from a bank, insurance broker, hotel chain etc.? You interact when you feel the need for those services. So is email any different?

People may not have interacted with emails for a period of time, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are totally uninterested.

For example, I may ignore  80% of emails I receive from brands like Schuh because I simply don't need a new pair of shoes. However, when I'm in the market for them, I'm more likely to pay attention. 

Likewise, people will sign up for emails around Christmas, ignore for most of the year, then start opening them when they're looking for presents. 

In a nutshell, it's easier to sign up and ignore them than to unsubscribe and resubscribe later. 

There's also the nudge effect to consider. Some studies have shown that, even if emails remain unopened, they still have have an effect by keeping your brand in customers' minds. 

Here, Jet2's emails may remain unopened, but they serve as a constant reminder of where I can find cheap flights next time I need one. 

Minimising disengagement

Some recipients may behave as described above, but it’s still worth taking steps to try to minimise this figure, particularly as it can have an adverse effect on deliverability and more specifically inbox placement. 

To minimise fall-off in engagement and maintain dialogue, it is important to ensure the contact strategy has been planned and implemented to deliver relevant messages.

Some other steps that can be taken to manage this issue include:

1. Measure engagement. Measure the level of activity in email response at a more granular level, e.g. review open, click, purchase rates or other actions at different points in time compared to when the subscribers first signed up.

Set hurdle rates and track engagement, e.g. 30% of purchasers have clicked or opened within a six-month period. Response rates amongst different segment types who have taken different actions can also be reviewed to see how engaging they find the communications.

To look at the problem another way, set criteria for what an inactive subscriber is and when they become inactive move them to that segment and look to re-engage them.

Some areas to think about when looking to minimise drop-offs:

2. Test different frequencies. It may be appropriate to reduce frequency if customers become ‘emotionally unsubscribed’ and then emails received will have a large impact.

List members can also be surveyed for their preferences, possibly as part of a reactivation campaign.

Email frequency curve

Giving recipients the option of how often they wish to hear from you at the point of sign-up can also help with this.

3. Developed automated customer lifecycle emails. These are part of the contact strategy and are intended to be relevant and tailored according to the interests of the subscriber.

Here are some examples of lifecycle stages and corresponding communications goals

4. Detect engagement decrease and counter it through triggered emails. Careful analysis can detect a fall in engagement (dis-engagement, un-engagement, divorce) of an individual subscriber.

For example, a decrease in engagement is indicated by a decrease in frequency or interval (latency) for events such as opening, clicking or purchasing.

5. Use offline communications to re-engage. If it fits with your business model, offline communications such as direct mail and phone can be favoured when email engagement is lower.

6. Use on-site communications to re-engage. If you are able to detect a website visitor who is not engaged by email (for example when they are logged in or cookies are used to identify them), then they can be prompted to provide a new email address.

Richard Gibson of Return Path adds that there is a hidden danger of emailing inactive subscribers if you do not have good bounce-back suppression in place.

He says:

Old (inactive) addresses can be used by ISPs as traps to monitor spam-like behaviour; therefore there is a hidden danger in emailing very old subscribers that could negatively impact on deliverability.

Consumer electronics retailer Ebuyer uses this approach with an attempt to re-engage recipients classed as lapsed. Note that this is not monetarily incentivised; rather the incentive is that they’ve made it easier to browse or purchase from the website.

Also note that Ebuyer has put the unsubscribe link at the top of the email; thus giving the recipient a really easy ‘way out’ should they really not want to come back.

This is much more preferable than the recipient clicking on the spam button within their email client.

For an example of an email reactivation campaign which produced results, see this article by Parry Malm.

For more on this subject, check out our 200 page Email Marketing Best Practice Guide which contains everything you need to know about this channel, whether you work for an in-house client team, independently or for an agency.

Graham Charlton

Published 16 September, 2014 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is editor in chief at SaleCycle, and former editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (2)


Dela Quist

At Alchemy Worx we have always found it easier to help clients understand their options with regard to the inactive people on their list by teaching them to think of them as UNEMOTIONALLY SUBSCRIBED rather than emotionally unsubscribed.
Read about this here on the DMA blog

and what to do with them here and here

almost 4 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

I totally agreed. If you're an email marketer with only the data from your ESP, it's extremely difficult to know when to remove inactive or unengaged recipients, because you can't be sure who they are.

Have they stopped buying as well as stopped clicking? Or are they still getting your emails, reading the subject lines and pre-headers as they do texts, and clicking a favorite link to visit your website.

The solution is more data: you need to know who is engaged with any of your brand channels - including email *and* web - in order to make decisions like who to cut off. Otherwise the safest thing is to keep sending at a reduced rate.

Here's more on the subject:

almost 4 years ago

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