How to Re-Engage Inactive Subscribers on Your Email List

There is a pervasive urban myth in email marketing that continues to haunt program managers and hamper results: the bigger the list, the better the results. A large list with a substantial growth rate is hard for marketing VPs to resist, which leads to pressure on the email team to push bigger numbers quarter on quarter. The list-size metric is simple to measure, easy to reference, and tempting to revere as an indicator of success. Unfortunately, an obsessive focus on a large list can have some major consequences for email program performance.

Brands with a fixation on list size and reach tend to be reluctant to do anything that negatively impacts the size of their contactable audience. This includes important list hygiene tactics like trimming out disengaged subscribers with prolonged patterns of inactivity. Brands that avoid culling inactives often experience a host of problems including increased bounce rates, the prevalence of recycled spam traps, inflated complaint rates, and accompanying deliverability problems.

Not only can the increased bounces, spam traps, and complaints damage inbox placement, mailbox providers like Microsoft and Gmail are increasingly focusing on subscriber engagement and inactivity as they determine where to place commercial mail. If marketers have a skewed balance of inactives, this can take a direct toll on inbox placement and reduce subscriber impressions.

Enter the Re-engagement Program
For marketers looking to retain as many subscribers as possible while addressing their inactive population, the introduction (or refinement) of a re-engagement program can help. By reaching out to subscribers prior to any inactivity cutoffs, marketers can help salvage some users and transition them back to the active list.

An effective re-engagement program—often called a “win-back campaign”—can pay off. According to Return Path’s 2018 Email Marketing Lookbook, winback messages saw a 20 percent read rate on average, indicating that these types of messages are often well received. What’s more, MailChimp found that inactives still drive ROI. While those considered inactive (at least six months without opening or clicking) only brought in about one-third the revenue of their active counterparts, the value in attempting to re-engage them is clear.

Getting Re-engagement Right
Since re-engagement series focus on subscribers who have already tuned out messages, it’s important to get the messaging and timing right. Emails should stand out in the inbox, offer a compelling reason to engage, and provide content that proves value and illustrates benefits to the subscribers.

Since these series are often set up as triggered campaigns, it’s essential to test each component of the message to ensure that it’s driving positive results. Consider testing subject lines, incentives, benefit descriptions and the like to find the combination that drives enhanced opens and clicks. In addition, experiment with different approaches. While some brands may benefit from re-engagement campaigns that explicitly speak to subscriber disengagement, others may benefit from special incentives and rewards. Check out this post on the Return Path blog for more ideas to create a top-notch re-engagement program.

When it comes to determining the timing and cadence of re-engagement emails and the establishment of inactivity thresholds, brands should look to their data. Some of the brands I work with base these business decisions on inbox placement data and spam folder rates. More often than not, marketers will select an arbitrary threshold for when inactives should be removed from the file. While these approaches are better than foregoing inactive thresholds all together, cutoffs that fail to acknowledge subscriber engagement trends may be ineffective in bringing subscribers back to the program via re-engagement programs.

In a recent internal study, we analyzed the aggregated performance of 10 mid-sized retail brands. We found that approximately 23 percent of new subscribers churned from the list within the first three months. (For this study, we defined churn as subscribers that unsubscribed or were removed due to complaints or brand level suppressions.) Based on this finding, marketers need to shift their focus up in the lifecycle, working to re-engage subscribers as soon as a pattern begins to become established.

Marketers who are waiting 12 months or 24 months to acknowledge inactivity are likely too late to win back the majority of inactive subscribers. Consider implementing several different re-engagement campaigns, to help win back subscribers at various points in the customer lifecycle. In addition to late-stage re-engagement, introducing an early re-engagement series can help prevent tune out and attrition before it takes hold.

Mind the Roll-Out
For marketers who do not currently have inactive thresholds or an existing re-engagement program, be wary of how you launch your program. As noted earlier, mailbox providers keep a close eye on metrics like bounces, spam traps, complaints, and inactivity. If you mail to all inactives in one blast, you are going to drive the above-mentioned metrics through the roof, and raise some major red flags with mailbox providers.

Take a more cautious approach by testing the response rates of inactive subscribers and sending to small segments over time. You can read more about the perils of mailing to inactives or old addresses in this post on the Return Path blog.

This post originally appeared on Target Marketing.