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Ken Magill

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Ask an Expert: Remove Inactives? Or no?

03/22/11

This week’s Ask-an-Expert question is: "Should I ever remove inactive, but non-bouncing, non-complaining, addresses from my email file? If so, why, and how do I determine when?"

Once again, we turn to the experts on the Only Influencers discussion list, an invitation-only list of online marketing experts:

Chester Bullock, eMarketing specialist, AAA Auto Club Partners: I look at my lists and isolate people who haven't had activity in a period greater than six months. These people then receive a "re-engagement" piece to determine if they are interested or not. The subject has a decidedly different tone, as does the overall creative design. We are pretty straightforward, telling people we don't want to waste their time. “Salvage" rates from these run about 3 percent, which is reasonable enough I think.

But the real benefit in my eyes is that we are ending up with a MUCH healthier list, and trying to honor the subscriber desire in closing a communication path they don't want to use. I don't care how we communicate with our customers. I just don't want to create ill will by hitting them in a medium they don't want. I also think that given the discussions around what constitutes spam in the eyes of the ISPs, and the fact they are starting to use engagement metrics as a factor in this determination, I want the healthiest, most engaged list I can possibly have. 

Quality vs. quantity has been a significant debate here, but with the deliverability implications, we have been able to get people to see the light.

Bob Frady, director, Corelogic: Ahhh. My favorite subject. I feel like Bill said "hey, go wave a red flag in front of Frady's face!" Time to dip back in. [Editor’s note: Frady’s apparently been absent for a bit] Please read all of these and insert the acronym IM(NS)HO wherever you feel offended.

After much internal deliberation, there are four requirements I would make in determining whether to shave my list.

1. If I've segmented my non-responders - as a group - tracked the results of the email, then saw that they actually bought nothing.

2. When I have really expensive CPMs. Or for that matter, any CPMs. Sending email that never gets activated can cost money. If those CPMs are inordinately expensive compared to the acquisition value, then it's time to reconsider. Or work out a flat rate.

3. If your performance bonuses are based on something like "open rates." [Editor’s note: an “open” is recorded when the receiving machine calls for graphics from the sender.]

4. When I have tied all of my email, Web, search, social, mobile and retail channels together to know the total impact of my marketing activities and understand the overall organizational impact to eliminating a particular communication channel.

If you meet those four, then I'd consider a shave.

Let's face it. Culling your email list is a little like Bruce Jenner's plastic surgery...it seemed like a good idea at the time.

As far as spam and deliverability issues, it's the definition of a non-starter. If you are actively managing your lists, you should be bouncing bad addresses on a continuing basis. Shaving your email list should not help deliverability.

There is only one reason I would NOT shave my list ...just because people don't buy *how* and* why* you want , doesn't mean they won't. They may actually buy from the email channel when they need your product, not when you want them to need your product. They may use a different channel, spurred by your brand reminder from email.

It would be great if every email address was actively engaged. Knowing who is and is not engaged can be very helpful in strategic planning. But eliminating people as, frankly, a matter of personal taste is a waste of effort.

OK, I am off the soapbox.

Kath Pay, consultant, DM Inbox: With today's new engagement metrics from Hotmail and Gmail, it is going to become more necessary to treat your inactives differently than your actives. Although they're not complaining or bouncing, as they're not actively interacting or engaging with your email (as per Hotmail and Gmail's definitions which includes opening and clicking), their inactivity can affect whether your emails get delivered to the inbox or junkmail folder.

So, whilst this doesn't necessarily mean that you have to take them out altogether - you just may want to consider treating them differently, which can include sending less frequently or possibly sending different types of offers. Just because they are inactive (haven't opened/clicked/purchased in a certain period determined by the marketer) doesn't mean that they're not still interested in you and your product.

Email marketing is a fantastic channel for treating subscribers differently at different stages of the lifecycle and some form of inactivity is almost to be expected in the lifecycle of a product. As consumers, we're not always in the market for ALL products that we're signed up to ALL of the time - but it's nice to have the emails available when we are in the market and ready to engage.

Remember also that there's a good chance they have signed up to your competitor’s emails as well, and if your competitor is still communicating with them, whilst you've stopped, then when the consumer is ready to buy, guess who's most likely going to get the sale?

Bill Kaplan, chief executive officer, FreshAddress, Inc.: I knew Bob Frady would say to never, ever remove any inactives from your email file because you never know when one of them might decide to buy. For most companies, however, the costs and risks of maintaining inactives on your file are significant and include:

1) Inadequate ROI on the costs of messaging these subscribers, who for the most part are no longer even using these email addresses

2) The potential negative impact on the deliverability of your entire email program as ISPs ramp up their “engagement” screens to filter out problem lists and senders

3) The lost opportunity of reconnecting with these subscribers at their current preferred email addresses by using an ECOA (Email Change of Address), postcarding or other service to gain updated email addresses

With email addresses churning at a rate of ~30 percent per year, the key question is not “whether inactives should be removed” but “where do you set the threshold for determining when these should be removed.” This will vary significantly by industry, life cycle of the products you’re selling and the like but an ROI analysis at various time thresholds should give you the data you need to make this decision.

For further discussion of this interesting topic, please see “Client Insights: Tracking Inactive Email Addresses,” an article in one of our recent newsletters that speaks directly to this issue with insights from a few of our clients.

Gretchen Scheiman, partner, director, CRM, OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York: It is very industry dependent.

Most publishers rely on quantity to sell (at the very least) the ad space.

Retailers certainly can track sales and would find it hard to justify getting rid of a chunk of the list that will provide a small but measurable portion of their sales in the coming weeks and months.

B2B sales folks would mark them as cold leads and try to "shake the tree" every so often to see if they had warmed up.

To your point, Bill, in industries such as CPG, or for products and services that have an expiration (a subscription to Baby Center, for  example), it may make more sense to ask "when" rather than "whether.”

Before tossing an email address into the ether, I would try to find out why they left and then look at my business cycle for seasonal periods of higher activity where I might be able to successfully reactivate some of them through a targeted campaign. Whether or not to do ECOA or to attempt other efforts depends on the value of an email address to that business, but it's worth considering.

Eric Kirby CEO, Connection Engine, Inc.: I agree that it is situation dependent, but I am seeing a trend of more companies making the decision to suppress inactive subscribers for many of the reasons mentioned.

Our advice, in every case, is to make decisions on who to suppress on more than just email activity measures. Ideally, you should assign a "value-potential score" to every subscriber based upon all available attributes.

Our process is to build a mathematical model, using client data and our own proprietary data, to predict how much a subscriber looks like a best customer. We then use these scores to segment subscribers into value potential segments - for example High/Medium/Low.

We have found that even basic attributes available on every email address can help assess the potential value of subscriber. For example, for a current client, a subscriber with a mac.com email domain is worth 5x more than an aim.com subscriber on average. So if you are looking to trim inactives, hold on to that mac.com subscriber for longer than the aim.com subscriber...much higher probability of future spend/engagement.

Andy Thorpe, deliverability and compliance manager, Pure360: If you have only ever collected addresses from a sign-up form, every address has engaged with an email once however long ago and each address has been emailed at least once every 3 months, leaving them on the list will not do any real harm...at the moment

Currently, the only circumstances where it could do you real damage is if an address has never taken an action, at this point there is a chance that it is a spam trap. Of course that could only happen when a list is bought or scraped. In these cases this is the least of your problems!

However, it is well documented that the large consumer ISPs are doing more and more engagement metrics and using these activities to assign reputations to IP addresses, domains, email address and even prefixes/from name.

These reputations then decide the volume and speed that an ISP will tolerate from a sender before they start to soft bounce the emails as a deferral.

Any hard bounce and spam complaint will degrade this reputation and things like opens over time, clicks, safe listing, auto-image loading, replies and more increase the reputation.

While addresses doing nothing, technically would not affect this now, many other senders who only send to engaged recipients will see their reputation and subsequent inbox placement & acceptance speeds over take you as reputations standards and benchmarks will increase.

Additionally, as IPs phase out and domain reputation takes over, these reputation metrics will increase and volumes of inactive recipients will play against a reputation.

In order to avoid getting left behind, all senders should segment and target by engagement levels. Instead of trying to make a sale with every email, they should set CTAs [calls to action] that are achievable depending on the rapport. If a recipient is not engaged try moving them up the engagement ladder before closing the deal in the same way that a sales person would build a rapport with a prospect before trying to close the deal, knowing that the relationship will last longer because of it.

If you cannot get any engagement out of an address, get rid of it, as it is of no value and it is stopping engaged recipients from getting the email in good time, in their inbox or at all.

Bob Frady: "Inbox reputation" - wow, things really have not changed all that much in 20 months!

I may be woefully shy on knowledge...but it seems like IPs are like golden handcuffs for ISPs. Sender tokens didn't work (RIP - Goodmail. We hardly knew ye.) If we went to pure domain reputation, couldn't everyone just switch to an @amazon.com address and spam the world? (Yes, I'm pretty sure the answer lies in between.)

I think that engagement metrics are a bit of a trap. Let's face it, if AOL looked at their own email addresses and saw the percentage of people who were actually engaged with their email - then took the bold step to eliminate the non-responsive addresses - heads would be at risk of rolling ("Yeah, but it's 500,000 people who are SUPER engaged."). I know that senders like to play the "size matters" game, but so do ISPs.

The key metric here is how much it costs you to maintain and send the "offending" emails versus how much they bring in return across ALL channels.

If you can't measure that, then culling your list (except for the obvious things like bounces and opt-outs) just doesn't seem to pencil.

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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Neil Schwartzman
Date: 2011-03-23 12:27:43
Subject: Domain reputation

Domain rep. Is based both upon the actual sender, not simply the sending entity like an ESP or cloud service. Bob's notion wouldn't work.
Posted by: Marc Munier - Pure360
Date: 2011-03-23 04:40:21
Subject: I'm with Bob

While all the contributors raise valid points I like Bob's "if" statements - shaving the list JUST because a proportion haven't responded in a while isn't the right call.

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