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Inactive Schminactive: Keep the Names, Says Quist


By Ken Magill

Dela Quist is a heretic.

Why? Because the idea that inactive email addresses in and of themselves constitute any kind of a deliverability threat to mainstream marketers is a bunch of hokum, according to the CEO of London-based email marketing agency Alchemy Worx.

Moreover, according to Quist, attempting to lift engagement metrics, such as opens and clicks, is a fool’s errand.

“Inactivity is normal activity,” said Quist in an interview with The Magill Report. “Inactivity is the default position for consumers. Highly engaged people are outliers.

“Setting a goal of engagement is almost doomed to failure,” he added. “A strategy that relies on getting open rates higher rarely delivers more revenue. There’s no ROI in removing inactive names.”

To many in mainstream email marketing circles—or at least among email’s so-called thought leaders—those would be the words of a man who should be burned at the stake.

Conventional email-marketing wisdom has it that marketers with large lists containing a high percentage of addresses owned by people who haven't opened or clicked in a year or more risk getting their messages filtered as spam.

As a result, some experts have been recommending marketers consider removing addresses after a year or more of inactivity.

Nonsense, says Quist.

“Thirty five to 65 percent of every list I've ever looked at have not opened for more than a year,” he said. “If you remove inactives this year and look again next year, you will probably find that about 50 percent [of the new, smaller list] are inactive a year later.”

Perform the same purge five years in a row and we've got a recipe for list decimation, according to Quist. Half of a typical list will always be inactive for a year or more, but which half is a shifting target, he said.

Quist calls inactive names on permission-based lists “unemotional subscribers.”

“They’re on your list [legitimately]. They just don’t need you right now,” he said.

The segment of a typical marker’s file that has been inactive for 12 months or more will generally respond—with at least an open—at a rate of between 1 and 3 percent, said Quist.

As a result, the idea of not mailing them is ludicrous, he said. “If those inactive names were on your competitor’s file and I guaranteed you would get a 1 to 3 percent response, would you mail them? Of course you would.”

And Quist’s email heresy doesn’t stop there.

As far as he’s concerned, sending email to inactive addresses poses no deliverability threat to email marketers whatsoever.

Most any mainstream marketer’s email will so obviously outperform spam selling, say, fake Rolexes or Viagra, that email’s major inbox providers have no trouble telling which is which, said Quist.

“ISPs are trying to stop spam and largely they’ve been very successful at it,” he said. “They can tell the difference [between spam and mainstream marketing emails] and we do get into the inbox.

“Mailing to inactives is unlikely to get a marketer in trouble,” Quist added. “Fifty five percent active in a year is an engaged list. An ISP won’t confuse that with a porn or Viagra spam.”

Also, marketers who worry about the effects new inbox sorting tools available to webmail users will have on their deliverability should rest easy, said Quist.

“Only the most sophisticated users will use the sorting tools,” he said.

Quist also claims the idea that marketers are flooding consumers’ inboxes with unwanted email is silly.

“If you’re getting a lot of [marketing] email it’s because you signed up for it,” he said. “We are not the problem. The problem is your co-worker and your boss.”

Still not done contradicting the high priests of email marketing, Quist said the constant calls for marketers to send “relevant” email are misguided.

“Relevance is the cart and we’re placing it before the horse,” he said. “The horse is value. The definition of relevance is ‘something of value.’ The definition of value doesn’t have relevance in it.”

For example, Quist said, at an email-marketing conference he could offer someone a piece of paper about email marketing and a $10 bill.

“One has relevance the other has value,” he said. “Which do you think they’ll take? Rather than focusing on relevance, marketers should focus on delivering value.”


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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: Joi Brooks
Date: 2012-05-11 11:25:57
Subject: On the point of relevance

The entire article is the other side of the proverbial coin, and as such refreshing, but I'm so thankful for the closing statements about relevancy that I need to respond. Within our circle, like any industry, once a term is coined (keeping with my metaphor) it becomes some nonchalant expression that everyone uses to the point of abuse. As if I would ever send an irrelevant email. And as relevance was an overstated understatement in the first place, I'm thrilled to read and share Quist's dramatization regarding value. I've stuck to my guns when discussing content and have always used another over exploited term 'value added'. Whether you are giving money away or providing your readers and customers with valuable information (that they would not get outside of the email channel), you are providing relevance. I've used 'that' word too many times today, so I'll sign off. Thanks for the excellent read.
Posted by: Jim
Date: 2012-03-22 13:56:56
Subject: Email doesn't cost that much

In response to Jordan's comment, I have to say that it cannot be taken as a given. Email is cheap. You needn't convert very many inactives in a given mailing to reach break-even. Even fewer if you consider some sort of lifetime value. And those impressions aren't just necessarily branding value. At least in the actual tests I've run: they result in revenue. I've measured less revenue when limiting frequency to inactives. That's all my CMO needed to hear. So I put it to people: prove it. Don't take Jordan or Dela's word for it. Although my experience shows, at least for my business, Dela's take is closer to my reality.
Posted by: Mickey Chandler
Date: 2012-03-05 14:59:17
Subject: Dela's Challenge

After receiving Ken's invitation to post the link to my response, I'm happy to do so:
Posted by: Mickey Chandler
Date: 2012-02-29 10:51:41
Subject: Happy to take you up on your challenge

Dela, I'm happy to take you up on your challenge to rate things. Unfortunately, that's a bit longer of a proposition than is likely to be appropriate in comments. I've put it up as a blog post on my site, but won't link to it here out of respect for Ken.
Posted by: Jordan Cohen
Date: 2012-02-29 10:47:37
Subject: Psssst.... sending email actually costs money!!

Let's put the deliverability arguments aside and focus on one that everyone (almost everyone) can relate to: MONEY. If you are using an ESP, especially a top ranked one, you are spending thousands of dollars a month on email deployment. Not Monopoly money. Real money. Most marketers who are using an ESP are better off from an ROI perspective upping their frequency to the smaller group of engaged subscribers and substantially decreasing their mailings to the inactives (not removing them from their lists altogether). One can make the argument that there is inherent branding value in unopened email marketing messages by virtue of recipients seeing From and Subject lines in their inboxes on a persistent basis, but I suspect most marketers will have a tough time making that case to their CEOs and CMOs -- at least in today's environment.
Posted by: Dela Quist
Date: 2012-02-29 09:17:43
Subject: Gangrene

All I am trying to do is stop people from amputating perfectly healthy limbs because someone told them they might have gangrene! :-)
Posted by:
Date: 2012-02-29 08:52:54

Hi Mickey You like many others appear to be confusing or perhaps deliberately blurring the distinction between inactivity caused by bad data and inactivity caused by normal human behaviour. People who opted to receive email from you but haven’t needed your product or service for a while. I have never and will never advocate poor list hygiene or data management, in fact I tell anyone who will listen that the No1 source of deliverability problems is how you acquired your list – the next 4 or 5 are technical: lack of authentication, failure to monitor and/or remove addresses identified by feedback loops, poor bounce management, poor ip address management etc. The point I was making was that compared to those things engagement or lack thereof barely registers on the scale and I would be surprised if you could prove otherwise. No one disagrees that it is a good idea to remove certifiably dead email addresses, but what email marketers really need help with is how to ensure that they are not culling people (prospects) who are happy to be on the list and plan to re-engage in future – what I call the unemotionally subscribed because of overhyping by the deliverability industry. So rather than accusing me of stupidity by comparing me with someone who refuses to amputate a gangrenous limb, why don’t you help readers of this column by scoring email marketing practices by their impact on deliverability. For example on a scale of 1 to 10 is emailing inactives a 1 or a 10 (I would rate it a 2 at the most)? Authentication 1 or 10? Not removing addresses identified by feedback loops, 1 or 10? Now THAT would be valuable Unfortunately most in the deliverability profession seem to rate everything as a 10 in true Chicken Little style.
Posted by: Kelly Lorenz
Date: 2012-02-29 04:39:40
Subject: Some valid points

I think Dela has a lot of valid points when he speaks "heresy" especially around looking at not only email behavior, but also purchase behavior, however in this case I feel like he's ignored a piece of the deliverability puzzle that Hotmail themselves have spoken out about. That is engagement-based deliverability metrics. Yes, ISPs have gotten really good at parsing spam from legitimate marketing messages, however, 50% of the mail their users receive is what they call "greymail" and what we in the industry call "our marketing messages". Their users are increasingly hitting the spam button and regularly trashing marketing messages without opening them, so they are taking proactive measures against legitimate marketing emails that their users don't find valuable and relevant. And yes, I believe the emails have to be both valuable and relevant because if they aren't both, there's the potential that the subscriber may junk the message which in turn harms our future ability to get into the inbox. Dela, as much as you poo-poo it, you can't ignore that this is now the status quo at the major web-based ISPs. I see it happening in my own inboxes and with clients' metrics. It simply can't be ignored.
Posted by: Mickey Chandler
Date: 2012-02-28 18:19:38
Subject: This might work for Dela

I'm sure that Dela has a smashing marketing program, but I keep hearing him say the things you've got in this article and that they'll work "if you're not doing anything stupid." And he might even be right. But, when I tell people the things that he doesn't like for me to say, it's well after they have been doing something stupid. Will what he says work in some or even many cases? Sure. If you're not "doing something stupid" will hammering on "inactives" work for you? Only your data can tell you that. But when there are already existing problems, Dela is like the guy who refuses to have his gangrenous arm amputated because he can't imagine life without it.