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Ken Magill

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It Depends on What the Definition of 'Inactive' Is

By Ken Magill
So last week, we had confirmed that email inbox providers—specifically: Google, Comcast, AOL and Microsoft—do measure engagement but not by tracking clicks and opens and that sending email to inactive email addresses can negatively affect email deliverability.
We learned a bunch of other things during the Direct Marketing Association’s Email Experience Council’s deliverability webinar, as well. But I pull the preceding two points out for a reason.
I left that webinar with the distinct impression that email marketers and ISP representatives often communicate using the same terms, but mean different things.
For example, on the question of whether or not it is wise to cull inactive email addresses from an email file, co-moderator, Dennis Dayman, chief privacy and security officer, Return Path, asked Heather Lord, principal anti-abuse engineer at Comcast: “If someone were to say ‘not sending to inactive subscribers is like leaving money on the table,’ what would your response to that be?”
Lord responded:
“What we’ve seen … is that when people actually try to send to them [inactive addresses] it actually ends up hurting the ones that they are currently sending to,” she said. “They try to mail their inactives and what ends up suffering is their list of actives. They send a campaign through and [say] ‘Why am I not able to get this through?’ ‘Well, what changed?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. Let me go back and look. Oh, we decided to mail this list that had inactives.’ ‘Well, that’s your issue then. I can’t help you with that.’ … Those are the issues I deal with on a daily basis. From my perspective it’s kind of: ‘Well you just hurt yourself.’”
The question and the response involved two different concepts. 
The question was aimed at addressing an ongoing industry debate over whether it is wise to stop sending email to addresses that have shown no open or click activity over a certain period of time. 
Some deliverability experts advocate removing email addresses after certain periods of inactivity—say, 18 months. Others—myself among them—contend that as long as the list was solidly built on a permission basis and data quality is a top priority up front, there is no deliverability reason to remove addresses that don’t bounce or draw spam complaints.
Lord’s answer didn’t address that debate. Why should it? She’s not involved in it.
Rather, her answer described marketers digging up an old, dead list and sending to it along with messages to their main file. No one with the least bit of understanding of how spam filters work advocates that behavior. Not necessarily because they’re morally repulsed by it, but because they know the inevitable result—getting blocked from reaching recipients as a spammer.
The exchange doesn’t remotely reflect negatively on Lord. Nor does it reflect negatively on Dayman.
But it does illustrate that when Lord considers the concept of email marketers sending messages to inactive addresses, she considers it in terms of her professional experience as an anti-abuse executive. 
It’s kind of like asking a cop what he thinks of people who smoke pot. The cop will naturally talk about all the people he’s seen who have smoked it and suffered its potentially negative effects, such as graduating to harder, more dangerous substances and committing crimes to support their habit. What he won’t talk about are the millions of people who smoke pot in moderation, enjoy it and suffer no harm.
Why? Because he has little or no professional experience with them.
As an anti-abuse executive, Lord is essentially an email cop. So when asked about mailing to inactive addresses, Lord didn’t think of the thousands of senders her team has never had to bust. She thought of those who abusively send to inactives.
As her title would indicate, that’s what she sees.
So while some may have seen Lord’s answer to the “leaving-money-on-the-table” question as an argument for trimming inactive addresses from permission-based lists, it was anything but.

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