Marketing’s Weekly Dose of the Truth

Ken Magill

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Ask an Expert: When/How to Reactivate II


This week’s ask-an-expert question is the same two parter as last week’s:

1) What are the most effective tactics you have seen for reactivating non-responsive email addresses?

2) How do I decide when an address is inactive?

This time our answer comes from Dela Quist, outspoken founder and CEO of British email marketing agency Alchemy Worx.

His answer comes via Only Influencers, an invitation-only list of marketing experts:

Quist: Influencers, I am not at all surprised that 2 of Ken’s first 3 questions involve the inactive question because deciding what to do with your “inactive” subscribers is one of the most vexing issues facing email marketers. It is also instructive that he asked the most important and difficult question to answer “how do I decide when an address is inactive?” last. It was almost an afterthought.

How to decide when an address is inactive is THE most important question for a very simple reason: Any sane marketer would immediately stop mailing anyone on their list who they knew for certain would never transact again and/or actively disliked receiving their emails.

The real question is not IF you should take an inactive person off the list, but HOW do you know they ARE inactive. Something almost nobody actually knows! Yet almost all “best practice” documents seem to advocate indiscriminately purging your list of every subscriber who has not opened an email for 3, 6 or 12 months (note how cozily round those numbers are). Despite the consistency of this best practice advice the vast majority of email marketers continue to send to long term non openers. Given that every ESP and most email marketing experts have been saying the same thing for years most email marketers must be aware that they are doing the “wrong” thing.

So why do they ignore such "sensible" advice? Because it is arbitrary and wrong.

With very few exceptions when it comes to sales and marketing, long term inactivity is perfectly normal. After all, how often do you actively interact with marketing communications of any kind from a car dealer, insurance company, real estate agent, bank, consumer electronics retailer, hotel chain etc.?

Email is no different and marketers know that.

There are 5 reasons why someone who subscribed to your list may be inactive:

- They want your email, but haven’t needed your product, service or information in that time.

- False negatives – your email is optimized to be read with image blocking on and the subscriber is opening your email without you knowing (the reverse is also true because some subscribers who you think are opening are not)

- They don’t want your email, but do not care to unsubscribe, they are so disengaged or mistrustful of your brand that they prefer to delete your email or mark it as spam

- Email address churn – they no longer use or rarely check that email address

- They don’t see your email because it always goes to the junk folder

By far the largest group is those who want your email, but haven’t needed your product, service or information in that time. I call these people unemotionally subscribed. They are happy to ignore your messages until they are ready to buy, because it is easier than unsubscribing and having to remember your url or Google you at a later date.

What we don’t know, however, is which people on your list fit into each of those categories, which why it is so difficult to decide who to remove.

We have gathered plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, from our deep dives into client data and here are some examples of how we know they are unemotionally subscribed:

- $120,000 generated by subscribers who had not opened (downloaded images) or clicked on the previous 25 to 40 emails – it was a great offer.

- 14 percent of 2008 revenue and 7 percent of 2009 revenue generated by subscribers who did not open or click at all in 2007

- The most common or modal open, click or purchase frequency across every email audit we have ever conducted is 1.

The takeaway is simple. While some of those inactive addresses may be people who really won’t transact or hate you, the vast majority are unemotionally subscribed – they need you – but not yet!

So don’t beat yourself up over the fact that they don’t feel compelled to read every email you send.

As far as I can see the main (only?) reason email marketers are advised to remove inactive addresses from any list is because they might be honey traps monitored by ISP’s. And as we have been told emailing a honey trap email address will damage a brands reputation with the ISP’s and messages will be more likely to bounce or be delivered to the junk folder.

However, as most practicing email marketers know, things are never that simple!

In the real world:

• The people on your list are either customers or have opted to receive email from you.
• You cannot assume that everyone who has not opened for any given time period definitely wants to be removed from the list.
• It is almost impossible to actually prove the scale of any negative financial impact caused by sending email to dead addresses.
• The cost of continuing to send email to these people is very low.
• The revenue generated by addresses that become active after a long period of inactivity can be very significant.

Faced with a choice between hard numbers such as the low cost of mailing inactives and how much revenue is generated by their email programs and the mostly theoretical cost of a bad reputation, it is hardly surprising that so many email marketers working for well-known and reputable brands ignore “best practice” advice.

Most marketers know that while you can say every dead address, honey trap or person who does not want your email will not open it; you cannot say a person who does not open your email is a dead address, honey trap or does not want to be on your list. No one disagrees that it is a good idea to remove certifiably dead email addresses so telling them that achieves nothing. What email marketers really need help with is how to ensure that they are not culling apparently dead people who are happy to be on the list and plan to re-engage in future – the unemotionally subscribed.

The best way to approach the problem of inactives or unresponsive people on your list is to try and answer the following questions before you start a wholesale purge:

• Do you have reputation or deliverability issues?
• Are you trying to cut your costs?
• Are you trying to improve your open and click rates by reducing send numbers?
• Are you doing it because everyone says you should?
• Have you explored other options such as sending an exceptional offer, prize draw or voucher?
• Have you followed the money?

Many of your “inactives” may be transacting via other channels. We provide clients with reports where we overlay the timing of emails sent with the timing of sales from other channels e.g. in-store, the website, call center, PPC and affiliates. You would be amazed at how people make purchases within 24 hours of an email they did not open landing in their inbox. The answers to those questions will make a huge difference to the value you place on the unresponsive people on your list and make it easier to decide whether to remove them or not.


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