Are the email subscribers on your mailing list as active as they should or could be? Or, do they just ‘plague’ your email list and cost you money with seemingly little to no ROI? How are you supposed to deal with such inactive email subscribers? Should you just ‘purge’ them from your active mailing list? Or, should you attempt to jumpstart their interest with re-engagement campaigns?

“Keeping inactive subscribers and sending them email campaigns can be harmful to your engagement, reputation & deliverability. Why not try to re-engage with them before parting ways?” – EmailOut

As email marketers, we’ve all faced the brunt and nerve-wracking experience of having inactive email subscribers on our email list. It can be quite daunting. Especially, if email marketing is one of your top business growth strategies. However, does an inactive subscriber mean they are an inactive customer as well? Ah, and let’s not forget that some ESPs have pricing based on the number of contacts you have instead of on the number of emails you send. As such, trying to hold on to inactive email subscribers could be costly to your business.

In this article, we’ll cover the following topics about inactive email subscribers:

  1. What are inactive subscribers?
  2. Types of inactive email subscribers
  3. Tips for re-engaging inactive subscribers

Let’s dive in.

Some email marketers might view the attempts of winning back inactive email subscribers as reviving a destroyed friendship or salvaging a shattered marriage. Nonetheless, depending on the type of inactive subscribers they are, there are strategies that could be put in place for re-engaging them.

It all boils down to a few simple questions marketers need to ask themselves – 

a) which inactive email subscribers have the most value and the least risk?
b) which inactive email subscribers have the most risk and the least value?
c) at what stage does the deliverability risk outweigh the value inactive subscribers generate?

After all, as a group, inactive subscribers certainly have value. Email marketers just need to evaluate the risk/value ratio. Ultimately, it costs five times more to obtain a new subscriber than it does to retain and nurture an existing one. You just need to decide if the effort you’ll put in is worth the possible reward afterwards.

Inactive Email Subscribers: Who Are They?

Way back, the old-fashioned way of dealing with inactive email subscribers was to avoid wasting time, as well as resources, and simply ‘cut them out’ from your email list in order to avoid issues such as damage to your deliverability through poor domain reputation. If ESPs like Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail notice you are sending emails to recipients who aren’t even bothered to open them, they will (eventually) flag all your emails as spam. That is something you certainly don’t want to happen and takes several months and considerable expertise to reverse.

On the other hand, the new-fashioned approach is to try and re-engage with those inactive email subscribers instead of ‘snipping’ them from your mailing list. After all, at some point in time, they were interested in your products/services. That’s how they ended up on your email list. Ultimately, isn’t it better to have an inactive email subscriber you can encourage to turn active again than to have no subscribers at all? Building an email list from scratch can be a Herculean task. 

Inactive email subscribers (a.k.a non-responsive email subscribers) are contacts who’ve opted-in for your email list, however, they’ve haven’t opened, clicked or engaged with your email campaigns in any way for a pre-determined period of time (3, 6, 12 or more months). 

The timeframe for a subscriber to be considered inactive depends on your business’s emailing frequency as well as on the type of campaign content. It’s up to email marketers to determine the subscribers’ inactive period. Professional ESPs (like EmailOut) can easily help gather and evaluate the data as well as create segmented email lists in order for you to re-engage with those inactive subscribers.

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There could be numerous reasons for subscribers to turn inactive. Here are a few examples – 

a) they don’t need your help anymore;
b) your sending frequency is becoming a bit too much for them;
c) they changed their email address and no longer monitor the original inbox;
d) the timing isn’t right;
e) their inbox is too cluttered and your email was moved way down the list;
f) your content is repetitive;
g) the email address used to opt-in was ‘stolen’; and
h) you’re always trying to sell them something – anything – without providing any value.

Whatever the reasons for their lack of activity, you can certainly do something about it. As long as you are willing to put sweat, blood and tons of money into it. Just kidding! You might sweat a little bit, but once you’ve established the type of inactive email subscribers you’re dealing with, the solution is not as hard as you might think.

Furthermore, if your business grows its mailing list organically, has strong opt-in practices in place, regularly monitors email campaign reports and maintains a stellar email list hygiene, the risks of ending up with inactive email subscribers will be highly reduced. 

What Are The Different Categories Of Inactive Email Subscribers?

How should you deal with inactive email subscribers? Do you just say ‘Adios’ and be done with them? Or do you try and re-engage them? 

It all comes down to this: No two inactive subscribers are the same. As such, your course of action will definitely not be as simple as a walk in the park. But, you unquestionably can’t just leave such subscribers on your email list. If you do, your entire email marketing strategy will eventually suffer from it. 

The first step is to evaluate what type of inactive email subscribers you are dealing with. There are three main categories – 

1) The Sleepyheads

This category of inactive email subscribers refers to those who were both active and engaged, but then, just turned dormant and uninterested. These subscribers are the ones that have the most value and the least risk. Why? Because they are the ones with the strongest engagement stats. They are simply ‘hibernating’. Thus, you don’t want to remove them from the email list and send them on their merry way. Instead, start on a re-engagement campaign as quickly as possible – before you lose them, for good. 

Email automation will be a tremendous help with this category. It allows you to set up triggered emails that will be sent at the precise time the individual subscribers’ activity declines. With this category, time is more of the essence than ever. So, making sure your timing is perfect. Ah, and don’t forget, personalisation is a key driver for high engagement.

2) The Living Dead

In this category, we have subscribers that were once active and engaged, but then, turned phantom. They are the ones who haven’t opened, clicked, converted or engaged with your email campaigns in a very long time (6,12, 18 or more months). This type of inactive email subscribers is the one that holds the most risk and the least value as the possibility of your re-engagement campaigns succeeding is close to none. These are inactive subscribers who’ve also turned into inactive customers. The best course of action for you here would be to ‘ease’ them out of your email list, gradually. 

Still, we’d advise you not to cross them out and consider them a ‘lost cause’. They opted-in for your email list once so put a little effort and try to retain them. A quick re-engagement campaign asking them if they still want to be on your email list would do the trick. However, make sure there’s a clear CTA redirecting them to your email preference centre so they can choose what they want to stay or not. If after a set period of time (let’s say a week or a month), you still haven’t heard from them don’t waste your time further. 

3) The Ghosts

This category consists of all the ‘never-active’ subscribers who opted-in for your mailing list – for whatever reason (for example, just to get a free ebook or a whitepaper) – and then completely vanished. There were no email opens, no click-throughs, no conversions, no purchases and no type of engagement at all. As ‘the living dead’, this category of inactive email subscribers is associated with the highest risk and the lowest value as there was no sign of engagement. The best approach with this category is to remove those subscribers from your email list.

As harsh as it sounds, you’ve already tried to re-engage them when they were in the first two categories. Their complete lack of response (opens, clicks, anything) sends a clear message that sending continuous re-engagement campaigns is futile. Also, it’s not only a waste of time and resources, but it can result in harming your overall sender reputation. You definitely don’t want to do that.

Re-engaging Inactive Email Subscribers: The Mechanics

After you’ve taken the time and audited your email list as well as accurately identifying the type of the inactive email subscribers, it’s time to take action by developing and implementing a re-engagement strategy.

At the beginning of this article, we’ve mentioned that it’s five times more costly to acquire new subscribers than it is to retain those you already have. Therefore, before you give those inactive subscribers on your email list the boot, make sure you’ve tried every trick in your email marketing arsenal to re-engage them.

Here are a few re-engagement techniques that can help you get back into those inactive email subscribers good graces – 

1) Segmentation is your best friend

Being relevant is the best way to boost engagement. Yet, before you get there, you need to divide your inactive email subscribers into distinct segments. Cue, email list segmentation. By carefully examining your email campaign reports, you’ll be able to pinpoint the inactive subscribers. From there you’ll simply have to create a segmented list and then send your re-engagement campaign to it. Of course, you’ll need an awesome professional ESP for that – “Hey there, this is EmailOut. Why not try us out?”

2) Honesty is your best policy

Retaining and re-engaging subscribers would be quite easy if you show them that you honestly care about them. Tell them that you miss them, they’ll appreciate the honesty – trust us. Also, don’t forget that personalisation in your re-engagement campaigns is essential. Especially since stats point out that 72% of subscribers will only engage with personalised email messages. Thus, whilst being honest, make sure you also show your subscribers that you know them.

3) Feedback is the key to improvement

There is a reason your subscribers have gone quiet and stopped engaging with your emails. So why don’t you simply ask them why? Add a short survey to your re-engagement email campaign and ask them:

a) why did they opt-in for your email list in the first place;
b) was the content they received from you not to their liking or meeting their expectations; and,
c) what would they be interested in reading about. By implementing this technique, you will not only get those inactive email subscribers involved but also, you’ll find the reason for their lack of active participation.

4) Relevant content is your holy grail

The relevance and tone of voice of your email communication are vital in your normal email campaigns, but they’re even more important in re-engagement ones. We’ve already emphasised enough how important personalisation is – it makes the subscriber feel like an actual person has reached out to them instead of an autobot (no, we’re not talking about Optimus Prime or Bumblebee). These days people are overwhelmed with all kinds of emails. Recent stats reveal that the average employee receives 121 emails per day and the CTOR for marketing emails in the U.S. is merely 18%. Therefore, providing relevant, attention-grabbing content can make all the difference to the success rate of your re-engagement campaign.

5) Test, test, test

In order to have a better idea of which re-engagement campaign will create more impact and will work (both now and in the future), make sure you split test. You can pretty much A/B test any element of your re-engagement email – from the subject line through to the images, the content and offers. Do you want to know a secret? By simultaneously testing both versions, you eliminate all the risks of getting it wrong. It means you can try a completely new and experimental idea alongside a tried-and-tested one… without the creeping terror that it’s all going to blow up in your face and get you fired.

There are two very important things we’d like you to keep in mind. Firstly, there will always be some factors that will result in inactive email subscribers and there’s not much you can do to influence them. Secondly, parting ways with subscribers is an inevitability. In the end, it all comes down to what you’ll decide to do and your ability (and willingness) to say “Farewell.”

Final Thoughts

The bitter truth is that some email marketers don’t even have a plan on how to re-engage with inactive email subscribers. Others are not even willing to do it because they deem it a waste of time and resources.

Regardless of the scenario, most of your subscribers are on your email list for a reason and they are interested in how you can help them. They just need you to remind them of that fact from time to time. Just make sure not to sound desperate when doing it. 

Overall, as hard as it is to obtain new subscribers versus retaining existing ones, it’s not impossible. But before you get to that point, why not save yourself all the hassle and simply try out these proven methods which are more cost-effective than finding new subscribers to replace your existing inactive ones?

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