Cut inactive subscribers from your e-mail lists, but don't use a chain saw. Consider this approach.
Subscriber engagement is becoming the ISPs' new rule for deliverability, as I noted in my previous column. Soon, senders whose messages get opened and clicked on will, in general, have better inbox delivery than those whose messages get deleted without opening, reported as spam, or allowed to pile up in the inbox.
On the flip side, having a large segment of inactive or unresponsive subscribers can hurt your sender reputation, which many ISPs now consider when deciding whether to deliver your messages, block them, or route them to the junk folder. You probably know already that spam complaints and hard bounces damage your sender reputation and reduce deliverability. Repeatedly mailing to inactive or abandoned e-mail addresses poses a more insidious threat.
If you do nothing to control or re-engage your inactive subscribers, this segment can grow large enough to trigger ISP filtering or blocking. Even your most engaged subscribers wouldn't receive your messages if that happens, because your sender reputation is so poor, your messages won't reach their inboxes. So, your reputation, your deliverability, and ultimately the health of your e-mail program are in jeopardy. This means you can no longer afford to ignore your "emotionally unsubscribed" recipients.
List Hygiene Must Include Removing Inactives
This is a controversial concept. Many marketers resist any suggestion to remove "good" addresses from their mailing lists, assuming that if the address doesn't bounce or generate a spam complaint, it's fair game.
They see the money lost on e-mail acquisition or feel the heat from size-conscious bosses who believe that the next e-mail message they send could bring in the big conversion.
What these marketers don't see is the damage that can happen when they send messages to addresses that never respond.
I can understand this apprehension, especially among retailers who worry that they will remove people who are good customers of their brick-and-mortar stores. These people are the ones who read the offers in the e-mail messages and then convert in the store rather than on a landing page.
Identify Your True Inactives
Use a scalpel approach, which applies a metrics matrix to excise your true inactive subscribers. If you wield a chain saw to lop off anybody who didn't click after six months, you could end up cutting out genuine customers.
Determine your inactivity cycle. The longer your sales or replenishment cycle, and the less frequent your mailing schedule, the longer you need to wait.
Someone who sends a monthly e-mail promoting luxury vacations, or Christmas/Hanukkah specialty foods, should look for inactivity after at least a year, while a retailer who sends a daily-deal e-mail could begin hunting down inactives after three months of silence.
Use precise metrics. Open rate is not a slam-dunk metric. It's not always accurate, because it won't register opens from people who don't download images. Clicks and conversions are more reliable metrics. You should also consider watching non-e-mail metrics like Web site activity, purchases, page visits, or customer review postings.
Test for accuracy; refine as needed. Test your inactivity criteria before going further. Create a segment of your mailing list and add any address to it that meets your criteria.
Send your next couple of messages as usual, but track action on your new segment. Move anyone who acts on the message back to your main list.
Launch Your Reactivation Campaign
Note the word "campaign." Reactivation doesn't mean sending a single e-mail implying "Come back and buy something or we kick you off the island." Instead, you'll create a series of e-mails, each with a different purpose.
Here's a typical reactivation campaign:
E-mail 1: Create an alternate version of your regular e-mail message. Send the primary version to your actives, but add copy to the one going out to your inactive segment in which you ask them to return, to update their preferences, or to unsubscribe.
Make these links more prominent than they might be in the regular e-mail. Use a subject line that calls out their inactivity: "Come back to XYZ Company" or "We miss you."
Track activity on this message, and return anyone who acts on your offer, back to your active list. If they click "unsubscribe," of course, or if they click the "report spam," you would remove them, just as you would normally do.
E-mail 2: Send your next regular e-mail only to your active list. To your inactives, send a special e-mail with a survey and instructions on how to unsubscribe or update preferences, or to change an address or frequency. Promote mailing lists or other channels -- RSS or Twitter feed, Facebook fan page, catalogs -- that might work better.
Your e-mail list software should automatically move those who change preferences, unsubscribe, or click the spam button to the appropriate list.
E-mail 3: This is your farewell e-mail, in which you note that you will remove the address from your active database and no longer send e-mail. Include links and an offer to reactivate just in case. Anyone who hasn't replied by now can safely be moved to a permanent do-not-e-mail database.
Removing "good" but inactive addresses might seem like it will hurt, but a measurable improvement in metrics that matter -- deliverability, conversions, and revenue -- should help relieve the pain.
Until next time, keep on deliverin'!
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Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.
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