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Set the Alarm Clock on Your Sleeping Subscribers

  |  May 19, 2010   |  Comments

Win back your inactive subscribers by figuring out what went wrong and trying a reactivation program.

Once you decide to invest time and budget resources to upgrade your list quality, one of your first targets should be winning back the segment of your mailing list that has gone inactive.

That could be pretty sizable, given that half or more of a typical B2C (define) list can be inactive. (I explain why you should either win back inactives or move them off your mailing list in this column.)

Why Do Subscribers Go Inactive?

Any one of these conditions can increase your inactive segment, but you probably have two or more working together to amplify inactivity:

  • List age. As e-mail ages as a marketing channel, mailing lists themselves get older. If addresses on your list are five to 10 years old, they could be abandoned but not invalid yet.

  • No welcome program to engage new subscribers immediately.

  • Messages that don't meet subscriber expectations or match preferences.

  • Weak inbox presence (unbranded sender line and/or generic or boilerplate subject line).

  • Unsubscribe process that's hard to find, complicated, or untrustworthy.

  • Large percentage of Web e-mail clients, like Yahoo or Gmail, with high mailbox storage capacity, allowing unopened e-mails to pile up.

  • Mailing frequency - either too frequently for subscriber comfort and expectations or too seldom.

  • Offer repetition, where you rotate through the same offers every week. Subscribers catch on and simply ignore your messages, waiting until they are finally in the mood to purchase.

Use a Scalpel, Not an Ax

As with any e-mail effort, there's a right way and a wrong way to manage inactivity. For starters, don't just chop off addresses that have no clicks or opens associated with them. Often you'll be asked to come back to these folks months later. Because they haven't heard from you in a while, they often tend to forget they signed up many moons ago.

You could also lose subscribers who are reading your e-mails but blocking images (thus not recording an open), or who aren't in the market more than once or twice a year.

Given the money you spent to acquire those addresses, you are better off creating a multilayered campaign to identify who's still engaged but not recording opens, who needs a nudge to unsubscribe, and who has abandoned their e-mail addresses without unsubscribing.

This has a deliverability impact, too. ISPs are beginning to include engagement (subscribers opening and clicking on your messages) in the formula for deciding whether to deliver your e-mail to the inbox, route it to the bulk folder, or block delivery.

Open With a Survey or Profile Invitation

Reactivation programs work best when they become an automatic element of your e-mail program, like a welcome series.

But, first things first. I often begin with a subscriber survey or an invitation to create or update subscriber preferences.

These messages can replace a mailing if you send e-mail more often than once or twice a week. If you mail less often, you can send a survey or profile-update request in mid-cycle.

With this first campaign - test your subject lines, message content, and segmentation strategies. See what works best before moving into a more permanent program.

You can also establish a baseline for inactivity, showing you more precisely how much of your mailing list is asleep or absent.

Example: Using Profile Updates for Reactivation

Recently, one of my clients conducted a good reactivation campaign via profile updates. The goal was to generate fresh data the company could use to measure engagement and ID inactives and improve message relevance.

This multilayered approach to reactivation is a nice switch from the bare-bones efforts other marketers have used, where the message essentially is "Click here or get lost."

Before just launching to their entire base, the company tested several aspects of its campaign to ensure maximum response:

  • Personalized vs. non-personalized subject lines: Normally the client doesn't include the subscriber's first name in the subject line. So, this attracted attention and made the message stand out more in the inbox.

  • Contest entry vs. message relevance: One message asked the subscriber to update preferences in order to get more relevant messages, including a list of benefits such as device launch notices, software upgrades, new applications, and promotions/contests. The other promoted a giveaway for updating a profile. See next item for the response.

  • Active vs. inactive subscribers: The client tested active customers with no profile data against inactives with no profile data. It found the contest had no significant lift in response rates for either group. This was perhaps the most surprising result of all.

Watch for Complications

Once you send your campaign, you'll want to measure how much activity it generates, beyond opens and clicks on the message itself. Also, watch your delivery reports and be on the lookout for more spam complaints.

The reactivation case above included a distribution group that had been moved to an inactive file and had not been messaged recently. (They never actively unsubscribed but had stopped responding.) Not unexpectedly, this audience generated a much higher number of spam complaints.

To avoid this sudden surge in spam complaints, it is best to send messages in small batches instead of all at once. This strategy will help keep your more important e-mail programs from being blocked or filtered because of spam complaints your reactivation campaign might generate.

Placing an unsubscribe link at the top of the e-mail message in the preheader region can also deter complaints.

Avoiding a spam-complaint rush is another argument for adding ongoing reactivation to your e-mail program. You'll spend less time trying to wake up your inactives and generate fewer spam complaints.

Until next time, keep on deliverin'!

Stefan is off today. This column was originally published on March 10, 2010 on ClickZ.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stefan Pollard

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.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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