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Three Tactics to Manage List Inactivity

  |  February 25, 2009   |  Comments

Got people on your e-mail address list who don't open your messages? They probably aren't generating spam complaints or bounces. So why stir things up?

Given that at least half of your e-mail address list can probably be classified "inactive," the question of what to do with this silent faction is highly relevant to e-mail marketers, especially in these tough days when you're being asked to make more sales with less budget.

This issue came up at the recent Email Evolution Conference, where attendees were asked to vote whether purging or retaining inactives should become the e-mail industry's best practice.

However, the solution goes much deeper than "always purge" versus "always retain."

I support removing some classes of inactive addresses after identifying and attempting to reactivate them (details in my earlier ClickZ column, "The Right Way to Trim Inactives").

This doesn't mean you should dump anybody who hasn't acted on your first few e-mail messages, or even everyone who hasn't opened or clicked in two years.

Presumably you collected those addresses through reputable means, so they represent a considerable investment. Replacing them can often cost more than you spent to acquire them.

Why Target Inactives?

Your inactives probably aren't generating spam complaints or bounces. So why stir things up? Here are four reasons:

  • They aren't helping you reach your business goals, which mostly means you aren't making any money from them. Instead, you're spending money to send them e-mail they're ignoring.

  • They depress your true list performance, in both campaigns and any prelaunch optimization testing.

  • ISPs are beginning to watch how often commercial e-mailers send to nonresponding inboxes as an added reputation factor.

  • Long-inactive addresses can be turned into spam traps. Sending to them can get your messages blocked or filtered.

Three Tactics for Managing Inactives

Whether you choose to segment out inactives or let them slumber in peace, these three tactics will help you manage inactivity to improve list performance:

  • Segment out inactives in optimization testing. If you conduct optimization tests before launching e-mail campaigns, your inactives might be watering down your responses and making it hard to determine the actual lift of your tests. Have you ever done an A/B split test on, say, the call to action where the difference was small, like a 29.4 percent CTR (define) on one version and 28.6 percent on the other so the test was inconclusive? One likely culprit is the denominator (audience selected for the test) is heavily weighted by inactives, suppressing the response rates.

    If you have a strategy for determining active versus inactive subscriber status, you can run your tests against each segment as well as against the whole list and compare the active segment's performance to the full list. In some cases, this testing could wake up a portion of your inactive file. But if you look at the test only across the whole audience, you might find the winning strategy is more difficult to see.

  • Separate your former clickers from your never clickers. Experts regularly debate about how long a subscriber has to go dark before you can consider the address inactive, but what about those people who signed up with you and never acted on any of your e-mail? You shouldn't have to wait six months to a year before moving your never clickers to an inactive program, assuming you've done all you can to entice them into acting.

    This is an excellent argument for conducting a systematic welcome program, one that invites action by clicking through to fill out a profile, claim a special offer, or answer a short survey. (It's also an argument for double opt-in instead of single opt-in, because it demands a little more action from the subscriber to get on your list, but that's an argument for another time.)

    Somebody who never acted has a lower value to your e-mail program than somebody who stopped acting. With this latter group, you can at least try to recover them with a reactivation campaign. You gain nothing by continuing to send messages to those who ignore every mailing from the minute they opted in.

  • Use inactives to hunt down problems with collection sources or processes. This strategy is a must if a significant percentage of subscribers have never acted on your messages. You most likely collect e-mail addresses from multiple sources (your official Web opt-in page, affiliate sites, coregistration programs, offline sources, etc.). Review your inactive file by source to determine if one collection method contributes a larger share of inactive addresses. You might find that a source delivers addresses that never engage. In that case, investigate the sign-up process after you remove inactives who never clicked.

One Final Thought

If your goal as an e-mail marketer is to send your messages to as many people as possible because you believe your messages have value whether your recipients act on them or not, then by all means, never remove an inactive e-mail address.

However, if deliverability is important and if you want to ensure your active recipients get the opportunity to engage with your e-mail, then list pruning should be a ritual.

Until next time, keep on deliverin'!

Join us for Search Engine Strategies New York March 23-27 at the Hilton New York. The only major search marketing conference and expo on the East Coast, SES New York will be packed with more than 70 sessions, including a ClickZ track, plus networking events, parties, training days, and more than 150 exhibitors.


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.

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