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What To Do with Long-Term Inactive Email Subscribers?

  |  December 18, 2013   |  Comments

Columnist Derek Harding shares tip for marketers with long-term inactive email subscribers, after a conversation at Email Insider Summit spurred a lively conversation on the best way to manage them.

emailcampaignRight this minute, I'm sitting in Salt Lake City airport thinking about the excellent conversation we had around long-term inactives at Email Insider Summit. This is such a deep and broad topic that in some areas, we really only scratched the surface. Some truths really came through that I think warrant reiteration.

1. What Constitutes an Inactive Varies Enormously

This may seem obvious, yet all too often, marketers are given simple one size fits all recommendations about inactives, how to identify them and what to do about them. The reality is that it is essential to understand the customer journey specific to your business and the purchase/re-purchase cycle in order to determine what constitutes an inactive subscriber.

In making that determination about what constitutes an inactive subscriber, don't confuse the concepts of customer and subscriber. This is particularly important when considering non-email data and behavior. A customer may be active in other channels, but inactive in email and this can be very relevant from a branding perspective. Emails to them may still have value. However, it's entirely irrelevant from a list hygiene perspective.

For some businesses, there is a natural lifecycle where customers simply outgrow the product or service. For others, the re-purchase cycle is measured in years. There's no point in chasing subscribers who are no longer your customers (though if you have multiple product lines, they may be interested in another line of business). By the same token, it may be counter-productive to try to reactivate and perhaps discard a subscriber partway through the re-purchase cycle.

2. Understand the Issues & Pain Points of Your Inactives

Another issue that came out loud and clear is the importance of understanding the issues and pain points associated with your inactive subscribers. Though we'd all like to have a highly engaged subscriber base, how much does it really matter if there are subscribers who do not appear to take any notice of your messaging? To put it another way, is there actually a problem that needs solving and if so, what is it?

The cost of continuing to contact inactives can be an issue in some cases. Though the marginal cost of emailing some extra recipients should be relatively small, there can be secondary impacts that should be considered. Keeping inactive addresses on the list can give a false sense of security about the number of subscribers you have, undermining the urgency and focus on acquisition. A growing proportion of inactives can also lead to declining results, leading to higher-pressure tactics in order to maintain revenue. These tactics can have a negative impact over the long term.

3. The Overall Effect of Inactives

Generally speaking though, the most common reason for concern about inactives is deliverability. Long-term inactive addresses are more likely to be spamtraps and have a negative impact on delivery so removing them is desirable. The challenge is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

To this end, many brands implement re-engagement strategies. All too often, these become long, multi-touch campaigns with increasingly enticing offers. However, there are a number of reasons these may not be such a smart move. In all the studies I've seen, only a tiny fraction of inactive subscribers are ever reactivated. Much evidence also suggests that subscribers reactivated through incentives do not re-engage for long.

A short and simple re-engagement campaign may actually be far more effective. When you have deliverability trouble, it's precisely the wrong time to embark on large-scale mailings to inactive subscribers.

Based on all the above, here are my key takeaways for addressing inactives:

  1. Don't wait, start before you have a problem.
  2. Figure out what problem you are solving.
  3. Take the time to understand your customer lifecycle.
  4. Don't confuse a customer with a subscriber.
  5. Keep your reactivation campaign simple and direct.
  6. Recognize that reactivation is mostly about deactivation.

Until next time!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Derek Harding

Derek is the managing director of J-Labs, Javelin Marketing Group's technology skunkworks, a role that draws on his 20 years of experience and leadership in the fields of marketing and technology. A British expatriate based in Seattle, Washington, Derek is perhaps better known as the founder and technologist behind Innovyx, one of the first email service providers later acquired by the Omnicom Group. An industry veteran and thought-leader, Derek is a regular expert author, contributor, conference speaker, and takes an active role in a number of industry and trade groups.

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