Inactive E-mail List: Mail or Don’t Mail?

What do e-mail lists have in common with milk, butter, batteries, and fresh produce?

All have a shelf life. All are use-it-or-lose-it propositions.

Or can an e-mail list that’s past its expiration date be resuscitated? That’s what the product manager at a well-known online publishing company recently asked me.

The company has a list of 55,000 names it hasn’t mailed to in over six months. Dare it mail to the list again? What are the potential benefits — and consequences — of doing so? The best practice issues of mailing to such a list are far reaching, encompassing such e-mail marketing hot buttons as permission, list hygiene, and deliverability.

My advice to this company follows. I’d be interested in hearing from readers who have additional, even conflicting, ideas. A dormant list is a sticky topic indeed, and the temptation to shoot off a mailing can be a big one.

Succumb to Temptation?

One of the first considerations is churn. On average, e-mail list churn is about 30 percent per year. Your mileage may vary, but you should assume about 15 percent of that six month-old, 55,000-member list are dead addresses. And dead addresses bounce.

Bounced addresses are a Very Bad Thing. They affect the mailer’s sender reputation. I’m assuming that this company’s reputable e-mail service provider (ESP) is handling list hygiene. That is, it deletes old addresses once they hit a predetermined bounce threshold. But that applies to active lists, not inactive ones.

Why don’t you want e-mail to bounce, aside from the fact that it’s not landing in a recipient’s inbox, thus effectively going nowhere? It displeases the ISPs. Since they’re the ones that actually deliver the mail, you want to remain in their good graces and bounce as little as possible. If you don’t keep your lists clean, the major ISPs can shoot all your mail into spam folders (at best) or blacklist your domain (at worst). This last point isn’t a pretty scenario, particularly for an online-only publisher whose entire business model hinges on its ability to deliver e-mail newsletters.

This is where caution really comes into the picture. If that list contains too many bad addresses and you mail to it, the negative repercussions (spam complaints as well as bounces) affect not only that one mailing but potentially all mailings from your company’s sending domain or IP address. You risk damaging your ability to effectively deliver e-mail across the board — not just to this one list.

To further complicate matters, this particular inactive list was compiled via a copromotion with a third party. While the third party followed the gold standard of confirmed double opt-in, the subscribers nevertheless didn’t explicitly opt in to mailings from the company now hoping to use it. This scenario alone (six months of dormancy notwithstanding) heightens the risk of recipients hitting the “report spam” button — with similar negative sender reputation repercussions on the ISP level.

Balance Risk and Reward

Still, the potential rewards of using that list may outweigh any risks. Following, my suggestions for more effectively bringing the list back from dormancy without unduly courting the wrath of recipients and ISPs alike:

  • If possible, segment the list by activity or time of opt-in. Mail to the most recently active recipients first. See what happens. You up the odds of fewer bounces, as well as fewer irate recipients.

  • Write a crystal-clear subject line, something that acknowledges what’s going on, with the original subscribed-to name in both the subject line and header. For example, “Special Offer for Time Subscribers — Now With More Newsweek.” By being upfront about why the mailing is being sent, you reduce potential spam complaints.
  • Succinctly explain what’s up with the list situation and what the benefits of receiving this e-mail are now that subscribers aren’t getting “Defunct Newsletter.”
  • Provide a clear, conspicuous opt-out link. Place it above the fold in the body copy (as well as in the standard footer). Clear and conspicuous opt-out is not only the law but, in this case, will hopefully reduce report-spam trigger finger. Increasingly, more consumers don’t trust unsubscribe buttons, so they hit the dreaded “spam” button instead. Your job is to make it so brain-dead easy to unsubscribe that it will be much harder for subscribers to rat you out as a spammer. Obviously, this becomes extra important when dealing with an older, third-party list.
  • Personalize, if possible. “Dear Jane, Instead of getting Time, you’re now getting Newsweek” would be beneficial — if you have that data.

And by all means, don’t overlook the privacy policy and the terms and conditions of whatever those subscribers opted in to in the first place. Whatever original agreement the subscribers opted in to is legally binding, whether it comes from your own company or that former partner. That one factor alone can easily make the mail-or-don’t-mail call for you.

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