The Grand Finale

We have reached the final act of the three-act play that is the lifecycle of our email list. The opening act began with address collection and welcome messaging. The second act developed the relationship with our subscribers. But the third act is where it all ends.

In a play the final act is the grand finale. The plot lines come together and the tensions developed in the first two acts are resolved, whether happily or tragically. All too often with list management this is not the case. Rather the story is just left to peter out, or worse still, the audience has left but the actors are still speaking to an empty theater.

Act 3: The Ending

Like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor, there are four possible endings:

  1. Bounces
  2. Complaints
  3. Unsubscription
  4. Inactivity

The first three are pretty well understood and have been addressed many times, so I’m going to focus on the last one: inactivity. When and whether our story should come to an end due to inactivity is controversial. There are those who argue that, so long as you aren’t having delivery problems, you should not remove anyone for inactivity.

My problem with this is the caveat about not having delivery issues requires a reactive approach to delivery. It also presumes there are no benefits to removing inactive subscribers. I think there are a number of benefits.

The first is to prevent delivery issues before they arise. If you’ve run a list of any size over a period of years, you’ve probably experienced occasional errors in the handling of bounces and complaints. Over time these issues can add up to delivery problems.

The second is improvement in metrics. While at first blush this may seem disingenuous, even self-defeating (shrink your database to improve your metrics), there are good reasons to maintain only engaged subscribers in your database. As filtering systems begin to measure engagement as a delivery metric, having a higher engagement rate may help your inbox placement. Furthermore, focusing your marketing resources on engaged subscribers reaps far higher rewards than guesswork marketing to users who won’t respond no matter what you do.

The third is your brand. When customers have moved on, let them go. Whether they’ve moved to other media or elsewhere matters not. Don’t let your email program become the annoying, nagging face of your brand undermining efforts in other channels.

Act 3, Scene 1: Selection

If we’re to reengage long-term inactive subscribers, we must first define both long-term and inactive. Analysis of your subscriber activity and purchase cycle can provide insight into what constitutes long-term for you. At what point do most inactive subscribers never come back? Just bear in mind that when ISPs repurpose old addresses as spamtraps, they do so after 12 to 18 months.

The other half of the equation is what constitutes activity. Activity in other channels such as web, call center, or purchase may be very relevant from a brand perspective but have no relevance for email delivery. It’s important to be clear about which type of activity is being considered for which purposes.

Act 3, Scene 2: Reengagement

Once long-term inactives are identified, an ongoing process of reengagement can be developed. The process of reengagement should aim to do exactly that. Subscribers who opt out or show no activity at all should be suppressed from future messaging, but the goal is to get subscribers to indicate that they’re still interested.

An effective process should give more than one opportunity to reengage over a period of a few weeks. But avoid acting like the jilted lover who just doesn’t get the message. If your reengagement program lasts more than two months or includes more than a few messages, you may be into stalker territory.

Start with an open question. Ask if they want in or out. If you have the ability, allow your subscribers to change their communications preferences to something that suits them better.

Incentives and offers are best used in the middle of the process. When testing incentives, be sure to consider the long-term impact. There may be little value in getting someone back with a loss-leader that doesn’t remain active.

For the final communication, be clear that it will be the final communication unless they take action. Give them clear directions for how to reactivate, and if there’s still no response bring down the curtain and mark them as “do not send.”

So ends our three-act play. From introduction to an engaging narrative to the final curtain. How you choose to bring down the curtain is up to you, but in the end it must come down. Better a clear close than a long-tail of long-inactive users and increasing delivery issues.

Until next time,


Image on home page via Hung Chung Chih /

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