The Right Way to Trim Inactives

Whenever marketers deal with e-mail delivery challenges, delivery experts often suggest first isolating active subscribers from inactive ones and then mailing only to their active files.

Seems like sound advice, but I’ve yet to meet a marketer who embraces the idea of removing even a single valid e-mail address, even if the holder of that address hasn’t clicked on an e-mail in the last five years.

Some say they have long sales cycles. Others say they use e-mail as brand builders rather than sales or Web-traffic drivers. So, why chuck an address that one had to spend good money to get?

Many marketers will also try to find a strategy to minimize the loss, which I agree with completely.

We usually recommend pruning the deadwood because your most active subscribers generate all your traffic and revenue. You’re not hurting your program by removing valid addresses that don’t have any activity associated with them.

Also, activity is one metric that ISPs are starting to use when determining your sender reputation. A large volume of inactive e-mail recipients is considered junk by ISPs. Engaged and active recipients should generate the positive metrics ISPs look for, and will improve your overall reputation scores.

Who is an “Active Subscriber?”

This can be hard. Do you define a subscriber as active or inactive only on the basis of e-mail behavior? Remember: process metrics, most notably the open rate, are notoriously inaccurate. Someone who opens your messages without downloading images won’t have that open recorded. The click rate is a better barometer, but it also doesn’t measure the e-mail’s effect on brand building or awareness.

When possible, mix in purchase activity and Web interactions, such as posting reviews, blog comments, and frequent browsing of categories. The data points you have at your disposal, and the ability to integrate them with subscriber metrics, can influence how you define an active subscriber.

Ultimately, it depends on what you consider a successful outcome of your e-mail. It could be the full path from open to click to conversion, just the click itself, or some other measure. But that is the one you should use to separate actives from inactives.

Having a well-defined system of identifying inactives is important so you can remove true inactives, not the people who are reading you in stealth mode and appear to have “emotionally unsubscribed.”

How to Identify and Wake Up Inactives

The first and most important step in any reactivation campaign is identifying your audience. I recommend segmenting your audiences using the metric or factor you use to define inactivity, but don’t change anything right away.

Send the same creative to your inactive segment that your active subscribers receive. Make sure your inactives truly don’t respond. This provides the opportunity to refine your segmentation should you not properly identify the inactives on your first attempt.

Before you trim the deadwood, try to awaken inactives from their slumber with a well-planned reactivation campaign. Reactivation doesn’t mean you can approach long-ignored addresses or unsubscribes. This approach can backfire and drive spam-complaint volumes up to the point where ISPs will block the e-mails you send to the truly active subscribers on your list.

Determine and Promote Subscriber Value

A clear message telling readers what benefits they can get as subscribers should be the centerpiece of your reactivation campaign. Sending out a pouty or poignant e-mail saying you miss them doesn’t do this. Have they missed out on subscriber-only discounts, promotions, freebies, breaking-news events or other benefits of your program?

Every e-mail you send must provide value to the subscriber. E-mails that lack value also lack relevance. Irrelevant e-mail is often the reason subscribers unsubscribe, go inactive, or report a message as spam.

More than One Way to Reactivate

You might be tempted to cut to the chase and send out a threatening e-mail telling your inactives, “Click now or I won’t send you any more e-mail!” A quick-and-dirty approach is sure to shrink your list. Moving the address out of your database is your last resort.

Instead, remember your normal message strategy isn’t working, and you’ll need to try several different and new approaches to reach your inactive subscribers:

  • Send non-responders a short questionnaire asking why they don’t click.

  • Offer a welcome-back incentive, one that doesn’t go out in your regular e-mails.
  • Encourage subscribers to update their preferences, change lists, change frequency, or communication channel (RSS feeds instead of e-mail).
  • Send less often, such as a monthly compilation e-mail instead of weekly, or weekly instead of daily.
  • Send a final goodbye e-mail which notes you will remove the address from your active database and no longer send e-mail; include links and an offer to reactivate just in case.

Avoid This Pitfall

I can’t stress enough how important it is that your reactivation campaign doesn’t remove active and valuable subscribers. Take the time to make sure you’ve really tried to save those addresses before letting go.

Efforts to remove non-responders can lift performance metrics, or solve delivery problems. However, avoid opt-out reactivation schemes that merely continue to drive large, unresponsive programs, which is the exact opposite of your goal.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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