How to revive an old email list safely

I was having coffee with a friend this morning and he was remarking about his company’s email list, that it was over 100,000 addresses strong, but no one had emailed them in months. We got to discussing what to do with that list when he said, “maybe I’ll just hit them with an offer and see if the list is still good”.

That’s when the conversation came to a complete stop and we got down to brass tacks about how to revive an old email list. Hitting an old list with an offer is one of the worst things you can do to try to revive a list. It’s akin to going to a high school reunion and having the first acquaintance you meet try to sell you car insurance instead of saying “hey, haven’t seen you in 20 years, how’s things?”. At a minimum it leaves a sour taste in your mouth; more than likely, you’ll unsubscribe immediately and never look back.

The goal of a re-engagement campaign isn’t just to find out what percentage of your list is still good, but to try to get those subscribers re-engaged in the sense of happy to see you again and eager to learn from you. Put aside thoughts of buying or selling and focus just on making sure you still have your readers’ attention.

Here’s one recipe for reviving an old email list. First and foremost, you’re going to want to create a series of emails with content around your core offering that you can send out as a miniseries. For example, my friend works for a webinar company. The content series should be something useful like Top 5 Tips for Better Webinars, and each email in the series should provide something useful and powerful that immediately makes the lives of his subscribers better. Examples might be “How to design slides specifically for webinars” or “How to properly set up your phone for top voice quality”, and so forth. If you know your product offering really well, designing content that complements it and makes it obvious that you are an authority in it should be relatively simple.

Second, the introductory email series should be an immediate value proposition for the series to catch attention. In this example, the intro email might say, “You haven’t heard from us in a while, and we’re sorry about that. We’ve been working on brand new ways to help make webinars better. Would you like to receive this series of 5 short emails for the next 5 weeks?” Then offer two buttons, perhaps even tongue in cheek, such as “No, I prefer to bore my webinar attendees to death with stale slides and boring speakers. Unsubscribe me.” and “Yes, I want to make my webinar attendees younger, richer, and better looking. Send me the series.”

To make the series valuable, I recommended that the top half be the content and the bottom half be the pitch for the company, so that the offer was still there (thus making the VP of Sales happy) without it being solely a pitch:

Email layout is important to reviving an old email list.

Finally, at the end of the series is when you should do the product pitch and ask that people stay subscribed, along the lines of “Did you find these emails valuable and useful? Give us a call for a demo and we’ll be happy to show you some even more useful webinar tips and tricks.” The folks who have stuck around through all 5 emails are engaged, are interested, are paying attention, and are presumably deriving some value from it. Now they’re re-engaged and receptive to hearing what you have to sell.

Re-engagement campaigns to revive an email list can be a powerful way to drive up some business, but if you go for the sale right away, you risk leaving a lot of longer-term money on the table by burning down your list immediately with a hard sell rather than warming subscribers back up to you. Take the time to share and give first, and you’ll reap much more gain afterwards.

Christopher S. Penn