It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Inactive Subscribers

When you say goodbye to inactive subscribers, make sure you're following best practices.

As an email marketer, conventional wisdom dictates larger lists automatically equal better results. On the surface, it certainly stands to reason: the more people you reach, the better the odds someone will open, click, or even purchase as a result of your email. In reality, though, email list management is a far more complicated practice primarily focused on engagement and list hygiene.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts on our blog, most major ISPs heavily weigh user engagement as a factor in email deliverability. Once you take this to heart and start targeting your most engaged contacts, you must decide how to manage those contacts who aren’t engaged and are likely harming your deliverability.

Cleaning out your closet

One of the primary principles of list management is list hygiene – but what exactly does that mean? In broad terms, good list hygiene consists of cleaning your list of inactive contacts on a regular, recurring basis. Most experts recommend removing contacts who have been inactive for a period of 6-12 months, but the specifics will depend on a number of factors.

Sending frequency – If you only send one mailing per month, it may be slightly aggressive to clean contacts who have been inactive for six months. By contrast, six months may be too long a period of inactivity if you send three or more emails each week. A good rule of thumb is to isolate contacts who haven’t opened or clicked in the past 20-40 mailings. In addition, almost any contact who hasn’t engaged in over 12 months is “dead weight” and should be targeted for re-engagement and/or removal.

Target market – There are certain market segments that may be historically less responsive. A great example of this is an RV company I helped in years past. The company’s mailing list consisted mainly of retirees and people who spent much of their time on the road, so it was common for a user to go a few months without opening an email. We helped the sender devise a specialized list hygiene regimen based on response rates and appropriate inactivity periods.

Type of business – Seasonal businesses, or any company seeing the bulk of its traffic near a certain holiday, often have customers who interact or purchase only once a year. If you’re this type of sender, it’s a good idea to extend your inactivity period – 13-15 months is usually sufficient to capture those annual purchasers. It’s also recommended you reach out to your users during off-peak seasons whenever possible. This will not only drive brand loyalty, but could increase engagement and improve deliverability for the busy times of year.

Be mindful of list-cleaning “shortcuts”

An often-discussed topic among users in need of list cleaning is the use of third-party list verification or list “scrubbing” services. A list verification service will attempt to discover if the email addresses on the provided list are valid, which can be useful to reduce spikes in hard bounces. If you’re sending to your list regularly, though, these services are unnecessary. In addition, it’s important to note they can only tell you if the email address exists – not whether the owner legitimately opted in for your email, or if the address is a spam trap.

List scrubbing services provide a slightly different product. Instead of reaching out to ISPs to confirm the validity of your addresses, they will compare your list to an internal database they have compiled. This database usually contains addresses of known spam traps, complainers and staff of well-known anti-spam services. While the idea sounds good in theory, the reality is following list acquisition and management best practices will ensure you don’t have these types of addresses in your list.

In addition, the databases owned by most scrubbing services contain at best incomplete, and at worst inaccurate, information. Spam traps – email addresses created and/or maintained for the purpose of identifying and flagging senders who fail to follow best practices – are constantly added and removed. This is to ensure that worldwide networks of spammers, who sell lists of spam traps and anti-abuse activists on the black market, are unable to pinpoint and avoid these traps.

There are certainly reputable vendors for both list verification and list scrubbing services. These services can provide value as long as you understand what to expect.

To re-engage or not to re-engage

Once you’ve identified the appropriate inactivity timeframe and isolated the contacts you’ve deemed inactive, your next question is likely, “What next?” In most cases, if contacts haven’t opened or clicked in 18 months, it’s probably best to cut those subscribers loose without a fight. If you’re a frequent sender (three times per week or more), cut this timeframe to 12 months or less.

For “average” senders who send three to six times each month, a re-engagement campaign is recommended for contacts who haven’t opened in six months or more. This can be a single email with a catchy subject line and a compelling call-to-action or a short series increasing the urgency, but it’s best to send no more than three re-engagement emails.

Depending on the number of inactive contacts and how it compares to your active contact counts, it may be best to spread out delivery over a period of time. A good guideline is to send at least twice as many emails to engaged contacts as non-engaged contacts in a given time period (day, week, etc.).

After the mailing(s), remove any contacts from the mailing list who haven’t engaged. Some mailers choose to target these users by other marketing methods, such as phone calls or direct mail, in order to avoid losing them altogether.

No matter the reason, it’s always hard to see your subscriber list count decrease. But removing inactive subscribers should drive an increase in more important numbers: inbox placement, email engagement and conversions.

Brad Gurley
Director of Deliverability, WhatCounts


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