Email Marketing: 4 Steps to Manage Your Inactive Subscribers

Posted by Scott Cohen On December 5, 2011 in story time I 0 Comments

Inactive subscribers aren’t necessarily inactive customers.

They might not open or click on emails, but those subject lines, from lines and regular brand impressions are still positively influencing their purchase behavior.

So is it still necessary to send dedicated “winback” campaigns to get these people opening and clicking again?


After all, that positive influence likely increases if they’re actually engaging with your messages. And the prominence given to your emails in inboxes increasingly depends on how individuals interact with those messages.

Step 1: Define “inactive” thresholds

The first task is to define the point at which you consider a subscriber becomes inactive. This is typically a number of weeks or months since they last opened or clicked on an email.

You might, however, choose alternative definitions, such as time since last website visit, purchase or white paper download.

Base the decision on your email frequency, business model und understanding of customer behavior. A B2B list promoting a service with a long and seasonal sales cycle will define inactives differently to a B2C list where monthly replenishment sales are the norm.

Your definition must also be practical: it should allow you to segment out inactive subscribers from your address database.

Step 2: Develop winback approaches

Since inactive subscribers tend, by definition, to gloss over your messages, you need to do something different to recapture their attention.

Take some time to test out alternative winback email approaches. Such as:

  1. A purely incentive-driven email, which simply highlights a particularly strong offer
  2. A service-oriented email, which invites the subscriber to submit more informationon their interests so emails become more relevant
  3. A mix of the two

Other things to change and test include:

  • From lines – try something different, but recognizable…like the account manager’s name
  • Subject line – test promotional (“A 40% discount just for you”) versusconversational (“Did we do something wrong?”)
  • Design or format – consider a toned-down plain text approach
  • Value of any winback incentive used

Step 3: Automate the winback campaign

Set up a trigger campaign that sends out the winback email(s) to any subscriber who approaches the threshold criteria you defined in Step 1.

You might test and implement different campaigns for different types of subscriber, so those who still buy, but don’t click, get different content to those who neither buy or click.

Do you, however, have a plan in place to keep those who respond to your winback efforts active? After all, the best way to tackle inactive subscribers is, well, not to have any!

Step 4: Manage the truly inactive

Finally, you need to decide how to treat the persistent non-responders. Common alternatives are:

1. Carry on as normal, but keep tabs on how this inactive segment performs

Some inactives will return to the fold of their own accord. You’ll also learn how accurate your definition of inactive was.

2. Reduce frequency or cease mailing for a short period

This lowers the chance of truly disengaged subscribers reporting you as spam. Abstinence can also make the subscriber heart grow fonder.

3. Increase frequency

The “kill or cure” approach either gets their attention again or triggers an unsubscribe. Watch, though, for any rise in spam complaints.

4. Delete the subscriber

If you think inactives are hurting deliverability or you’re sure the subscriber has no value to your organization, then consider removing the address.

Before you do, send one last winback email politely alerting recipients to the pending end of their subscription and giving them the chance to stay on the list.

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