What Should You Do With Your Inactive Email Subscribers?

Kevin Daugherty

Should you email inactive subscribers who haven’t opened or clicked any of your promotional emails in a long time? That seemingly simple question is actually fraught with nuance and complexity. But it’s critical to have a clear answer because maintaining your email engagement levels is probably the biggest factor determining your email deliverability.

Let’s decode that question by discussing five truths about inactive email subscribers.

Truth #1: ‘Inactive Subscriber’ Does Not Have a Standard Industry Definition

Every brand has its own unique definition of what an inactive subscriber is. Brands guide that definition largely by the negative effect that emailing these subscribers has on their deliverability.

However, many brands use a series of terms to describe various degrees of inactivity, almost always for the purposes of treating each of these groups differently. Typically, “inactive” is a point somewhere in the middle of the inactivity spectrum. When a brand seems a subscriber inactive, it often means that the brand emails them less frequently. For example, brands may only send the week’s most important campaign. They may also send a re-engagement campaign series to these subscribers, too.

Prior to a subscriber becoming inactive, many brands define a period where they’re disengaged or lapsed. Often, these subscribers aren’t mailed any less often, but the emails might include targeted subject lines or body copy that’s designed to spur engagement. Sometimes these subscribers actually receive more messages, including triggered re-engagement campaigns, in an attempt to generate engagement before the problem gets worse.

After a subscriber is inactive for a while and re-engagement efforts have been unsuccessful, these subscribers become long-term or chronically inactive. Sometimes they’re colorfully referred to as zombies. Brands generally send these subscribers a re-permission campaign to try to get them to explicitly reaffirm their interest in receiving your emails. If they don’t re-confirm their permission, they’re suppressed from all future mailings.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Generate More Loyalty and Email Signups

Truth #2: Lots of Brands Make Exceptions Around Inactives

Businesses are constantly under pressure to expand the reach of their messages by expanding their audience. In a pitch, that often means temporarily changing their rules around inactives.

For example, during the heart of the holiday season around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, retailers risk potential deliverability problems. Why? Because in exchange for boosting short-term sales, they email more campaigns to more inactives. Often that gamble pays off, but not always.

Beyond seasonal exceptions, some brands also make exceptions for individual subscribers. For example, some brands resist suppressing chronically inactive subscribers who are also high-value active customers. They take that risk because of our next truth.

Truth #3: Brands Have Increasingly Flawed Visibility Into Email Engagement

Traditionally, email engagement has been measured in terms of opens and clicks. You needed clicks because some subscribers and some inboxes would block images, making it so that open tracking pixels wouldn’t fire off. Tracking clicks in the absence of opens, of course, is far from a perfect fallback, as only about one in eight opens result in a click.

That gap in email engagement tracking has become a chasm thanks to Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP), which buries real opens in a haystack of fake opens. The impact of MPP is so high that most large B2C brands will have to fundamentally change how they define active email marketing audiences by overlaying non-email behaviors. But even with those difficulties, there’s no escaping the next truth.

Related Article: 6 Ways to Review and Improve Your Automated Marketing Emails

Truth #4: Eventually, Every Brand Stops Emailing Their Inactives

That’s because — individual exceptions aside — if you endlessly email subscribers who aren’t engaging, you’ll eventually suffer escalating levels of blocking and junking by inbox providers. At that point, you compromise your ability to reach your active ones that drive the vast majority of your email marketing engagement and revenue. No one wants to do that.

Now, the exact amount of inactivity a brand tolerates before it has to start suppressing its chronically inactive subscribers varies greatly and depends on many factors. This includes their overall engagement rate, email frequency and list size. But generally, it’s around the six-month mark for high-frequency senders and around the 18-month mark for low-frequency senders.

Even if you’re able to safely stretch beyond 18 months, it’s wise to treat 24 months as a hard cutoff. One reason is because some mailbox providers declare email accounts abandoned after two years of no logins. They convert some of those accounts into recycled spam traps. So, the deliverability dangers ramp up significantly after that point. But there’s another reason to respect the two-year limit that’s related to the final truth.

Truth #5: Respecting Inactivity Is Also About Respecting Permission

It’s incumbent on brands to recognize that if a subscriber stops engaging with their emails, at a certain point it means that they’ve withdrawn permission. That’s why mailbox providers have made engagement so pivotal to their spam filtering algorithms.

Anti-spam laws have also validated that line of reasoning. For example, Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL) and GDPR both stipulate that brands have to stop emailing subscribers and customers after 24 months of inactivity.

In summary, use these five truths about inactive email subscribers to craft a strategy for managing all the nuances of inactivity. This way, your brand can maximize your email marketing opportunities while minimizing your deliverability and legal risks.

Chad S. White is the author of Email Marketing Rules and Head of Research for Oracle Marketing Consulting, a global full-service digital marketing agency inside of Oracle.

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