Article first published August 2016, updated January 2020 by our deliverability team.
In an ideal world, every contact on a company’s email list would be active, engaged, and a frequent buyer. Unfortunately, that’s not how it always works. Subscribers grow and evolve, and some become inactive over time.
So what do you do with inactive subscribers? It’s actually a hot topic right now, with two schools of thought.
“Old school” take on inactive subscribers
In the past, the rule of thumb was to “prune” inactive subscribers from your list to avoid problems. What kind of problems? Sending emails to inactive customers could hurt your deliverability. If Google or Yahoo sees that you’re sending email after email to people that aren’t opening them, they could start diverting your emails to the spam folder.
Additionally, some email marketers see inactive subscribers as a waste of time and resources. What’s the point of focusing efforts on a contact that doesn’t seem interested in your company or product anymore?
“New school” take on inactive subscribers
But there’s another point of view in this debate. An inactive subscriber is better than a non-existent one, right? After all, it costs five times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one.
At some point, an inactive subscriber was interested in your company or product, so it stands to reason that you could encourage him or her to rejoin your active customers before you remove them from your list.
A business that has good opt-in practices, organically grows its list and regularly monitors their campaign results for engagement trends can safely and carefully attempt to convert inactive customers with effective reactivation or re-engagement strategies.
Say goodbye to inactive subscribers or not?
What’s a business to do? Do you say goodbye to inactive subscribers or not? Especially since not all inactive customers are the same.
An inactive subscriber who never engaged with an email or bought anything from your company is different from an inactive subscriber who has a history of buying but hasn’t done so in the last six months.
Deciding whether or not to keep inactive subscribers around isn’t a simple decision, but we’ll help you split your inactive subscribers into three groups, give you an action plan to cut or keep these subscribers, and give you examples of the emails you should send to do so.
1. Type of inactive subscriber: dormant or unengaged
Definition: the first category of inactive subscribers is “sleepy.” They were active and engaged subscribers, but just entered a cool-down period that has you wondering if they’re going to come back or not.
These inactive subscribers have the most potential. They’re on the brink and, with the right email marketing, you can swing their buying potential your way once again.
Action plan: create a re-engagement campaign quickly.
You don’t want to say goodbye to these subscribers; try to re-engage them. Create a re-engagement campaign, which, as the name implies, is a series of emails that are designed to get subscribers interested in your email marketing and business once again. You can use automation to trigger these emails at the exact time when each subscriber is dropping off in activity.
Time is of the essence here. Get a campaign created and sent before these sleepy customers become 100 percent comatose.
Your email messaging might say something like, “We haven’t seen you lately,” and offer a discount to entice a purchase or just provide a link that gets subscribers back to your site.
Examples of emails to send
Here’s an example of a re-engagement email from Grammarly. Notice that it references this subscriber’s week-long absence and provides a link back to the company’s website.
Here’s another example from Teespring that offers a more personalized touch. It has information that’s specific to this subscriber and encourages him or her to come back.
Personalized emails deliver six times higher transaction rates, so it’s worth tailoring content to subscribers—even inactive ones.
You’ll want to send several emails like this. A re-engagement campaign isn’t a one-and-done effort, so plan to send a couple of emails to wake these inactive subscribers, and make sure you wait at least 48 hours before sending another email to the people who didn’t open the first email.
2. Type of inactive subscriber: zombies
Definition: the second category of inactive subscribers are those that were once active, engaged customers, but are now comatose. These subscribers haven’t opened, clicked, or converted in a long time. This group has very little likelihood of engaging with your emails again.
Action plan: ramp down thoughtfully, over time.
If these subscribers have gone a serious length of time without engaging with your emails (say 6-12 months), they’re not magically going to hop on board by sending a coupon code their way. But that also doesn’t mean you should just wave goodbye and call it a day.
Sri Somanchi from Gmail recommends a ramp-down approach. Just like when you start your email program, you need to ramp up (or switch to a new ESP) gradually; you need to amp down inactive recipients over time.
Send these subscribers an email that asks if they’re still interested in being part of your list.
This “recommitment email” should send the subscriber to your preference center, so he or she can decide if they want to stay on your list and, if so, how frequently they want to receive your messages.
This could involve the following:
- If you’re sending daily, switch to once a week
- If you’re sending weekly, switch to once or twice a month
- If there’s still no engagement with the change in cadence, ask the obvious question after three to six months: Do you want to continue hearing from us? If there’s still no answer, Gmail recommends saying goodbye.
3. Type of inactive subscriber: never active (aka ghosts)
Definition: a never-active subscriber is one whose only interest in your business was signing up for your email list, possibly for something other than receiving regular emails from you. They joined and then vanished. They have never opened any emails, let alone clicked on any links or made a purchase, so what motivation do you have to keep emailing them?
Action plan: remove them from your list.
While this may seem a hard step to take, a key point to keep in mind is that you have already tried to re-engage these contacts when they become dormant or unengaged, or when they were in the “zombie” segment. If this person has never shown any interest in your emails and you have tried to re-engage them, it is clear that continuing to send them emails is a fruitless activity.
Continuing to send emails to people who have never ever engaged with your campaigns, open an email or clicked on a link is not only a waste of time and money, it will also result in damaging your sender reputation as the number of “ghost” contacts far outweigh the “active” contacts in your list.
Eventually, inbox providers like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail will notice that the majority of your emails go unopened, and they will start to filter more and more emails to the spam folder, or simply block your emails outright!
Before this happens, remove those dead “ghosts” from your list.
4. Implementing a re-engagement campaign
Once you’ve taken the time to audit your emailing list and properly identify who your inactive subscribers are, you want to take the necessary time to try and re-engage them before you write them off as gone forever.
It costs five times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to keep and re-engage an existing one. So, before you just say goodbye to anyone who’s been inactive, make sure you’re sending them a re-engagement email. After all, you don’t know why they’ve been inactive. They may have:
- Simply missed your last few emails due to a crowded inbox
- Not been checking their email as of late
- Put your brand’s niche on hold momentarily to focus on something else
No matter what their reason, you shouldn’t just remove them from your mailing list before trying to reach out to them.
One great way to do just that is to send them an email asking them if everything is all right or if they want to continue receiving emails from you. Take this example from Typeform.
Source: Really Good Emails
Their subject line reads as follows:
“We haven’t seen you in a while.. :(”
Right away, you’re showing your inactive subscriber that you’ve noticed their absence. Also, adding the smiley face tells them you’re sad about their inactivity. Your subscribers who’ve gone inactive but still want to remain on your mailing list will naturally click on this message to see what you have to say.
Another brand that does a great job of re-engaging their inactive subscribers is Duolingo. In their re-engagement email, the subject line was used to express that they miss their inactive subscribers.
“We miss you!”
Once an inactive subscriber opens the message, they’re invited to take a short lesson to help get them back on track.
So what happens once you’ve gotten them to open the email? If they’ve gotten that far, chances are they don’t want to leave just yet. So you have to make sure you’ve included a perfectly clickable CTA that’ll entice them to re-engage with your brand. Some of the best ways to re-engage your subscribers are by:
- Provide them with a newsletter update on “what they’ve missed.”
- Share with them some customer testimonials/success stories.
- Provide them with an incentive or special offer that can be redeemed.
Identifying your inactive subscribers is an essential part of your email list hygiene. By segmenting your inactive subscribers and following the suggested action plans that are listed above, you can focus your efforts on contacts that have the highest likelihood of being engaged and ensure you keep your email deliverability rates high.
Remember, once you’ve segmented your lists and identified who’s gone inactive, you want to make sure you’re correctly re-engaging them through a re-engagement email campaign. It’s much more cost-effective in the long run to try to win back your subscribers than it is to try and find new ones.
When re-engaging your subscribers, you want to make sure that:
- They can tell you’ve noticed their absence
- You encourage them to return
- You provide incentives and explain the benefits of returning to them.
Ready to start designing stunning re-engagement email campaigns to win back your inactive subscribers? Then request your live demo with Campaign Monitor today!