Email Marketers Give Up on Inactive Customers Too Soon, Return Path Study Finds

Analysis of top brands’ win-back success reveals balance between removing subscribers too quickly and waiting too long

NEW YORK – May 6, 2014Return Path, the global leader in email intelligence, today released a new research study, “Email Win-Back Programs: Everyone Recommends Them, But Do They Work?” The findings show that win-back campaigns, or email marketing campaigns designed to re-engage inactive subscribers, serve a vital purpose by mitigating the inbox placement risk posed by inactive subscribers while enabling senders to maximize their audience reach. Marketers that made no attempt to win back inactive users, or who quickly stopped sending emails to inactive users, appear likely to be removing valuable subscribers from their lists.

Win-Back Protects Inbox Placement

Win-back campaigns are a time-honored direct mail tactic used chiefly to reduce the expense of sending catalogs to unresponsive consumers, but they have evolved into something distinctly different from their snail mail predecessors. In email marketing, win-back email campaigns separate entirely inactive subscribers from less active or seasonally active subscribers, reducing the risk of low inbox placement across all campaigns. That risk is real, according to the findings: The analysis of 300 million messages sent to 100 million subscribers showed a strong negative correlation between inbox placement and the volume of mail sent to inactive subscribers. Brands sending the most mail to unresponsive subscribers had the most mail blocked or diverted to spam folders, especially at Gmail, whose inbox was the hardest for mailers included in the study to reach.

“As email continues to be the most powerful and cost-effective way for brands to stay connected to their customers, maximizing audience growth and reaching the inbox are both critical to marketing program health,” said George Bilbrey, president of Return Path. “Marketers with the analytical insight to balance those factors across individual mailbox providers, using tactics like win-back campaigns, simply outperform the rest. They grow faster, form stronger relationships, and generate more revenue in increasingly competitive arenas.”

The content of win-back emails observed in this study played a dramatic role in their effectiveness. In general, campaigns that reengaged the most users tended to clearly convey their purpose in the subject line. Those containing “miss you” and “come back” performed better than conventional promotional offers. Among discounting offers, fixed amounts ($ off) were significantly more widely read than percentages (% off), although used less frequently.

The Risk of Playing it Safe

Mailers that deployed win-back campaigns stopped sending messages to four percent of recipients, but most of these removed subscribers (85 percent) were not inactive – at minimum, they read the win-back message (and didn’t unsubscribe). At least some of these removed subscribers represent marketing relationships that didn’t need to be abandoned. Marketers lost the investment made to acquire these customers, as well as their future revenue potential. Worse, brands must now invest more to replace those lost relationships, typically in highly saturated markets where new customers are harder to find and more expensive to acquire.

The Key to Finding Balance

Across all senders and all mailbox providers studied, approximately 12 percent of all win-back messages were read, typically within a few days of delivery. However, as many as 45 percent of recipients later reengaged with the sender’s email program, taking an average of 57 days –nearly two months – to read additional messages. Senders that removed subscribers earlier lost the opportunity to reengage potentially valuable customers.

The study shows that understanding how many days to wait before giving up on subscribers – especially at specific mailbox providers like Gmail – is the key to keeping lists free enough of inactive subscribers to prevent poor inbox placement without unnecessarily ending marketing relationships. For marketers who know that their win-back efforts take longer to reengage recipients, the reward outweighs the risk of continuing to send promotional messages; for those whose efforts generate the bulk of their reengagement within 30 days, the risk of mailing beyond that point is likely to outweigh the potential reward.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The findings show that mailbox providers’ definitions of inactivity, and their tolerance for inactivity before filtering messages, are different enough to necessitate customized win-back campaign formulas. Some allow far more time without engagement before taking actions that affect deliverability, enabling senders to wait longer after sending win-back campaigns before removing subscribers. Marketers can maintain their maximum number of customer relationships – and email revenue potential – by crafting different programs for each major mailbox provider.

The full report can be downloaded at:


To conduct this research Return Path studied a representative sample of 300 million email messages sent to 100 million consumers by brands named in the most recent Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, including those listed below. Win-back campaigns were identified through subject line analysis and subscriber engagement was measured using Inbox Insight, an email intelligence solution that provides behavioral analysis of the aggregated and anonymous inbox experience of approximately 3 million mailbox users worldwide.

About Return Path

Return Path is the worldwide leader in email intelligence. We analyze more data about email than anyone else in the world and use that data to power products that ensure that only emails people want and expect reach the inbox. Our industry-leading email intelligence solutions utilize the world’s most comprehensive set of data to maximize the performance and accountability of email, build trust across the entire email ecosystem and protect users from spam and other abuse. We help businesses build better relationships with their customers and improve their email ROI; and we help ISPs and other mailbox providers enhance network performance and drive customer retention. Information about Return Path can be found at


Peter Girard
Return Path
+1 646 367 3923
[email protected]


Samantha Evans
Weber Shandwick for Return Path
+1 212 445 8019
[email protected]

Brands included:

1-800 Contacts Inc. Inc.
Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Inc.
American Eagle Outfitters Inc.
Amway Inc.
Ann Inc.
Apple Inc.
Army & Air Force Exchange Service
Avon Products Inc.
Backcountry Inc.
Bass Pro Outdoor Online LLC
Bath and Body Works
Best Buy Co.
Blue Nile Inc.
Bluestem Brands Inc. Inc. Inc.
Cabela's Inc.
CDW Corp.
Chico's FAS Inc.
Costco Wholesale Corp.
Crate & Barrel
CVS Caremark Corp.
Dell Inc.
Deluxe Corp.
Disney Shopping Inc.
Eddie Bauer LLC
Edible Arrangements International LLC
The Estee Lauder Cos. Inc.
Fanatics Inc.
Follett Higher Education Group
Foot Locker Inc.
FreshDirect LLC
FTD Group Inc.
GameStop Corp.
Gap Inc. Direct
Gilt Groupe
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc.
Hayneedle Inc.
The Home Depot Inc.
HP Home & Home Office Store
HSN Inc.
Hudson's Bay
J. Crew Group Inc.
J.C. Penney Co. Inc.
Kohl's Corp.
L.L. Bean Inc.
Lowe's Cos. Inc.
Macy's Inc.
Market America
Microsoft Corp.
Musician's Friend Inc.
The Neiman Marcus Group Inc.
Net-a-Porter LLC
Netflix Inc.
Newegg Inc.
Nike Inc.
Nordstrom Inc.
Northern Tool + Equipment Co.
Nutrisystem Inc.
Office Depot Inc.
OfficeMax Inc.
Orchard Brands Corp.
Oriental Trading Co. Inc. Inc.
PC Connection Inc.
PC Mall Inc.
Peapod LLC
Ralph Lauren Media LLC
Recreational Equipment Inc.
Redcats USA
Saks Direct
Scholastic Inc.
Sears Holdings Corp. Inc.
Shutterfly Inc.
Sierra Trading Post Inc.
Sony Electronics Inc.
Staples Inc.
Symantec Corp.
Systemax Inc.
Target Corp.
Toys 'R' Us Inc.
U.S. Auto Parts Network
Urban Outfitters Inc.
Victoria'­s Secret Direct
Vistaprint NV Inc.
W.W. Grainger Inc.
Walgreen Co.
Wayfair LLC
Weight Watchers International Inc.
Williams-Sonoma Inc.
YOOX Group

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