The Law of Inactivity: What Not to Do With Non-Responders

Inactivity is inevitable. It’s kind of like email marketing’s version of the Laws of Motion. What goes up must come down. While the desired goal is to have as few inactive subscribers as possible, anywhere from 20-70% of your list could be inactive, meaning a substantial portion of your file isn’t interacting – or may have never interacted – with your messaging. So what’s an earth-bound email marketer to do?

Having an effective strategy to engage with your non-responders is essential. The way you treat inactives has a direct impact on your program’s performance. Most obvious is the fact that a higher percentage of inactives depresses your response rates. What many email marketers neglect to consider, however, is how inactivity can negatively affect inbox placement. A number of the major ISPs—Microsoft, Gmail, Yahoo and AOL—incorporate engagement metrics into their filtering decisions. The more email you send to subscribers who choose not to interact, the greater the likelihood that your messages will be bulked into the spam folder and eventually blocked.

While focusing on inactives is often a task at the bottom of an email marketer’s long to-do list, effectively winning back these lapsed subscribers can have an immediate impact on performance. A lot has been written about what you should do when creating your inactive strategy, so instead I’ll focus on three things that you shouldn’t do:

  1. Treat every inactive subscriber the same. This is a common mistake and can determine how successful you are in reengaging with non-responders. For example, a subscriber who just signed up for email in the past 30 days but hasn’t interacted with your messaging should be treated differently than a subscriber who’s been on your list for a year without responding. In addition to length of inactivity, there are a number of other factors to consider when defining inactive categories or creating profiles, and this often requires an overlap of data from multiple sources. For example:

    • The email address acquisition source (online, in store, through social media pages, from a third-party source);
    • The subscriber’s status as a customer (purchaser vs. non-purchaser);
    • Their previous level of engagement with email (opened occasionally but never clicked vs. never opened); and
    • Their level of engagement with your brand in other channels (website visitor, social fan/follower or app user).

The more specific the profile, the easier it is to target your inactive subscribers with a relevant offer or piece of content that will inspire them to take an action.

  1. Reduce the frequency of some (but not all) campaigns. Once you’ve defined your inactive segments and created a strategy for reengagement, it’s important to follow through on reducing the frequency of your campaigns for persistent non-responders. Some marketers make the mistake of only reducing certain message types (like promotional campaigns), but continuing to send other types of messages that may occur at a higher volume. Dating brands are a great example. We’ve seen these companies reduce the frequency at which they send discounts and promotions, but inactive subscribers continue to receive user-generated/triggered campaigns that can amount to 20+ messages in their inboxes daily.

It is important for these brands to weigh the value of continuing to mail an inactive subscriber/user in the hopes that they will reengage against the detrimental impact this practice has on their ability to continue to reach the inboxes of active subscribers/users that want to engage. This is one of many reasons why having a preference center is crucial so that subscribers can choose how frequently they want to receive certain message types, or whether or not they would prefer to roll multiple instances of the same message type into a “digest” version. Likewise, reducing frequency isn’t enough. After a period of continued inactivity, marketers should put business rules in place to stop mailing these non-responders entirely.

  1. Forgo testing for reengagement campaigns. Spending time on subscribers who have disengaged is something that an email marketer can easily rationalize as an afterthought.  Why not prioritize resources for active subscribers and try to squeeze more revenue from this engaged segment? One way to do that is by creating a testing strategy, which can be time consuming to execute, as well as analyze. Not to mention the adjustments that need to be made to content and creative based on the testing results. So it’s understandable that testing for win-back campaigns would fall by the wayside, but testing to your inactive segments is an excellent opportunity to learn what works, what doesn’t and what levers to pull to increase the percentage of inactives that are “won back.” This goes back to my first “don’t”—what might resonate with a new subscriber who is an active website browser (but hasn’t made a purchase) may fall flat with a subscriber who’s been on the file for over a year (but made one purchase three months ago). Additionally, testing allows you to try out a variety of offers and incentives to see which is most successful. This can include everything from a discount or coupon; advanced access to new items; a preview of your latest catalogue; informative content for downloading; a satisfaction survey; or a reminder to update subscriber preferences.

Newton certainly wasn’t thinking of email when he created the Laws of Motion, but marketers would be wise to pay attention to subscribers who are experiencing inertia. Inactivity is a clear indicator that something isn’t working with your program, but also an opportunity to revitalize a non-responsive subscriber’s relationship with your brand. Just make sure you’re not the one who remains inactive.


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