12 Days of Christmas: Silent Night (and Day!) – When Your Subscribers Stop Engaging

Posted by Guy Hanson on

In my previous contribution to this series, I talked about how email marketers should implement a re-activation strategy as part of a broader approach to drive up subscriber engagement. Engagement metrics are now playing an important role in informing ISP filtering decisions. Inactive addresses are also costing you money to broadcast, and – to add insult to injury – they are diluting your campaign performance metrics too.

These effects will be amplified if you are planning on ramping up your email marketing program over the holiday period, so there are some good arguments for putting a re-activation strategy in place. First, however, it’s important to understand that there are several reasons why a subscriber’s email address might become inactive:

It was never going to be active in the first place: While you would normally expect mis-spelt or non-existent addresses to hard bounce as soon as they are used for the first time, this isn’t always the case. Bounce codes can be inconsistent, and it’s quite conceivable that these addresses may return a code more consistent with a soft bounce or mail block event.

It has never seen the light of day: Particularly if you run an email program that is heavily dependent on competitions or special offers, many of the addresses will have been purpose-created specifically to receive the resulting e-marketing, with no intention of ever responding. Alternatively, it is possible that the subscriber did intend to engage, but has never had an email delivered to their inbox – probably as a result of either poor sender reputation, or content related issues.

The honeymoon is over: This is the subscriber who was once responsive to your email program, but is no longer so. This change in behaviour potentially talks to issues such as lack of relevance, and broadcast frequency, and is magnified by the increasing importance of priority inboxes, which place a premium on these issues. Or, this could be a function of declining sender reputation, with the inbox placement that was previously the norm now being replaced by re-routing to the bulk folder and / or going missing due to blocking.

So – because there are a number of reasons that email addresses might become inactive, there are also several elements to a comprehensive re-activation strategy for recovering them:

• Amend your sign-up process to request double-entry of the email address. Implement address validation in the form of a welcome or confirmation email. And set subscriber expectations up front, so that they don’t disengage because the program falls short of what they were hoping for.

• Run a data hygiene exercise against your existing list to flag up any mis-spelt or non-existent addresses which have already found their way into your program. They won’t be responding, and some common mis-spellings have been registered as valid domains for ISP monitoring purposes.

• Remember that inactivity may be the result of disengagement with the channel rather than the brand. Make sure that the subscriber is provided with the opportunity to continue engaging through alternative channels such as mobile and social media.

• Also bear in mind that subscribers who aren’t opening or clicking may not necessarily be disengaged. They still could have purchased as the result of skimming the message in their inbox using the subject, line or being reminded of the brand when the message arrives in their inbox, thereby leading to a purchase. As part of a re-activation program, marketers need to find a way to of attributing this behavior.

• Set a threshold that determines at what stage an email address becomes inactive. This may be aligned with your business cycle – subscribers will buy takeaway pizzas more often than they will buy world cruises – but bear in mind that ISPs typically define inactivity at around 6 months.

• Once your subscribers have hit that threshold, change the way that you are marketing to them. The current approach clearly isn’t working, so try significant variations in subject line, content, offer and frequency that may act as the catalyst to spur them back into action.

• Finally, present the remaining inactive subscribers with a clear cutoff date: “Do you want to carry on hearing from us? If not, we will remove you from our mailing list in 30 days’ time.” This approach can be incentivized. It should also be used as an opportunity to gather some feedback: “Please take 30 seconds to tell us what went wrong.”

A responsive list is a happy list. These are the subscribers who actually want to hear from you through your email program. And your sender reputation will like them too, because they are highly engaged and don’t complain too much. Apply these recommendations, and your email program will be guaranteed to benefit from peace and goodwill to all mankind (as well as ISPs and spam filters!) over the holiday period.

Previous posts in our 12 Days of Christmas series:
1. Learning from last year
2. Scrooge Isn’t The Only Complainer At Christmas Time!
3. Don’t Stuff the Inbox with Fruitcake
4. Leverage Your Good Reputation with Certification
5. Holiday Fashion Tips for Your Email
6. The Art of Giving
7. Don’t Forget the Holiday Wrapping

We’ve also created a quick tip sheet of the 12 steps you need to take to be more successful this holiday season.


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About Guy Hanson

Guy is a passionate advocate for intelligent use of customer data to drive responsive email programs. With a knowledge base that now spans nearly 15 years, he is a global e-mail expert and thought leader. Leading Return Path’s International Professional Services consulting team, Guy has worked with a broad range of clients across 5 continents to improve their email delivery, subscriber engagement and revenue generated. Outside of work, Guy is the Chairman of the DMA Email Council. In this role, he works with industry peers including brands, agencies, and service providers to promote the best interests of the email industry to a broader audience. He is also a regular contributor to the industry press.

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