Guess what? If your company sent out a commercial email today, there is a good chance that some of those emails went to dead people. Not just "inactives" or "unengaged subscribers" or whatever term-du-jour we want to use, but real, bona fide stiffs. People who, God willing, are looking down from heaven and wondering, "What else do I need to do to stop getting emails from those people?"
Inactive subscribers are a reality that all responsible email marketers need to contend with. However, marketers are understandably hesitant to purge those email addresses from their lists, which is why I recently found myself wondering, "How much money has been wasted marketing to dead people this year?"
Being both inquisitive and up for a research challenge, I decided to check it out. I cross-referenced statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control with statistics from Pew Internet and some statistics on email penetration I have compiled over the years to find out. Per my calculations, approximately 0.7% of the average email marketer's list will pass away each year. Do your own math. There are approximately 7 dead people on your list for every 1,000 inactive email addresses. Put another way, for every 100,000 email addresses on your list, 2 pass away each and every day.
Okay, so maybe I am a little strange? Or morbid? Or maybe I have simply been trying to come up with new ways to make the point that marketing to inactive subscribers is a waste of money? But the irony of marketing to dead people tends to make the point.
Fortunately, there are effective tactics for re-engaging inactive subscribers. Here are a few of the things we recommend to clients looking at their dormant subscribers:
1) Don't take it personally. I find most marketers immediately think the reason subscribers become inactive is because there is a problem with their program. Truth be told, sometimes it does, but there are a lot of reasons subscribers become unengaged that have nothing to do with your program. They may have switched their focus to a new email address. Maybe they moved on to a new stage of life - they got married, or their children moved out of the house? Or maybe they ate the salmon mousse?
2) Take inventory of the costs. The allure of having a sizable email list keeps some companies from cleaning out unresponsive subscribers - understandably, since these email addresses represent an investment. It costs money to build a list so the thought of "purging" some of those names seems foolish given the low incremental costs of sending an email and the idea that "someday they might open and purchase." Still, there are costs associated with sending to these people; if 40% of your list is unengaged (not uncommon) then 40% of your send fees represent unnecessary overhead. Add on the fact that ISPs are now considering engagement in their deliverability equations, so holding onto those names could put the entire program at risk.
3) Determine what "unengaged" means for you. Sold on the need to do some housecleaning? Great, then the next step is to consider the particulars of your program. Should subscribers be considered inactive after three months? Six months? A year? Well, it depends on a couple of things. First, how long are your purchase cycles? If your product is part of a longer cycle (i.e., cars, real estate, a new job), then you will want to hold onto subscribers longer than a company with short purchase cycles (i.e., electronics, entertainment, publishing). Second, how often do you send? Ultimately the measure of inactivity should be tied to how many messages you are sending. If you are a daily sender, then three months could represent 90 emails without a single open, click, or conversion. That's not good. If you send monthly, then six months of inactivity only means subscribers have failed to respond to six emails-not a cause for alarm.
4) Attempt to re-engage. Bringing inactive subscribers back into the fold is definitely more art than science, but there are a number of trustworthy tactics. Win-back offers, surveys, new feature announcements, new content, and subject lines asking subscribers to verify their subscriptions can all be very effective. Ultimately, the trick is doing something out of the ordinary and acknowledging that subscribers are not engaged with your program. The goal is to get them to click -- and hopefully to learn something about why they haven't been engaged in the meantime. (For some specific tips on lessons learned about re-opt-in emails, check out my article on "Opt-in Email Best Practices.")
5) Segment out your inactives before purging. In the article I just referenced, I recommend you include a "yes" and "no" option in your opt-in emails. This will actually result in more people asking to stay on the list. The other benefit is that you have not implied that subscribers that take no action will be removed from the list. Don't purge after your first attempt to re-engage subscribers. Instead, place these subscribers on a separate list that can be tracked easily when sending your emails. You will probably still get some sales from subscribers on this list. Each time this happens, place the subscribers that engage back on your "active" list. After sending to this list for some period of time (it will vary based on your program), the revenue you generate from this list will be less than the send fees associated with getting these emails out the door. When the ROI from these sends is negative, you can purge with confidence.
Inactive subscribers are part of email marketing just as death is a part of life. It is not something worth getting uptight or frightened about; it's just reality. Embrace this reality, interrogate your list, and deal with it. In the end, you will have a healthier program and you will save some money that can be re-allocated to other, more profitable, marketing endeavors - like acquiring new email subscribers!