'Inactive?' You Talkin' to Me?

One of the hottest topics in email marketing today is inactive, or non-responding, subscribers. The dialogue, which often turns into a heated debate, usually revolves around how to define inactives and then how to treat them. 

I find four important aspects of this conversation often get overlooked:

  1. No matter how your company defines inactives, the problem typically is huge.
  2. Inactives are not created equal.
  3. Reactivation programs usually don't work well.
  4. The focus should be on reducing the potential for new and existing subscribers to go inactive.


1.  How Big an Issue is Inactive Subscribers?

Inactives are typically 30% to 40% of the database for most marketers I have talked to. I've also seen inactives as high as nearly 90% and as low as 20% to 25%.

Most companies should be deeply concerned that a third or more of their email database is lifeless. 



It doesn't matter whether these inactives simply haven't unsubscribed or didn't update their email addresses, interests or preferences. Their presence muddies your true email performance and might affect deliverability.

Most important, their lack of engagement and response represents significant lost potential revenue.

2.  Inactives Are Not Created Equal

 The inactives debate usually assumes that all the inactives in your database are alike. Not so.

Some inactive segments are either more or less likely to come back to life because of various attributes and factors, including these:

·       Acquisition source: Inactives who opted in originally through transactional emails probably are different from co-registration subscribers. 

·       Database age/subscriber tenure: Someone who hasn't responded for three years should be treated differently from a one-year inactive.

·       Purchase cycle: I might buy a new road bicycle once every four years, but I'll pick up energy gel every few months.

·       Purchasers vs. non-purchasers: Would you treat someone who bought something 18 months ago but hasn't clicked on your emails in 12 months the same as someone who neither purchased nor clicked in the last 12 months?

·       Multiple touch points (offline vs. online or call centers): Some email inactives might engage or purchase in your other channels.

·       Demographics/past purchases: You sell children's books. I haven't bought a book for five years. Hmm.

When you understand the commonalities that make up these inactive segments, you can take corrective actions to minimize future inactivity.

3.  Reactivation Programs Usually Don't Work Well

Many marketers tell me their reactivation programs bring only 1% to 2% of their inactives back from the dead. Some are more successful, others less so. (My query on Twitter generated responses of 0.91%, 1.82% and 3.2% reactivation rates.)

Let's do some math. Say 30%, or 300,000, of your 1 million subscribers are inactive. Now, suppose your reactivation program successfully re-engages 2%, or 6,000 inactives. 

Yes, those 6,000 resurrected subscribers represent 6,000 potential revenue-producing customers. But wouldn't you rather spend your limited time and resources on generating more revenue from your 700,000 active subscribers? 

I'm not saying you should discontinue your reactivation program. Rather, understand that it's not a panacea for your unengaged/inactive subscriber problem.

4.  Focus on Minimizing Inactivity 

If you don't want to watch 30% to 40% or more of your database go inactive, you must work to keep them engaged.

Here a few quick actions: 

·       Identify the commonalities and characteristics, if any, of your inactive subscribers and take corrective actions.

·       Launch a welcome and onboarding program or improve your current one. Get new subscribers engaged -- and purchasing if possible -- as quickly as possible.

·       Capture and use meaningful data to deploy targeted and segmented programs.

  • Launch one-to-one triggered programs such as bounce-back, cart abandonment, replenishment/reorder, birthday, purchase anniversary and reviews/recommendations.
  • Implement automated programs or tracks that deliver relevant content based on the customer's stage in the buying cycle, interests or actions.
  • Enable change-of-email address, interest, frequency and mailing-list changes via a world-class preference center.
  • Test content approaches, design, cadence and other factors that continue to increase engagement and ROI.

Although it's entertaining to debate whether you should suppress or send more or send less email to inactives, I say let's get to work and focus instead on reducing the number of subscribers who go inactive.

Until next time, take it up a notch!

1 comment about "'Inactive?' You Talkin' to Me?".
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  1. Bill Kaplan from FreshAddress, Inc., July 28, 2011 at 3:45 p.m.

    Great article and points, Loren. Doing everything possible to keep your customers engaged is clearly the route to take.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of inactives are the result of email address churn, which still seems to be in the 30% range on an annual basis. And when people change their email addresses, they rarely go back to all of their online relationships and update their records.

    So the best way to re-engage these "lost" customers and donors is to reconnect with them at their current preferred email addresses through perhaps a postcarding campaign (hard to justify) or Email Change of Address (ECOA) service. Due to consolidation in the ECOA industry, match rates of guaranteed deliverable email addresses for "lost" customers are typically in the 10%-20% range for initial projects with double these results available over the year through automated quarterly processing.

    So do everything you can to keep your customer file fresh and engaged but, when it's clear your recipients are no longer reading your emails, reactivate these customers by reaching them at their current email addresses.

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