Revisiting Email Address Churn

Recently, a reader tweeted a link to "Have You Tackled Your List Churn?" -- an Email Insider column I wrote in 2008. It was a pleasant surprise, but also a reminder that the general causes and cures for database churn have remained consistent the last six years.

However, the inbox environment has changed in many ways since I wrote that column:

The rise of smartphones and tablets – Mobile readership is typically above 50% for brands, causing email design and content challenges. But even more important is mobile context -- how and where consumers interact with your emails and Web sites.

Channel competition – Social, SMS, mobile apps and push notifications are becoming growing alternatives or competition for attention, especially among younger consumers.

Increased sending frequency from most brands, especially retailers – The average retailer sends four broadcast emails a week (many are sending five or six), up from about two per week in 2008.



The Gmail Factor – Today, Gmail addresses are often the largest percentage of a B2C marketer's database, up from probably second or third six years ago.

Growth of affordable marketing automation/personalization technologies – The ability to deliver on the "1 to 1 marketing" dream is now within reach for nearly all marketers.

All of these factors affect list churn in one way or another, either to aggravate it (increased frequency without relevance) or to ameliorate it (more relevant emails reducing inactivity or spam complaints).

Types of Churn

Churn comes in two types:

Transparent churn: Unsubscribes, hard bounces and spam complaints. You can no longer email these people because of a subscriber's direct or indirect action.

Opaque churn: Subscribers who have completely disengaged with your email program, including inactive readers who ignore your emails, leave them in a spam folder or let your messages pile up at email accounts they rarely or no longer use. 

While transparent churn rates can vary widely, typical annual rates are between 25% and 50%. Opaque churn rates are probably between 10% and 25% annually for most brands, although I'm not aware of any solid industrywide research on this. 

Causes of Email Churn

Email address churn is a fact of life for marketers. Some address churn is primarily driven by the quality and effectiveness of your marketing program (controllable) and some by changes in a subscriber's life and interests (uncontrollable):


  • Lack of relevance – Your content and offers have little to no interest or value for a subscriber.
  • Purchase cycle/offerings – Your primary offerings are purchased infrequently.
  • Poor acquisition efforts – Your customer acquisition efforts are working, but you are bringing on many of the wrong type of prospects.
  • Over-emailing – You aren't managing cadence expectations, and most of your messages lack relevance at an individual level.
  • Switching to a competitor – While it is clearly a subscriber's choice to prefer a competitor's email program, it's your job to wow and retain them.
  • Usability – You make it difficult or impossible to change an email address or update preferences.


  • Interest and life changes – When a subscriber's kids become teenagers, they no longer need the diapers, baby clothes or "Goodnight Moon" books that you sell.
  • No longer a customer – Your airline, mobile or cable customer switches to a competitor.
  • Channel preference changes – Some customers prefer to hear about your promotions via Facebook or your mobile app.
  • Too much email overall – Nothing personal, but some consumers simply decide to pull back on their email subscriptions across the board.
  • Death – Nothing you can do about this one.

In a future column, I'll look at suggestions for managing and reducing churn. Until then, let me know what you're seeing in your own database and whether you've taken steps to get churn under control.

Until next time, take it up a notch!

2 comments about "Revisiting Email Address Churn".
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  1. Andrew Kordek from Trendline Interactive, April 3, 2014 at 3:54 p.m.


    I think one thing we can add to opaque churn or perhaps make it a variant is those that may be disengaged in your email program, but not in your brand.

    I have seen a few instances where there is a substantial portion of a subscriber base that does not engage with the program, but that they are still engaged in other channels because email is that influencer to engage.


  2. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, April 4, 2014 at 12:06 a.m.

    Thanks Andrew ... and I agree. I touched on it in the causes of email churn section - "Channel preference changes." Some customers may get everything they need from a combination of your mobile app and Facebook page, are a great customer but don't feel they need to stay in your email program ...

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