What Do You Do About Emotional Opt-Outs?

Managing an email program inevitably requires figuring out what to do with those pesky, emotionally opted-out customers.  What are emotional opt-outs, you ask?  These are customers in your email database that have not opened or clicked any email you have sent in a long period of time. It’s the idea that these customers are disinterested in your brand’s emails, but aren’t taking the time to unsubscribe. Industry experts often disagree on how to handle these customers. One side says you should purge them, while others state you should keep them.

Traditionally, the industry has often leaned toward purging inactive customers that haven’t opened or clicked in many months (nine, 12 or more). To re-engage these contacts, marketers often employ a "We Miss You" campaign with a coupon or another special offer.  When this fails, the record is purged from the active database. There are several reasons why marketers choose to go with the purging approach:



Deliverability issues. The most cited reason for getting rid of inactive customers is the fear of these records causing deliverability problems. ISPs do look at the engagement of individuals to determine what gets spam-foldered and what doesn’t, but it’s not as sensitive as we once thought. Sure, the ISPs track engagement by counting opens and clicks, but they place more weight on activities, like a user replying to an email, for marking it as spam or not spam.  

Weighing down the metrics. When measuring the effectiveness of an email marketing campaign, marketers put a lot of emphasis on ratio metrics (open rate, click rate, revenue per email, etc.) and trends over time.  When there is a large number of inactive subscribers in a brand’s database, it tends to weigh down those ratios and make the program look less effective, which creates an extra incentive to purge.

Cost to send. While the “postage” to send an email is usually a fraction of a cent, it adds up over the long run. Some ESPs charge for records in the system whether they are mailed or not.  Some brands don’t want to incur operational costs from continuing to manage these records and emailing them on a regular basis.

My Verdict

Get rid of them if:
-- You’re hitting a large number of spam traps and, as a result, suffering from email deliverability issues.  
-- You’re using an ESP that charges you for records housed in the system whether you mail or not, and you firmly believe that these users will never convert.
-- You’ve been able to prove through your verification processes and feedback loops that these email addresses no longer exist.
-- You have a large number of records that were added with an opt-out strategy instead through a proactive sign-up activity. For example, the records are from customers who made a purchase but were not informed that they would receive promotional email.

Keep them if:
-- They last purchased around a holiday or event and could do so again (e.g., two years ago, around Christmas, a gift was purchased and shipped to someone other than the purchaser).
-- They are generating even an incremental amount of revenue without increasing spam complaints. Even if the revenue per email is low, you’re still bringing in more money than you would be otherwise. And, ultimately, isn’t it the conversion that keeps the lights on for all of us?
-- You can segment these users out and mail them less frequently with campaigns that are more closely aligned to the last known email engagement or purchase.
-- You have a well-planned opt-in process that doesn’t just dump any record you come across onto your active database.  If these customers raised their hands at some point, chances are they legitimately wanted to be on the list and are just waiting for the right email to hit their inbox before converting.

How have you dealt with the emotional opt-outs in your database?  Did you purge them, reduce the frequency, or just keep on sending at the usual cadence? Would love to hear from you below in the comments. 

3 comments about "What Do You Do About Emotional Opt-Outs?".
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  1. Neil Mahoney from Mahoney/Marketing, May 12, 2016 at 12:58 p.m.

    Non responses are funny things.  When I was a publisher of a B2B magazine with controlled circulation (qualified prospects whor received the magazine free, but had to formally request it), we would do a "cover mailing" to those request readers whose annual subscription was expiring.  We'd do three of these in succession -- wrap-around covers over the regular cover.

    You had to be blind not to notice these.  Despite that, we decided to call the non responders to see if they really had lost interest.  Believe it of not, over a third of these folks said they wanted to keep receiving the book, but hadn't noticed the reminders we had sent.  Go figure.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 12, 2016 at 1:19 p.m.

    I had a similar experience when I started a "controlled" circulation magazine about advertising some years back. When "renewal" time came around we found that a certain proportion of those getting our magazine, who had asked for it the previous year, didn't respond. Upon investigation  we discovered that most of those still at the same address were infrequent readers who wouldn't mind getting our publication but, due to not reading the issues we sent with the "renewal" warnings, they missed them. When we made an extra effort to get them to request our magazine, many complied. We also made some graphic design and editorial changes to try to convert casual readers into "regulars", with some success.

  3. Chuck Lantz from, network replied, May 12, 2016 at 5:57 p.m.

    Neil: Is it really that hard to figure? While the first few "HEY YOU!! ... your subscription is expiring!" notices will get a response, after a dozen or so, even your best customers will tune them out, unless some sort of clever and novel hook is used.

    One hook that's used by a publication I receive uses a simple but effective countdown text on their wrappers; "You have 3 more issues coming!", "You have 2 more issues coming!" and so on. For some reason, that monthly last-chance countdown stuck in my head. It's stupidly simple, but then again, so am I, so it works every time.

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