How To Reengage Inactive Subscribers

Your subscribers are busy people. It’s completely normal for a percentage of your messages to go unopened each time you broadcast – that is just the nature of email marketing.

But for all of the busy people on your list, there are also email addresses that belong to genuinely disinterested subscribers and it is difficult to separate them from the busy ones.

A reengagement campaign can help you identify those subscribers that still want to hear from you and part ways with the ones who don’t.

Inactivity and Why It Matters to Your Campaign

Inactive subscribers include all contacts who haven’t opened or clicked through your messages over an extended period of time.

With all of the emails that your subscribers receive on a daily basis, it is easy for them to lose interest in your campaign for a variety of reasons – from bland subject lines and irrelevant message content to a change in their lifestyle or financial situation.

It’s a reality that you must accept: if subscribers no longer fit your target audience, they will quickly become inactive and take up space on your list.

According to a study by Merkle Interactive Services (PDF), subscribers who receive permission-based, promotional messages delete 55% of those emails without ever opening them.

That is over half of all requested email!

You want your subscribers to open your mail no matter what when they request it, but if you don’t address the truth that subscribers interests change over the course of your campaign, you run the risk of losing subscriber attention and damaging your deliverability and reputation.

As the late Stefan Pollard points out in an article about engagement and deliverability for clickz.com, the “top metrics generated from activity that make up a sender’s reputation include bounce rates, spam complaints, and recipient interaction.”

Many ISPs now look at what recipients have been doing with your emails when deciding whether your messages belong in the inbox. All interactions (both positive and negative) are noted so that the ISPs can get a better idea of your individual reputation as a sender.

You always want your subscribers to interact positively with your messages so that they are delivered consistently. A bloated list full of inactive addresses will not perform well and could negatively impact your sender reputation.

How to Handle Inactive Subscribers

Assess the Situation

How often are you sending emails? Is the information about your product or service something that a subscriber would value? The frequency and relevancy of your messages go into a subscriber’s decision to stop interacting with you.

There are lots of ways to investigate the activity on your list, but segmenting and sending surveys is a good place to start.

Identify the Inactives

On the Search Subscribers page in your account, you can find out exactly who hasn’t opened your messages in a certain amount of time.

Perform a search for “No Opens” since a previous date. Most marketers find that 90 days without opening is an appropriate time-frame, however you can always adjust the length to suit the needs of your campaign.

Search for No Opens

To make sure that you’re not including people who may have just signed up and not gotten a chance to read any messages yet, add “Date Added” “date is before” and then choose the same date as the “No Opens” line above. This will allow your newer subscribers a chance to get involved.

Date Added

Finally, save the segment so that you can send emails only to those subscribers.

Save Inactive Subscribers Segment

Send a Series of Reengagement Messages

Even back when your inactive subscribers were engaged, they didn’t open or click on every single message from you. And they won’t all open/click on your first try at reengaging them.

To find the people who are really still interested in your campaign, set up a series of three broadcast messages that make it easy for them to take action.

Send the second message to people who didn’t respond to the first one by creating a new segment after you send the first message, and then send the third message to people who didn’t respond to the second.

Note: with Broadcast QuickStats, targeting non-responsive subscribers is a simple process.

For example, to email non-openers, click the “Unopened” button:

Did not open button

Then scroll down and click the “Send Directly to These Subscribers” button:

Send to non-openers

Make it very clear starting with the second message that if they do not take action you will remove them from your email list. If they still haven’t responded by the third and final message, use urgency tactics to let subscribers know that they will never, ever hear from you again unless they take immediate action.

Not sure what kind of information to include in your emails?

Know When to Say Goodbye

Going into this task, you must accept that there will be people who don’t respond to your reengagement messages. Although it’s hard to let go of those subscribers, you want the most responsive and interested list in the long run.

Stay firm with the decision to remove inactive subscribers. Run one final search for people who haven’t opened your messages and delete them from your list for good.

Ever Run a Reengagement Campaign?

What was your experience? Was it hard to let go of subscribers in that final moment?

We’d love to hear all about it, please share with us below!

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46 Comments

  1. Awww Rebecca just the thought of throwing away a chunk of my subscribers causes me pain!

    You make excellent points and yet the number of subscribers is how I keep score, the number that take action is secondary.

    Wow, this is really hard for me to do but I know I must :(

    8/5/2010 5:23 pm
  2. This is an excellent strategy I never thought about!

    It sort of reminds me of the Remarketing campaigns I run for my traffic buying campaigns.

    Remarketing is a way to bring visitors back to your website by specifically advertising only to those people who actually visited your site in order to get them to return.

    By using more relevant ad messages, you can create campaigns that speak specifically to the consumer or prospect based on previous behavior.

    I love this concept for email marketing and I am certain it will be of tremendous value for me to use this strategy to build a better relationship with my subscribers as well as increase the responsiveness of the people who are truly interested in my products, services, and recommendations.

    Loving Aweber more and more each day!

    8/5/2010 10:59 pm
  3. Thanks a lot for this article. I look forward to your articles and end up adding to my "To Do List"
    It can seem overwhelming at times, as I am not a techie, but it is like -Never stopping to improve and optimize the resources-Thats what you guys make us do. Thanks again. In this economy an important skill tha we need to learn-Is to become resourceful by optimization!

    8/6/2010 10:35 am
  4. Thanks for the ideas in this article.

    I think I might have missed something, though. If people are not opening messages anyway, what will make them open the special messages that you send.

    Also, I really need more concrete help in what to put in the special set of messages. Particularly, what sort of subject would you put on these messages?

    Thanks for your help.

    8/6/2010 8:38 pm
  5. When I try to search subscribers to find who didn’t open a broadcast email there isn’t a No opens option, any ideas how I can access this option?

    8/7/2010 5:43 pm
  6. That’s weird, when I open the ‘select field’ thing it does not show ‘no opens’ as an option!

    8/8/2010 6:30 am
  7. I think it would be amazing if you could work with Survey Monkey so you can get responses from surveys using Survey Monkey and segment your list according to responses using Aweber.

    This would enable the marketer to send out extremely targeted messages and understand their list in much more detail.

    8/8/2010 5:54 pm
  8. Sheldon,

    You can do it! I know it’s hard, but it’s worth it in the end.

    Stephanie,

    Let’s say you’re sending subscribers a special offer – something like $10 off their purchase. The first time you send the message some people open it and redeem their coupons. If you wanted to engage those people who didn’t open the email, you could send the email to them again with a different subject line without giving an extra discount to those subscribers who already redeemed theirs.

    Unfortunately the content of the special messages and subject lines will differ greatly from business to business, so there’s no way to say exactly what you should put in the messages.

    John and Edith,

    It’s possible that you opened your accounts before the analytics package was available. Give us a shout at 877-AWEBER-1 or help@aweber.com with your account details and we’ll look into it further for you!

    8/9/2010 2:51 pm
  9. Thanks for all the tips unfortunately I dont have time to do all of your suggestions I should perhaps hire an email expert to run my email campaign.

    Anyways I want to follow your advice with this but I notice that many of the new subscribers that just signed up were included in this list is there anyway to filter it even more and not include the recent signups?

    8/10/2010 11:44 pm
  10. “On the Search Subscribers page in your account, you can find out exactly who hasn?t opened your messages in a certain amount of time.”

    Hmm … Are you sure about the word “EXACTLY”?

    Can AWeber measure EXACTLY the open rate? Maybe you’re talking about CTR … Or maybe you have a brand new technology that I don’t know yet!

    8/11/2010 9:32 am
  11. Great report. An internet Marketer just did a video regarding this same subject. I bet he reads your emails. :-)

    8/11/2010 1:58 pm
  12. Jen

    I agree, it’s hard to let go of your subscribers. Even if you know they are inactive, it still feels good to see them in the list :))
    I know, I must.

    8/12/2010 4:26 am
  13. KCLau

    First, I love this article. It makes me realize how to solve the problem of the decreasing open rate and response.

    As I dig more into sorting the subscribers, right before I delete some of them, I was wondering how certain Aweber knows that the email is not opened?

    Can I get more info how you determine an email is not opened? With 100% certainty.

    8/23/2010 6:12 pm
  14. KCLau,

    Tracking email opens involves using a 1×1 transparent image, and recording an open when that image is loaded.

    As some people have images disabled, and others briefly load emails in preview panes while scrolling through their inbox, opens aren’t a perfect/100% certain measure, and the actual percentage of people reading your emails can easily be a bit higher or lower than the reported open rate (typically, I would expect the reported open rate to be lower than the percentage of subscribers actually reading your email). However, open rates can be useful as a proxy for engagement/response.

    8/24/2010 9:10 am | Follow me on Twitter
  15. Aha! Finally someone who knows his job (Justin)!

    This was my point from the previous comment (see it above). Too bad that the author of the article didn’t find the time to reply and CORRECT the article. No one can find exactly who didn’t open the emails as it was wrongly suggested … Not even AWeber ;-)

    More than this, more and more subscribers use Gmail. By default, the images are disabled in Gmail and this means that all these users – who usually don’t bother (or don’t know, or don’t want) to change the default settings – will be counted as inactive subscribers.

    Do you really want to delete subscribers that may or may not be inactive but you think that are inactive? ;-)

    8/24/2010 9:29 am
  16. This is a really good strategy. I’m looking forward to trying this out. The only thing that concerns me is that my open rate is literally horrible. So I may end up starting completely over from scratch.

    8/24/2010 11:20 am
  17. I think a better option would be to have is "never clicked a link". That way we could get around the fact that not everyone has images enabled.

    If people aren’t clicking links then they aren’t finding the emails that interesting.

    Just a thought!

    8/24/2010 11:31 am
  18. Segmentation through "opens" isn’t perfect. Readers who prefer Text over HTML (or disable images) will get segmented as "uninterested" and dropped if you take this approach.

    A survey (or perhaps a simple letter asking whether you want to continue receiving the email broadcasts) is perhaps a better alternative than deleting readers who never appear to "open" an email.

    8/24/2010 11:51 am
  19. I did this a couple of weeks ago … I’m still not sure if I did the right thing, but I’m getting the same level of engagement from a list 1/3 the size.

    I unsubscribed 2500 subscribers!

    http://paulteague.com/2010/07/07/did-i-make-a-big-mistake/

    This is a really useful post, thanks for making it :-)

    8/24/2010 11:55 am
  20. Misa

    In my world, potential affiliates want to know how big your list is, not how active it is. The day my "playmates" become interested in the quality of my list, I’ll happily clean house. I’d much rather have an involved list of subscribers.

    8/24/2010 1:02 pm
  21. I think contacting people and threatening with unsubscription via open rate is a horrible idea.

    Only because of the fact that many people simply have images turned off by default in their email readers like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail etc.

    Maybe it would be better to target people that haven’t clicked on any links in your emails for 6 months or longer. At least this would be an accurate statistic.

    I mean you would want people on your list who never click on links in your emails. If they’re not clicking then they’re probably not doing you any good being on your list anyway.

    8/24/2010 3:02 pm
  22. Justin and Mike,

    When someone clicks a link in your emails, we "infer" an open (meaning we record that subscriber as having opened your email… otherwise, how did they click a link?).

    So the "no opens" report will not include subscribers who clicked a link during that time. It will only include subscribers for whom we haven’t recorded an open (which means they haven’t clicked any links you’ve been tracking during that time period, either).

    8/24/2010 3:26 pm | Follow me on Twitter
  23. This is a really good article as we regularly clean out our list of "dead" subscribers but had never thought about trying to actually re-engage them.

    Thanks for the great ideas, so simple but easy to do and even if only a small fraction come back on board its got to be worth the hour or so to do this every 3 months.

    8/24/2010 4:34 pm
  24. This article came in perfect timing as I was thinking about how to reengage my subscribers this past week. Thank you for this very resourceful article.

    8/24/2010 5:02 pm
  25. I didn’t know ISP’s were analyzing the behaviors of my individual subscribers…

    8/24/2010 8:06 pm
  26. To answer your question, I do this type of campaign often.

    I use to it shave off the unresponsive subscribers from my list and to keep it under 10,000 subscribers (above 10,000 subscribers, the price more than doubles).

    Most of these campaigns aren’t that effective, though. Few subscribers open those emails and click again.

    8/24/2010 8:52 pm
  27. Hi,

    I deleted about 20.000 subscribers earlier this summer.

    I have 200.000+ subscribers and with you strategy I will probably delete much more from my database. I love your three-step technique! You just made my job easier, thanks!

    8/25/2010 6:38 am
  28. The best way to reengage your subscribers is to give something away of massive value and use a really powerful subject line that makes them see the free offer.

    Subject lines could include:

    I screwed up… massive freebie for you
    bad news
    very controversial email

    8/25/2010 4:49 pm
  29. Jean Hanson

    I do not have the No Opens option in my drop down. I noticed 2 other people posted this and no one answered the question. I’d like to clean up one of my lists but can’t do it if I can’t find these people!

    12/13/2010 6:00 pm
  30. Jean ~ As with John and Edith, it sounds like you opened your account before the analytics package was available. This package includes more reports and ways to break down your subscriber list.

    Contact us at 877-AWEBER-1 or help@aweber.com with your account details if you’d like to upgrade!

    12/14/2010 9:12 am
  31. Jason

    I think you guys always give too much credit to the ISP’s – ha, yeah right like they have the technology in place to monitor stuff like that… besides that wouldn’t even affect us because we are using aweber to send the mail meaning we would be exempt from any ISP backlash

    Also, not sure if you include email service in the definition of ISP but i know for a fact that I get the same damn SPAM in my gmail and yahoo inbox all the freaking time. Even though i mark it as spam over and over the mail provider does not block those incoming messages. So you cannot possibly try to tell us that our messages would get blocked if too many of our readers report us as spam.

    1/5/2011 1:06 pm
  32. Jason,

    I hope you’re not suggesting that using AWeber abdicates you of any responsibility to run your email marketing campaigns responsibly. The fact is, ISPs can distinguish between your campaigns and those of other AWeber users (for starters, it’s not like every AWeber user uses the same “from” address). We do a lot to get your emails delivered, but you have to do your part, too.

    Also, the fact that you see some spam in your inbox does not in any way mean that no spam filtering occurs. To be able to defend that conclusion, you’d have to be able to compare the number of spam messages you receive to the total number of spam messages sent to you. And unless you work at your ISP, you have no way of knowing that second number.

    1/5/2011 2:43 pm | Follow me on Twitter
  33. Leo

    A suggestion (apologies if I missed it in the comments above).

    Add “Stop Status” is “Subscribed” to the query – that won’t change the number of emails sent, but it will give you a less heart-attack-inducing number of inactive subscribers (otherwise it includes the people who’ve unsubscribed in the count).

    Add “Date Confirmed” “date is before” some appropriate time period like a couple of weeks or a month. This avoids someone subscribing the day before your campaign and then immediately getting a “long time no hear”, or similar, message.

    And finally, it’s always a good idea to backup your email list prior to any massive deletes.

    It’ll be painful, but maintaining a clean list is too important not to. Thanks to the Aweber folks for this post.

    4/10/2011 7:19 pm
  34. Leo ~ Thanks for the suggestions! Those are certainly good parameters to add. Hopefully people see your comment, and we’ll keep them in mind when we write about this again. :)

    4/11/2011 8:12 am
  35. I’m a subscriber to someone else’s list – they put a little note at the top of every mail saying something like “see pictures? If not, turn them on, it’ll be better for both of us.” At first I figured he did it because he wants people to see the nice ads and design work in his emails. That’s important too but tracking interest is another.

    One reason I suspect you get a lot of inactive subscribers is that they do what I do, use a dummy email address for subscribing to stuff instead of using their everyday active email account.

    6/2/2011 10:29 am
  36. This is great information. I am certainly going to test it out.

    I agree with others about the gmail problem where if someone doesn’t click to “view images” in the html emails, it will look as if they didn’t open the message.

    It would be great if you had a feature to detect opens of text-only versions, that would be a great solution to this problem.

    Thanks for the useful information. I’m going to give this technique a shot.

    6/23/2011 1:42 pm
  37. I love everything about Aweber and I respect your point of view, however I regret the day I ever read this article. I am writing in to urge people to carefully consider whether this is really necessary for your particular campaign.

    I followed this advice, and sent out an email to nearly 2,000 “inactive” subscribers. First of all, remember that anyone who opens your newsletters on a SmartPhone doesn’t register as an “open;” so automatically you’re going to create confusion. Secondly, I found out that many people save my newsletters to read in the future; so you need to go WAY back in time for it to make sense.

    I was dumbfounded at the angry response I got from so many people that took offense to my “reengagement” letter. I wrote it in my typical light, unassuming, friendly style; but people truly took offense to this. I not only lost subscribers who might not have ever “unsubscribed,” but also offended people who have been loyally following me but merely got busy or were opening emails on technology other than a laptop.

    In hindsight, I think this was the dumbest move I’ve ever made. Who cares if I pay for a few people that never open my emails? We should be thrilled at the prospect of anyone wanting to be on our list; why look a gift horse in the mouth?

    Again, I do apologize and I have nothing but the utmost respect for Aweber and its writers; however I do feel compelled to urge other readers to really think this through before you implement it. You might be sidelined by a reaction you never anticipated and offend people you would never in a million years want to offend.

    Respectfully,
    Sirena

    11/6/2011 6:25 pm
  38. Sirena, This is definitely a process that needs to be handled with care. Thanks for sharing your experience, since you bring up a few things that can affect results. First of all, it’s important to acknowledge in the messages’ wording that if readers have been opening, they’ve received the email by mistake and should ignore it. Secondly, yes, depending on the kind of content you send, you’ll probably want to only send to those who haven’t opened in a number of months. Finally, smartphone/tablet opens do register, unless the device is unable to display images (which most can do now).

    Thank you for bringing up these points for other readers to consider, and remember, readers who stick with you through processes like these are readers who are most likely to buy from you in the end.

    11/8/2011 2:27 pm
  39. Jean

    I have a question about this. I would need to upgrade my account in order to do this. If I do, will I get the past stats on who is opening the emails? Or does it just track from this point forward?

    11/8/2011 2:45 pm
  40. Jean ~ The system will start tracking from the moment you upgrade, but since it’s not tracking now, you won’t see past stats.

    11/9/2011 9:18 am
  41. I just did a reengagement campaign and the big lesson I learned was not to assume anything. I segmented my list of inactives from the last six months and asked people to respond personally to let me know if they wanted to stay on the list. And I was astonished by how many people said they wanted to stay — 20% of the inactives responded to tell me they wanted to stay. Another 5-10 responded the second day. This was just the first e-mail of the campaign and during the week of Christmas. Overall, I’d say it was a success and I was even more surprised that many who responded were still big fans of my blog, even though the information might not be helpful or relevant to them anymore.

    12/20/2011 7:53 pm
  42. Wes

    Based on what you said regarding how ISPs determine reputation and deliverability:

    If you run a re-engagement campaign, couldn’t that significantly hurt your overall deliverability rate since the majority of the people you would be sending too aren’t likely to open your re-engagement messages, considering they weren’t engaging to begin with?

    Any input would be appreciated – I’m trying to determine whether I should worry about a reengagement campaign, or if it would be better to just manually unsubscribe those folks…

    Thanks.

    8/18/2012 7:36 pm
  43. Hi Wes,

    That’s a great question. I can’t speak for an ISP, but here’s my take on that issue.

    It’s one thing to repeatedly (over the course of weeks, months, years) send to unengaged addresses and establish a reputation with ISPs as someone who is not interested in whether recipients still want your email.

    A re-engagement campaign, on the other hand, has a start and end, after which time you’re not mailing those subscribers anymore. Its lifespan is relatively short and involves a relatively low volume of email compared to what you send overall.

    It strikes me as unlikely that your re-engagement campaign would run long enough to influence your reputation… and even if it did, once you completed the campaign and removed the unresponsive addresses, you would be sending only to engaged subscribers and your reputation would recover/improve accordingly.

    8/29/2012 12:51 pm | Follow me on Twitter
  44. Wes

    Makes sense. Thanks for the Reply, Justin.

    8/29/2012 3:49 pm
  45. Just to double check: I have been using Aweber for several years, but only upgraded to the “stats” package several months ago. Does that mean that I can only track those who have not open since the month that I began using stats?

    And (big one for me), I have people who are one multiple lists. If I delete them from one list for not opening, what happens to them on the other lists in which they (theoretically) might have opened an email?

    Thanks a bunch!

    Ryan

    1/23/2014 2:53 pm
  46. Hi

    Can someone clarify one thing for me.

    Does “Unopened messages” means :

    1) the e-mail was not opened (and so not read for sure) or
    2) the links inside the e-mail were not cliked (but message could have been opened and read)

    Thank you in advance and best regards,

    5/7/2014 5:28 am