How to Win Back Inactive Email Subscribers

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With the right strategies marketers can woo back long-term, inactive subscribers.

Marketers can lure back inactive email subscribers.
Marketers can lure back inactive email subscribers.

No matter how engaging, relevant, or valuable an email campaign is every list has inactive subscribers—i.e., users who simply don't respond to marketers' messages.

“Inactive email subscribers are absolutely an inevitable conversation for marketers,” says Dave Walters, digital marketing evangelist for Silverpop, an IBM company. “But the best marketers have that conversation proactively and decide on [a plan] in advance.”

One of the best ways that marketers can be proactive about curtailing the amount of inactive subscribers is first defining what constitutes an inactive subscriber. “The interesting thing about the definition is that it's a little bit different for every company based on what [brands] sell and how much [products] cost,” Walters says. “For example, an e-commerce site versus a car dealership might have varying definitions. Those depend on the velocity of sales and what the [brand] defines as activity. The most progressive marketers, however, define activities through both interactions and purchases.”

Walters insists marketers should always consider that a customer may be active in other channels but inactive to email messages. With those subscribers, emails still can have value. And as multichannel and omnichannel campaigns become more prolific, marketers will have to track behaviors across several channels, and then connect them to email subscribers. “Many times [for marketers] it's not all about trying to sell through a digital channel, specifically email,” Walters adds. “It's more about keeping in touch with customers.”

Walters suggests that after pinpointing inactive email subscribers, marketers should then identify subscribers' pain points and issues that may be causing them to be frustrated, uninterested, and ultimately inactive. “Pain points are something you have to try and extrapolate from your interactions—or [in these cases] lack of interaction with subscribers,” Walters says.  He warns that although pain points can vary from customer to customer, irrelevant email content is often a major turn-off for email subscribers. “In fact, most email subscriber pain points are probably related to content,” Walters says. “Marketers often just don't have the same mind-set as the customer. The content is just not relevant.” He adds marketers should be continually finessing or changing content and zeroing-in on what works—and of course what doesn't. “Most marketers are so busy that it's easy for them to [use] email strategies from last year; for instance, the same template or subject line,” Walters says. “But they should attempt to radically change a style or do something functionally different because realistically there's a great chance the content just isn't interesting to subscribers.”

Brands can attempt to re-engage their inactive subscribers, Walters says, by creating simple, direct, enticing messages that provide valuable offers: “Send out a final call-to-action. Perhaps create two or three touch campaigns. Typically these emails should have great offers to get subscribers to purchase.”

Walters says marketers at one point should determine when to simply suppress messages to long-term, inactive email subscribers. “I always warn marketers not to change customers' preferences. Don't opt people out [of email lists] when they didn't ask for that,” he says. An opt-out, he says, should be initiated by the customers—not marketers. Walters says marketers may later have an opportunity to reconnect with these same inactive subscribers who've made in-store purchases or interacted with the brand's other channels. He says brands should instead segment inactive email subscribers into a separate list: “It's important for a marketer to remember, brands will never get the majority of inactivates back. But some will return and eventually come back into the flow.”

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