How to identify inactive and unengaged subscribers

One of the most common challenges you may face as a marketer is deciding how to handle inactive and unengaged subscribers on your list. Whether you are regularly sending to inactive subscribers, or you decide to send to a list that has been unused for some time, the outcome will likely be the same: increased complaints and spam trap hits, poor sending reputation, decreased inbox placement, low subscriber engagement, and a decrease in revenue from the email channel. While it’s not fast and easy to correct, you can address the issue through proper use of email intelligence and a simple spreadsheet.

A good way to determine when a subscriber becomes inactive is to use a “recency,” or time-based method. A recency method looks at the last date that a subscriber interacted (activity) with your email program and compares engagement metrics, complaints, and unsubscribe requests to determine the time frame that subscribers start to lose interest or become disengaged.

Here are the steps to identify your inactive and unengaged subscribers:

  1. Define what an “activity” is to your business: Activity may mean different things to different businesses so think about activities that are most important to meeting your business goals. Understanding how and when a subscriber interacts with you helps to tell a story about their lifecycle in relation to your business. Use as many of these metrics as you can in your analysis to help you get a full picture of their behavior. 

    For example:

    Date of subscription
    Date of the last email read
    Date of last purchase
    Date of last visit to your website
    Date of the last account login
    Date of last download
    Date of last conference or seminar attended

  2. Create recency segments based on the frequency at which you email your subscribers: A recency segment is a period of time that you measure an activity as you defined in the first step. Be sure to consider how often you send email when creating a recency segment. Daily senders will generally have shorter recency segments than a weekly or monthly sender.

    For example:
    Daily Sender: 0-30 days, 2-5 months, 6-9 months
    Weekly Sender: 0-60 days, 3-7 months, 8-12 months
    Monthly sender: 0-90 days, 4-8 months, 9-14 months

    Daily senders may also want a more granular look at activity levels on a monthly basis for the first 6 months and use 3-month windows after the 6th month.

  3. Create a simple spreadsheet to record and analyze your data: Using the recency segments created in the second step, insert them into a spreadsheet along with the engagement or activity metrics defined in the first step. Insert the rate for each metric for each recency segment and look for the time periods when engagement levels begin to decrease and metrics like complaints and unsubscribe requests increase. Perform an analysis using several different recency segment ranges to help in your analysis (such as  0-15 days, 16-60 days, 3-6 months, 7-10 months). Also be sure to consider your sales cycle and seasonal fluctuations as they apply to your business.

  4. Send a win-back campaign or remove the subscribers: Once you have determined the time frame that subscribers start to lose interest in your email program you have a couple of options for the next step:

    Send a win-back campaign: A win-back campaign reminds subscribers about the benefits of your program and asks them to re-engage. Subscribers that don’t re-engage should be suppressed from future mailings. Offer incentives such as product or service discounts to encourage retention.

    Remove or suppress the subscriber: Stop sending to the higher risk inactive subscriber segments once you determine when they stop interacting with your email program. This option is aggressive but may have a more immediate impact to improving inbox placement and engagement.

Make sure to perform an analysis and test different recency segments, timing, and messaging to determine what works best for your business. Over time you will learn how best to keep your subscribers engaged, and by keeping your subscriber list file full of engaged subscribers, you should receive improved inbox placement and increased email ROI.


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