Could Inactive Email Subscribers Hurt Your Program?

by Karen Talavera on April 30, 2012

inactive email

There’s a heated debate in email marketing over what to do with inactive subscribers and whether or not they can seriously  harm a sender’s reputation, deliverability and response enough to justify no longer emailing them.  The passion on both sides of this issue – the potential harmful downside of continuing to mail “inactives” juxtaposed with the potential helpful upside of keeping them on your list – makes this argument one worth taking a closer look at.

The Downside

In the one corner, it’s a reality that major email account hosting ISPs (like Yahoo, Hotmail and Google) convert abandoned email accounts into what is known as “spamtraps”. While there are many kinds of spamtraps, perhaps the most damaging are the ones that were once valid email accounts, now abandoned. Email is often still deliverable to these abandoned accounts (although some ISPs will reject mail to them for a period of time, not all will), yet like an empty house “the lights are on but nobody’s home”. So to a marketer, it appears as if an email list subscriber is simply ignoring their messages when in fact a live human is no longer using the account – rather, an ISP is managing it to “trap” unwanted email.

The problem arises because along with email account holder complaints, hitting spam traps is the number one way to damage or lower your reputation as a sender of email. (And in case you didn’t know it, yes you do have a measurable reputation according to the major ISPs – so does every IP address that sends email). Stories of entire programs being throttled or shut-down due to spamtrap hits are legendary. While it’s impossible for most email marketers to avoid having at least a few spamtraps on their lists, especially lists with tens of thousands or more names, your inactive subscriber segment is highly suspect especially if you’ve seen no signs of email activity from them in the last six and certainly, twelve consecutive months.

Yet even if you miss hitting a spam trap, sending to unresponsive list members can cause another problempoor placement of your well-crafted email messages in the inbox. Now that major ISPs are using engagement (open/click) metrics to decide whether to place your email more prominently in the inbox (as Gmail does) or direct it to a bulk or junk folder (like Hotmail), getting your subscribers to interact and measurably engage with your email messages affects not only your response and ROI, but your ability to successfully deliver future email as well. Although most major ISPs are still in the early phases of testing and deploying engagement to drive inbox placement, it’s expected to stick around and increase. Ouch.

The final argument against mailing inactives is cost. Although the cost-per-name of sending email to one’s own list is now so low as to be effectively free, the question remains: why spend on inactive subscribers now that the downside of mail not being seen combined with the potential for hitting potential spam traps is at an all-time high? Better to save the money and play it safe?

The Upside

In the other corner, we have the case for mailing inactives anyway because even a few sales from them can more than justify the continuing cost of doing so. This side of the argument centers around two main points:

1)    Subscribers (usually customers) may be inactive in email but active in other channels, therefore eventually likely to purchase. Email may be influencing purchases in other channels – an action we simply can’t track.

2)    Subscribers may be monitoring and technically opening your email but not clicking, which means they are still engaged, but for some reason you can’t track their opens, either because they are not registering property, or because subscribers are scanning and deleting email from within the inbox before an open can register.

In either of the above two cases, it makes perfect sense to continue mailing inactive email subscribers, because – at least in the first instance – they’re not truly inactive customers, they’re simply inactive email responders. They have not abandoned their accounts and are buying in your other channels, so it’s pretty safe (but not 100%  foolproof) to assume their email addresses have not been converted to spamtraps.

Naturally, you’ll need to clearly define all potential channels for customer purchase/conversion and – assuming there are more buying channels than your site – assess whether an email list member is truly an inactive customer across the board, or simply an unresponsive subscriber. You should not only create a definition of “inactive” but also establish inactivity thresholds for different customer groups.

If an email list subscriber has in fact been totally unresponsive – a verifiably inactive customer – for a considerable period of time relevant to the purchase cycles in your business, it pays to look further at their past purchase history and customer LTV (life time value) before ultimately deciding whether to suppress/remove them from your email list.

For example, in apparel retailing if someone hasn’t purchased in the past twenty-four months (two years) they’re often considered inactive, but that same definition of inactivity won’t necessarily make sense when it comes to electronics, cars or jewelry which have higher price points, lower purchase frequency, and longer consideration paths.

What If They’re Really, Truly Tuned Out?

Still, lack of purchase according to your activity definition combined with lack of measurable marketing response (in ANY channel) is usually a reliable indicator of disinterest.  So the bottom line is – YES – continuing to email to your inactive subscribers without

a) proper, regular email list hygiene to identify and remove spamtraps

b) trying to reactive them via other marketing channels and

c) cross-channel assessment of their buying history

can harm your email program by hurting inbox placement and damaging your reputation and deliverability. If you’re not doing A, B, and C above, I recommend suppressing inactives from further email campaigns until you do.

If on the other hand you’re practicing regular reliable email address hygiene, deploying re-activation campaigns in complementary marketing channels (like direct mail) and investigating WHO your email inactives are in order to understand whether they’re just lurking or truly gone, there are specific strategies for emaling your less responsive list members than can make continuing to do so worth your while. I’ll explore those in a future post, but in the meantime, tread cautiously and get busy emailing smarter before you simply email more.

 

photo by: DaveBleasdale

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  • http://twitter.com/BenchmarkEmail Benchmark Email

    Great look at both sides of the coin, Karen! You’re spot on. As long as best practices prevail, you’re going to come out on top.

  • http://twitter.com/jcohen808 Jordan Cohen

    “Although the cost-per-name of sending email to one’s own list is now so low as to be effectively free”…

    Unless a marketer is mailing to a few hundred names using a small business ESP, I’m not so sure that sending email is “effectively free.”

    The cost argument isn’t just about playing it safe from the deliverability perspective (although that IS a very compelling argument in and of itself) — it’s about there being hard costs involved in sending email.

    Yes, on a one-off basis, email costs pennies (or fractions of pennies). But when you have a list of millions of subscribers who are getting mailed to hundreds of times a year, it adds up.

    Most enterprise-level ESPs will require clients to send at least $5K worth of email per month or walk away from their business, so the costs of sending email are very real, and marketers need to decide whether it makes sense to reduce their *measurable* email marketing ROI by mailing inactives at the same cadence and frequency as they do to their more active recipients.

  • Chris Marriott

    A famous comment usually attributed to Lord Leverhulme goes: “I know that half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I’m not sure which half”.  Well, the same approach can apply to mailing to inactives, “I know that 85% of the addresses are really not good, I just don’t know which ones”.   Marketers still spend money on advertising.  Email marketers should still spend money sending to inactives.

  • http://clairification.blogspot.com Claire Axelrad

    Very thought provoking.  I work in nonprofit, and for most charities (except the really huge ones) it probably pays to mail to inactives precisely for the reason cited by Chris — we don’t know if the inactives online are active offline. That being said, proper email hygiene and attention to spam dangers is extremely important.

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