Fall Cleanup: Remove Email List Deadweight to Maximize ROI

Study: 68% of recipients use unsubscribe to remove email they are not interested in

Fall is a time for revival and transformation traditionally associated with the changing color and slow falling of leaves, the cooling weather, and, of course, mugs of fresh, warm apple cider. (Okay, San Diego experiences none of these, but I can still nostalgically reminisce on the true fall days of New England.) Like the evolution we see from season to season, your email marketing list(s) too have their own evolutions and, should I dare go so far as to say it, re-births much like the trees of New England shed their leaves and are born again each spring. During this evolution, one key question every email marketer asks (or should ask!) is, what to do with deadweight, your list's nonresponders?

You've spent your money and time collecting subscribers, emailing your lists targeted campaigns, and yet you still have a group that never opens, never clicks. How do you take an exhausted email list and press it (just like apple cider) for all it's worth. Should you shed these subscribers, marking them as unsubscribed, unengaged, and plain ol' useless? Never. There is (almost) always hope.

With 2.9B email accounts alive and well in 2010, not to mention the year over year turnover of 25%, and 89% of emails sent to those accounts being spam, it's easy to see why managing your list for inactives is important.

First, let's consider the impact of this "unengaged" audience. There are very real implications of leaving this portion of subscribers unaddressed:

Deliverability If the subscriber is non-responsive and, come to find out, it is an inactive email account (defined as one that is no longer accessed by or linked to a human) then your deliverability rates may be effected. This can have a material effect on the success of every other send. Deliverability, as you know, is assessed on an account/company level, not a list level. The more inactive email accounts you attempt to send to, the greater the risk to your deliverability rate. Yes, it may be initially a challenge to differentiate between inactives and nonresponders. We'll discuss this in more depth later.

Muddied Analytics Having this deadweight can skew your analytics significantly. Some call it a "silent majority," but regardless of how this group is labeled, having a disproportionate number of non-responders as a result of a mix of inactives and uninterested subscribers can make it hard to know what really is and is not working. Just like we would never gather a focus group of uninterested or deceased individuals, we never want to try and engage a subscriber who has zero interest or intent of engaging with your company or brand.

Wasted Money Spending dollars sending to subscribers who really just aren't that interested is not a good way to increase your ROI. Time to re-visit and potentially shed this segment.

Spam Traps: A Risk ISP's collect inactive emails and use these as a "spam trap" to shine light on spammers. If you're sending a disproportionate number of emails to inactive email accounts, it's much more likely that your sends are not targeted and could be spam. The more emails you send to these inactive email addresses, the more likely you're going to be marked as spam.

Next, determine your standards and limits. Quantify your subscriber buckets and tie these to your business drivers to make sure your email list decisions are consistent now and in the future. The maintenance cycle will continue for the life of your email marketing efforts. Set standards now to reduce headaches later. Determine how you define subscribers in each bucket:

A Subscriber in Hibernation

This subscriber is still active, but away for a reasonable/expected period of time. This is an email address you are confident you can revive. Mine your historical email data to catch trends in hibernation. Ask, "What is the mean, median, and range of hibernation periods of all my subscribers?" Looking to your list's past actions will assist in determining whether you consider hibernation to start at three months, nine months, or a year or more.

A Nonresponsive Subscriber

This is a subscriber for which you see no opens, no clicks. Again, mine your data to determine when a subscriber qualifies for this bucket. This will typically be the timeframe beyond the hibernation period. (If subscriber is beyond the hibernation period and not engaging with your emails, then it is safe to assume they are now a nonresponder.)

An Inactive Subscriber

This is an email account that is no longer accessed by or linked to a human. Unfortunately, you will likely only be able to capture these within the nonresponsive subscriber bucket. Determining inactivity of an email account can be difficult. To cover your bases, simply treat these the same way you would the nonresponsive subscriber bucket.

In assessing these buckets, remember to account for the average lifetime value (LTV) of an email address. Use this in combination with your historical data (or educated estimations if no data is available) to find the sweet spot between potential revenue generating emails and those that are a lost cause.

Once your buckets are defined, segment your lists and prepare to send to the hibernation list and the nonresponsive group separate email campaigns to assess their interest. An email designed to assess interest should include:

  • A strong and direct subject line, e.g. "Please confirm that you wish to remain on our email list," "We're cleaning our email list - confirm if you wish to remain on our list," or "Do you want to continue receiving our emails?"
  • A strong, clear, and direct call-to-action (CTA), e.g. "Click Here" to continue receiving our emails
  • Relevant content - If you have additional segmentation data (e.g. a pet store's hibernation list can be divided between cat and dog lovers), leverage this information to send the most relevant emails possible, e.g. send dog lovers a dog themed email with cleverly designed language to match their interests.
  • The ability to unsubscribe directly within the email (as all CAN-SPAM compliant emails should include).
  • A link or contact information for those who are reading your email after they've already been auto-unsubscribed who wish to re-subscribe.
  • Make it clear that if no action is taken within one week they will automatically be unsubscribed from you list. Send them a reminder one week later and remove the email from your list if you do not receive a response.

Let's see this in action.

You own an e-commerce site that sells Thot-Tots which are handy sipping straws that extend to five feet long (very useful). Your subscriber list comes from current customers, fans, potential Thot-Tots customers. You send both transactional emails (emails triggered by an action such as a purchase of a Thot-Tot) and a monthly newsletter. Your Thot-Tots newsletter campaign has run for over a year now and you are starting to accumulate nonresponders (and potentially inactives). The LTV of one email address is $100. Time for Thot-Tot email list revival:

  1. Assess the sources of your email addresses. Thot-Tots come from only customers and newsletter sign ups. It would behoove Thot-Tots to assess these lists separately.
  2. Define your buckets, taking into account LTV
    1. You determine that the longest time subscribers have gone between activity (activity is defined as a click on your email in this case) is six months. The LTV of the customer exceeds the nominal cost of keeping these emails on your list (the sends and cost of creating your newsletter spread across all subscribers is less than $100) and you know that those who do return are 70% more likely to buy a Thot-Tot than a new newsletter subscriber. Your hibernation period is six months (we'll assume this is true for all lists for simplicity's sake).
    2. Given that six months is your maximum hibernation period, it makes sense that anything beyond six months can be considered a nonresponder.
  3. Send your first, very direct "Are you still interested in receiving our emails" email. Move those who respond to the appropriate list (an active list).
  4. To those who took no action, re-send a reminder one week later. Again, to those who respond, move them to the appropriate list. To those who do not, place them on your unsubscribe list, marking them as automatic unsubscribes (they were unsubscribed as a result of non-response, not as a result of clicking the unsubscribe link).

Wash, rinse, and repeat. Keep this cycle to a minimum by putting in place proactive subscriber quality measures to reduce the dead weight before it accumulates:

  • Require a double opt-in to sign up for your email list.
  • Send an email during the honeymoon phase of each new subscriber. Make sure to communicate with new subscribers within 30 days.
  • Manage your email sources proactively. Notice if all nonresponders come from one source and dig deeper to determine if the emails are receiving relevant content as promised or if there are alternative reasons the source may not be a good fit.
  • Offer subscribers the ability to manage their preferences. Perhaps they signed up for a daily email, but later realized that was too frequent and they would prefer to receive weekly emails.

The best way to describe list management is curation; attend to your lists and campaigns consistently and in detail to set your campaigns up for success. With these measures in place, your email lists and campaigns are set to serve you not only for short-term campaigns, but for the life of your company or brand.

Jennifer Morris, Associate Consultant, eBoost Consulting

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