How to Use Email to Re-Engage Sleepy Subscribers

Corey Wainwright
Corey Wainwright



As an email marketer, you already know you're losing about 25% of your email list every year. It happens; people lose interest in your company, change email addresses, unsubscribe -- it's all part of the email marketing game. But what if there was something you could do to re-engage some of those subscribers who actually are still interested in your company, but have just suffered a case of inbox overload?

The way to do it is through an email re-engagement campaign, and it's a pretty simple process once all the steps are broken down, your list segmentation parameters are set, and your content is created. This post will walk you through why email re-engagement campaigns are crucial to your email marketing program's success, and exactly how you can implement one for yourself.Download Now: Email Marketing Planning Template 

Why Email Re-Engagement Campaigns are Important

Before we dive in to the steps for implementing an email re-engagement campaign, I want to make sure it's clear why a re-engagement campaign is a good best practice to include in any email marketing program. People on your email list could become inactive for a number of reasons (which we'll discuss in more detail in the next section of this post):

  • You're going into their SPAM folders.
  • They just haven't gotten around to unsubscribing yet.
  • You're emailing them too much, so they gloss over your name.
  • You're not emailing them enough, and they forgot who you are.
  • They just subscribed for a one-time perk, like a coupon or freebie.
  • They subscribed to complete a one-time or infrequent transaction, like filling a yearly contact prescription, for example.
  • Your emails don't provide value for them.
  • Your emails weren't what they thought they would get when signing up.

And there are many, many other reasons your email subscribers could have gone inactive. The thing is, some of these can be remedied, meaning there's revenue potential out there in your email list that is sitting untapped.

But even if there was absolutely no potential for new leads, reconversions, or customers in the inactive portion of your email list, keeping them on your email list puts your email deliverability at serious risk. Not only does every email you send offer them the opportunity to mark you as SPAM, but it also makes your email metrics look pretty bad to your boss. For example, wouldn't you like to have a higher deliverability and click-through rate to show off? You can have that and a better sender reputation when you trim down the inactives on your list and focus on only emailing the engaged subscribers!

How to Start an Email Re-Engagement Campaign

Now that we've covered why email re-engagement campaigns are important, let's break down the steps you need to take to run one for yourself.

Step 1: Define What Success Looks Like

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you're probably not surprised by this first step. If you don't have an idea of what success looks like, it's hard to tell if you've accomplished your goal. The thing is, metrics for success in your first email re-engagement campaign are really tough to come up with, because the benchmarks are so different based on your industry and business model. Once you make these campaigns a regular part of your email marketing program, however, you'll start to notice a pattern around:

  • The percentage of email addresses you remove from your list as a result of the re-engagement campaign,
  • The percentage of inactive subscribers that become re-engaged, and
  • How much your click-through rate improves after the re-engagement campaign

But if this is your first re-engagement campaign, adjust your mindset around the campaign metrics -- because they can look bleak with the wrong perspective. What I mean by that is this: you know you've run a successful re-engagement campaign when you have a smaller email list. That's a tad cringe-worthy, right?

Well, it's not so bad when you consider the end result. For example, HubSpot customer Bob Phibbs -- the Retail Doctor -- figured out that though his truly engaged email list was half the size of his email list that included inactive subscribers, it resulted in 3X more unique clicks. Email re-engagement campaigns give you an email list that is far more engaged, yields a higher click-through rate, drives more conversions and customers, and improves your email deliverability.

Step 2: Identify Your Inactives

Like we discussed before, someone can be inactive for a number of reasons. And here's the thing -- there's no one definition for what inactivity means that fits all business models. You're going to need to utilize a mixture of discrete metrics and business-specific information to make the final determination for the definition of an inactive subscriber. But let's walk through exactly how to make that determination for yourself right now.

First, consider the length of your buying cycle. For example, let's say one of the products a business sells is contact lenses, and they notice there is a certain portion of their customers who purchase a yearly supply of contact lenses, well, yearly. The contact lens email marketer may not be emailing that segment of their email list because they take a very specific action -- they transact once a year and don't require monthly, weekly, or daily emails. But an e-retailer like ModCloth (whose email marketing I've featured on this blog a few times), would have much different parameters for inactivity; they email much more frequently because their subscribers interact with the brand more frequently and in more diverse ways.

So while a rule of thumb for defining inactivity is often 3-6 months, look at your business model and ask: am I a "contact lens retailer" for whom 3-6 months of inactivity is normal, or am I a "ModCloth-type e-retailer" for whom even 1 month of inactivity is a bad sign? Or, of course, something in between.

(Tip: If you find there are people on your email list who have been inactive for years (unless you truly have a several-years long buying cycle), don't include them in the re-engagement campaign, as they will drive up SPAM complaint rates. Just remove them from your list altogether.)

Once you have an idea of what a normal time span for inactivity looks like, mix it with a discrete metric to segment out your inactives. I recommend click-through rate, as it is a much better indication of engagement than open rate, but not so high-commitment as completing a transaction or filling out a landing page form.

Be sure to create different list segments if you plan on sending re-engagement campaign content that is specific to, say, a particular buyer persona. For example, if you're the contact lens retailer but you also sell glasses frames online, you might create three separate re-engagement campaign list segments -- one for your recipients who purchase contact lenses, one for your recipients who purchase glasses frames, and one for your recipients who purchase both. This will allow you to create more targeted content that increases the likelihood your campaign actually does re-engage some subscribers.

Step 3: Create & Send Your Engagement Campaigns

Some companies have sent one email that asks people to make a decision -- click through a call-to-action on our email now, or we're taking you off our list! And for some companies, that approach may work. But let's start slower, shall we?

Think of your re-engagement campaign as, well, a campaign. That is to say there will be a series of emails you're sending over several weeks to try to re-engage your inactive subscribers, not a batch and blast. This is recommended primarily because many of your inactives have suffered some kind of communication breakdown with you along the way that has caused the value of your emails to be lost. It's only natural that it may take more than one email to find the value proposition that causes them to change their minds about your emails.

To help you fill out your email campaign, here are several effective types of re-engagement emails that businesses often send.

  • Update Email Preferences: Offer to change the frequency of the emails you send or to customize the subject matter about which your recipient receives emails. This helps recipients that are struggling with inbox overload.
  • Email Feedback Survey: Ask your subscriber if there is something you can do to improve your email content to make them engage more frequently. Worst case scenario, you get feedback on your content. What marketer doesn't love feedback?
  • Incentivize Email Activity: Offer freebies or coupons for re-opting in to your email list, but make sure it's based on their past purchase or download history. For example, if I noticed a segment of my list was particularly interested in educational inbound marketing content, I might invite them to attend our Inbound 2012 conference with a discount for certification at the conference.
  • Get Emotional: You've probably received an email or two from a company that says how much they miss you. Maybe it doesn't strike a chord with everyone, but it can be pretty refreshing to hear a company talk to you like a human being.
  • Use a Deadline: Best reserved for the last email of your re-engagement campaign, this email graciously asks recipients to opt in by a certain date or be removed from the email list. Sometimes the deadline is enough of an impetus to get a subscriber to confirm that they do or don't want to receive your emails. Be sure to make it easy for them to provide a response; say something like, "Yes, please keep me subscribed!" and "No, please remove me from your email communications."

There are other elements you may decide to test as you become more sophisticated with running re-engagement campaigns. For example, you could experiment with increasing or decreasing the frequency of your email sends to see if certain segments respond positively to the change in frequency. You may also notice that the format of your emails could benefit from some A/B testing -- perhaps your emails are typically quite text heavy, and your inactive subscribers may be more interested in short and snappy emails. You may even need a more "out there" subject line that more effectively grabs the attention of your inactive subscribers.

After you've established some baseline metrics for comparison from your first few re-engagement campaigns, experiment with more radical changes like these. You may just find a diamond email marketing idea in the rough!

Step 4: Reduce Future Instances of Inactive Subscribers

Just because you've completed your re-engagement campaign, doesn't mean you're done! The success of your next re-engagement campaign (and your email marketing program) depends on your ability to keep your currently healthy and engaged list ... well, healthy and engaged. Make sure you're doing these things to proactively keep your email list active:

  • Set clear expectations in the opt-in process about email sending frequency, subject matter, and the content types they'll receive. This will decrease the instances of subscribers thinking they'll receive a certain type of email, only to be disappointed when they realize there was a misunderstanding later down the road.
  • Make your first email really, really awesome -- and send it right away. Often, the first email sent after a new subscriber opts in is a confirmation email. Use that opportunity to impress your newest subscriber with an enticing offer or interesting piece of content that will hook them, and set them up to be excited for every future email you send. In other words, strike while the iron's hot.
  • Adapt your lead nurturing content based on list segments. This doesn't mean you have to create completely new content for every single list segment -- but often, your content assets can be better targeted for each individual list segment. We've written a blog post that will help you adapt your content assets so your email content is far more targeted, resulting in happier email subscribers.
  • Keep refining your list segments based on their on- and off-site behaviors. The more you communicate with your leads, the more you'll know about them. If you use this information to continually refine your list segments and email content, you'll be able to provide a more customized experience that results in more engaged email subscribers.

What tactics do you use to re-engage email subscribers?

Image credit: Alan Cleaver


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