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Tactics for reviving dead email subscribers

Tactics for reviving dead email subscribers Chris Marriott

With Halloween pumpkins already pushing back-to-school notebooks off the shelves of your local big-box store, let us delve into the gloomy and vast world of the living dead. Of course, I don't mean zombies rising from the grave to feast on human flesh (admittedly, a more animated discussion, so to speak), but rather the living dead on your email list. Every marketer has them, but relatively few understand how to bring at least some of those dead emails back to life.

All too often, marketers get in the habit of looking at email on a campaign-by-campaign basis. This necessary first step helps reveal important strengths and weaknesses, such as which subject lines or offers perform best. However, this episodic view of email ignores a larger trend: Who interacts with the marketer's email over time?

Almost all email service provider platforms can perform some level of recency-frequency (RF) analysis. RF analysis sorts email addresses into tiers based on how often users open or click emails over a specific period, such as the past 10 emails. Most marketers will find in an RF analysis that a small percentage of users open or click nearly every email with increasing percentages interacting less and less. In fact, many marketers, especially volume-heavy retailers, will find that well over half of users may not have opened or clicked any emails in the measurement period.

Bear in mind that non-interactors exclude those with invalid email addresses, those who have unsubscribed, or those who have declared the marketer's email as spam. They simply don't open or click. The industry tends to refer to them as "silent unsubscribes," but for the sake of preserving the Halloween theme, let's call them "the living dead."

In the movies, the heroes generally fumble about until they can find the weapon that neutralizes the living dead, and that actually summarizes the approach that email marketers must take. Don't worry; dealing with the email living dead requires no chainsaws -- just some tried-and-true reactivation tactics. Unlike the heroes in the movies, however, email marketers may not depend on a single tool to help accomplish their goal.

First, marketers should return to the RF analysis mentioned above. Those tiers of interaction provide an initial clue for finding the right approaches. Looking at the tiers, marketers should come up with a definition for the living dead. Certainly, never-responders -- email addresses that have never opened or clicked an email -- belong on the list. But marketers should also include emails that once responded but have since stopped. Additionally, marketers may wish to include emails that respond below a given threshold, perhaps those who respond to 20 percent of emails or fewer. The cutoff depends on how much time and effort the marketer can put into reactivation.

Successful reactivation begins with creating relevant segments. Specifically, marketers should separate the never-responders from former responders and light responders. This segmentation approach allows the marketer to understand which tactics work best for each group. After all, these segments differ behaviorally. Former responders once found the email interesting, but no longer do. Never-respondents never did; perhaps they only supplied an email to take advantage of a specific offer. As a result, these different segments may respond to different reactivation approaches.

Next comes experimenting with the living dead -- better known as testing. Consider at least two different approaches for reactivation. We've seen significant differences in the success of offers, especially when comparing results between never-responders and former responders. Some offers include:

  • One-time discount or gift with purchase. Retailers have the option of bribing the living dead back to life. Those who employ this tactic should do so with the understanding that they may be training their customers to wait for better offers, but some revenue beats no revenue. Also, this option allows marketers to test the value of different kinds of incentives (10 percent off vs. free shipping, etc.).

  • Survey. Give customers the ability to sound off about what they like and dislike about the email and to recommend content they may like. This approach works best if the marketer can use survey responses as preferences. For instance, if the customer merely wants less email, the marketer must have the ability to reduce frequency for this approach to work best.

  • Reduced frequency. If a marketer has stuck to a single cadence for his or her emails, then the living dead may respond to a change in frequency. Even unengaged consumers notice when a regular email disappears from their inboxes and then reappears.

  • Interest check. Very often, the simple approach of asking subscribers if they still want to receive the email works well. This approach may involve sending a simple postcard-style email with the single call to action of "click here to continue receiving these emails." A more subtle approach in this vein may involve changing only the subject line to remind users what they receive. For one retail bank client, we changed the subject line of a newsletter from the branded name for the newsletter to "your June newsletter from [bank name]."

After testing, the most successful tactics will emerge. Of course, the definition of success depends on the marketer. While a retailer may judge success on purchases, other marketers may consider any click or open a success. In general, we prefer the broader definition of any click or open because it shows signs of life, if not a return to constant engagement. Resurrecting the living dead has to start somewhere.

One last thought centers on expectations. Marketers should not expect to reactivate every member of the living dead. Far from it. The most successful reactivation campaigns might reactivate 50 percent of the file, but those efforts involve high-value incentives for a highly targeted group. More realistically, marketers can expect to reactivate 5 percent of the living dead with modest efforts and up to 10 percent with more aggressive efforts.

So this Halloween, should a chalk-white zombie appear at your door, kindly hand him a mini Snickers bar and ask him nicely to start reading your emails again.

Chris Marriott is vice president and global managing director for Acxiom Digital.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Georgia Christian

2010, November 17

Thank you Chris for this very informative article, I really enjoyed your take on it.

Commenter: James Dunn

2009, September 14

Thanks Chris.

This article gives me the answer for when the client tells me that they are already maintaining their own list. I've had an answer that I've used, but adding this information makes it much more valuable to the client. I'll incorporate this into our presentations this week.

Commenter: Bill Kaplan

2009, September 14

Great ideas, Chris. However, I'm surprised you didn't mention perhaps the most critical reactivation technique, that being to utilize an Email Change of Address service to help reconnect you with your customers' preferred email addresses.

More often than not, one's "living dead" email addresses are comprised of email accounts that people simply don't read, or hardly ever read anymore. The best RF analysis, segmentation techniques, and email strategies won't resurrect anybody if your emails are landing in "R.I.P." mailboxes.

An ECOA service can help you reconnect with 10%-15+% of your "living dead" on an initial pass and approximately twice that number if run quarterly over the course of year. That's like having your own personal "ghost whisperer" in your corner. :)

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2009, September 14

Hi Adam,

Thanks for your kind words regarding the article. And I agree with your perspective below regarding other means to stay in contact with consumers. The goal is to continue the conversation, the platform isn't important. I think your idea of inviting the "living dead" to stay in contact with you via other channels is an excellent one. I plan to use it!


Commenter: Adam Franklin

2009, September 14

Hi Chris,

Firstly, I like the ideas you shared in your article - thank you.

Secondly, another reactivation technique that might stir the 'living dead' is to invite them to follow you on Twitter, Facebook or subscribe to your blog.

I have learned that some people like to keep their inbox lean and mean, and would actually prefer to 'keep in touch' via social media.

Chris, would you agree it shouldn't matter if people choose to receive your communications via tweets, facebook messages or blog posts, instead of email?

Finally, I've heard what you called "The Interest Check" described as the "Break up email" - a phrase coined by an Aussie called Ian Lyons. I thought you might like it!