In an ideal world, every contact on a company’s email list would be active, engaged and a frequent buyer. But, that’s not how it always works. Subscribers grow and evolve, and some become inactive over time.

So, what do you do with inactive subscribers? It’s actually a hot topic right now, with two schools of thought.

“Old school” take on inactive subscribers

In the past, the rule of thumb was to “prune” inactive subscribers from your list to avoid problems. What kind of problems? Sending emails to inactive customers could hurt your deliverability. If Google or Yahoo sees that you’re sending email after email to people that aren’t opening them, they could start diverting your emails to the spam folder.

In addition, some email marketers see inactive subscribers as a waste of time and resources. What’s the point of focusing efforts on a contact that doesn’t seem interested in your company or product anymore?

“New school” take on inactive subscribers

But, there’s another point of view in this debate. An inactive subscriber is better than a non-existent one, right? After all, it costs five times as much to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one.

At some point, an inactive subscriber was interested in your company or product, so it stands to reason that you could encourage him or her to rejoin your active customers.

In addition, it takes time for inactive subscribers to impact delivery rates. A business that has good opt-in practices, organically grows their list, and hasn’t had any deliverability issues in the past, may be able to afford to hang on to inactive customers in an attempt to convert them into active customers once again with effective reactivation or re-engagement strategies.

Say goodbye to inactive customers, or not?

What’s a business to do? Do you say goodbye to inactive subscribers or not? Especially since not all inactive customers are the same. An inactive subscriber that never engaged with an email or bought a thing from your company is different than an inactive subscriber that has a history of buying, but hasn’t done so in the last six months.

Deciding whether or not to keep inactive subscribers around isn’t a simple decision, but we’ll help you split your inactive subscribers into three groups, give you an action plan to cut or keep these subscribers, and give you examples of the emails you should send to do so.

1. Type of inactive subscriber: Never Active aka Ghosts

Definition: A never active subscriber is one whose only interest in your business was signing up for your email list. They joined, and then vanished. They never opened emails, let alone clicked on links or made a purchase.

Action plan: Send a recommitment email campaign.

Send these subscribers an email that asks if they’re still interested in being part of your list. This “recommitment email” should send the subscriber to your preference center so he or she can decide if they want to stay on your list, and if so, how frequently they want to receive your messages.

A key point to keep in mind is that automated emails triggered at the predetermined interval of time when a subscriber becomes a ‘Ghost’ will save you time and effort in what would otherwise be a time-consuming routine every three to six months. Continually test the subject line and CTA in your automated recommitment emails to optimize for the best response rate, but also consider experimenting with the length of time you wait before considering them a ‘Ghost.’ You may find that there’s a sweet spot of time sooner than you thought when you could successfully win them back for the long term.

If some of these inactive subscribers decide to remain on your list, it’s great news. They not only opened your email, but made the effort to navigate your preference center, so that’s at least proof of life. Obviously, you’ll keep these contacts on your list.

Of course, don’t be surprised if your recommitment email goes unanswered. If that’s the case, it’s time to say goodbye to that contact. Remove him or her from your list.

2. Type of inactive subscriber: Dormant or Unengaged

Definition: The second category of inactive subscribers are “sleepy.” They were active and engaged customers, but just entered a cool down period that has you wondering if they’re going to come back or not.

These inactive subscribers have the most potential. They’re on the brink, and with the right email marketing, you can swing their buying potential your way once again.

Action plan: Create a re-engagement campaign, quickly.

You don’t want to say goodbye to these subscribers; try to re-engage them. Create a re-engagement campaign, which, as the name implies, is a series of emails that are designed to get subscribers interested in your email marketing and business once again. You can use automation to trigger these emails at the exact time when each subscriber is dropping off in activity.

Time is of the essence here. Get a campaign created and sent before these sleepy customers become 100 percent comatose.

Your email messaging might say something like, “We haven’t seen you lately,” and offer a discount to entice a purchase, or just provide a link that gets subscribers back to your site.

Examples of emails to send
Here’s an example of a reengagement email from Grammarly, found at Really Good Emails, a site that showcases real emails from real businesses, and is a Campaign Monitor customer. Notice that it references this subscriber’s week-long absence and provides a link back to the company’s website.

Here’s another example from Teespring that offers a more personalized touch. It has information that’s specific to this subscriber, and encourages him or her to come back.

Personalized emails deliver six times higher transaction rates, so it’s worth tailoring content to subscribers – even inactive ones.

You’ll want to send several emails like this. A re-engagement campaign isn’t a one-and-done effort, so plan to send at least three emails to wake these inactive subscribers.

3. Type of inactive subscriber: Zombies

Definition: The third category of inactive subscribers are those that were once active, engaged customers, but are now comatose. These subscribers haven’t opened, clicked or converted since mullets were in style. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but the point is this group has very little likelihood of engaging with your emails again.

Action plan: Ramp down thoughtfully, over time.

If these subscribers have gone a serious length of time without engaging with your emails, they’re not magically going to hop on board by sending a coupon code their way. But that also doesn’t mean you should just wave goodbye and call it a day.
Sri Somanchi from Gmail recommends a ramp-down approach. Just like when you start your email program you need to gradually ramp-up (or switch to a new ESP), you need to amp-down inactive recipients over time. This could involve the following:

• If you’re sending daily, switch to once a week
• If you’re sending weekly, switch to once or twice a month
• If there is still no engagement with the change in cadence, ask the obvious question after 3 to 6 months: do you want to continue hearing from us? If there is still no answer, Gmail recommends saying goodbye.

Wrap up

By segmenting your inactive subscribers and following the suggested action plans that are listed above, you can focus your efforts on contacts that have the highest likelihood of being engaged and ensure you keep your email deliverability rates high.