I’ll jump straight to the punchline: In email marketing, “inactive” contacts are normal and should be part of your marketing programme. Excluding inactives makes it difficult to build brand awareness, makes it difficult to retain and re-engage, and makes it very difficult for you to identify the signals to that show where they are in the customer lifecycle.
However, misuse of inactive contacts in your marketing programme can and will cause a drop in sender reputation, leading to deliverability issues (problems with email delivery and inbox placement). The avoidance of these issues is the basis for a lot of good practice industry and deliverability guidance.
If inactive contacts cause problems why are they used?
The key to long-term success is balance. This article explains these concepts and explains how to successfully target inactive contacts, the warning signals to avoid issues, and how to resolve issues if those warning signals are missed.
You need to send emails to inactive contacts
After a full-list send, if you analyse the opens, clicks and conversions of both active and inactive contacts you will naturally see the majority of email, website and purchase activity from the most active contacts. But you will see activity and revenue from those who were inactive prior to that campaign.
Why is that? It’s because a full list send performs a discovery function; identifying those contacts who are naturally coming back into that buying phase. This is why even the least sophisticated (batch and blast!) marketing programmes works!
This discovery function is incredibly important to a successful and healthy mailing list. Discovery marketing can be thought of as the opposite of targeting. Whereas targeting provides content based on what you know, discovery marketing involves sending different content to uncover new areas of interest. And relevant to this point; discovery marketing includes sending emails to inactive contacts to identify those becoming active again.
Summary: inactive is normal, and every successful marketing programme has a combination of active and inactive contacts.
…but inactive contacts cause delivery issues
Yes. This is true. If an established email marketing programme has deliverability issues (blocked or bounced email, or emails going to the junk folder instead of the mailbox) it’s almost always related to the data.
Email filters are designed to deliver emails of value and interest, and to block, suppress or hide those emails that are unwanted. When your sender domain and IP are well-established and your content is pretty consistent, a delivery issue points at your data in one (or more) of the following three ways:
- Invalid data that should never have been added to the list
- Your campaign engagement rate – determined by the volume and percentage of active vs inactive data
- Long-term inactive data that should have been removed
Summary: when a deliverability issue is suspected, although sender authentication and email content should be tested, data issues are likely to be the at the heart of the problem.
Balance is the key to long-term success
Inactive data in email marketing brings both value and risk. There are some simple guidelines to help achieve balance:
- Introduce a lower send frequency for inactive contacts. Send emails to inactive contacts less often than to active contacts. A sensible target to aim for is to try and balance the total monthly email volume to active and inactive contacts. Most established mailing lists have more inactive contacts than active. And this split between active and inactive gives a good frequency rule of thumb. For example, if a mailing list has 3x more inactive contacts than active, the active sending should be around 3x more frequent to achieve balance over the month
- Introduce a different type of content for inactive contacts. Purely sales-related content can alienate even loyal customers if they are not going to make a purchase, and can even train your customers to ignore your emails. Instead of sales content, email content aligned to your blog and social media content can give your contacts a reason to open and click-through to your website, strengthening brand loyalty and retention.
- And a more advanced step: If you do introduce separate content for active and inactive contacts a lead-nurturing automation programme can be created, similar to a welcome campaign, before simply adding re-engaged contacts straight back into the sales email cycle
Summary: deliver value from inactive contacts by balancing send frequency and introducing content relevant to those outside of the buying cycle
If you do experience delivery issues
If you miss the signals and end up experiencing bounces, blocks or loss of inbox placement, all is not lost!
Immediately – to rebuild sender reputation:
- Send to active data: temporarily start sending only to your new sign-ups and your most active contacts. This will recover your sender reputation and get you back into the inbox. This process can take a matter of days for minor issues, but could take up to 2-4 weeks for more serious issues.
- Check sign-up processes: send to new data and active data in separate campaigns to clearly show the bounce and response rates of new data. New data should have low bounces and very high response rates. Anything other than this means you should review sign-up forms and process and ensure new data is valid and being collected correctly.
While this is happening – rebalance your sending to prevent future issues:
I said above that balance is the key. An issue means that the balance is wrong. And while the reputation building is underway you should review data, frequency and content and get ready to restart your improved sending when you start hitting that inbox again
- Remove oldest data: identify the oldest, least active contacts and simply remove them – these are likely to contain spam traps and other emails either of low value and high risk. When looking at the very oldest data in a list it’s not unusual to find a small segment of contacts who have been on the mailing list for years without having ever clicked a link and visited your website
- Review inactive send frequency: Change segments and automation programmes to reduce the weekly and monthly frequency of emails to inactive contacts. When looking at monthly totals, the target should be to have a higher number of emails to active than inactive
- Review content for inactives: Being inactive for a long time is a signal that tells you that the content is not what that person wants. Change tactic. Introduce content that gives contacts a new reason to open, read and click through
- Restart: once email deliverability has recovered, your email marketing to inactives, but with improved data, content and frequency, can slowly be reintroduced
Summary: Delivery issue? Don’t panic. Rebuild reputation with active data while fixing the underlying cause.
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