Sean Donahue

Take the Hint from Unresponsive Subscribers

August 20th, 2010

For several years now we’ve seen marketers report that a bigger email list isn’t necessarily a better email list. There’s often more value in a smaller list of engaged, responsive subscribers than in a huge list with a significant portion of addresses that never open, click, or convert from your messages.

But a new study from Return Path shows that many email marketers are still hammering unresponsive subscribers with undifferentiated, sales-focused emails — rather than providing more relevant messages intended to re-engage those subscribers, or removing them from their lists.

To observe marketers’ email practices, the researchers at Return Path purchased one item from 40 online retailers and opted-in to their email marketing programs. They kept that email account active for 19 months after the purchase, but did not open or click a single message they received and never purchased another item.

In short, they were totally unresponsive subscribers. But during those 19 months, the researchers observed:
• Retailers sent on average between nine and 11 emails per month during the course of the study
• Only 27% of retailers stopped sending messages during the study period
• Only 12.5% of retailers sent a “win-back” message that attempted to reengage the subscriber

We agree with Return Path’s conclusion: Marketers that don’t pay attention to unresponsive subscribers are missing opportunities and potentially harming their sender reputations.

Instead, identify those non-responders and approach them differently than you do your engaged customers. Here are three steps to take to begin the process:

1. Segment database by recent activity

Monitor subscriber actions to identify those who are engaged, and those who are not. Then, create a special segment for subscribers who have not responded to an email (clicked or purchased) in a specific period of time — say, the past six months, nine months, one year, etc.

2. Send unresponsive segment special offers or win-back campaigns

Once you’ve found your “unresponsive” segment, work to re-engage them with more relevant messages, such as:
o Special offers for win-back campaigns
o Requests for them to specify their email frequency and other preferences
o Requests for them to confirm whether they still want to receive email from you

3. Clean your list

Unresponsive subscribers that don’t reengage after win-back campaigns or re-permissioning emails should be purged from your list. Otherwise, your deliverability can suffer.

As Return Path and other deliverability experts have noted, some ISPs are increasingly using subscriber response rate as a factor in a sender’s reputation. If they see low or no-response from a big portion of your database over time, they may reduce your sender score to the point that your messages are sent to spam folders — or blocked entirely.

Categories: Email Marketing Tags: ,

  1. August 20th, 2010 at 12:15 | #1


    This was a helpful reminder to those of us who email to set lists that every now and then we have to take second look at what our results are really telling us!



  2. August 20th, 2010 at 17:15 | #2


    This is a really important reminder for email marketers. Not only does this impact sender reputation – but it can also skew the email performance metrics.

    I had one client that was looking at a 15% open rate and a .01% click-through rate for a newsletter subscriber list. When they filtered out the inactive audience – their open rate was really a 43% open rate and a 6.8% click-through. At the time, they were trying to evaluate if they needed to rethink their newsletter strategy and layout. With the initial view, you can easily conclude that the newsletter strategy isn’t that compelling. However, when looking at the results for those people that are active – you realize that the content is compelling for that segment.

  3. August 20th, 2010 at 22:00 | #3

    Easy to say Sean, but hard to do!

    How can there be damage to the brand when you’re being ignored? Aside from poor deliverability, what is the harm of keeping them on the list?

  4. August 21st, 2010 at 13:10 | #4

    really liked the recommendation to keep a clean list, did not know it would affect your reputation.

  5. August 25th, 2010 at 18:23 | #5

    Sheldon, I think when the brand is being ignored, the damage is increased costs and lost revenue opportunities:

    (1) Poor deliverability impacts the reach of your message and decreases the potential of you to engage/convert. Emails that don’t make it to the inbox = revenue left on the table.

    (2) Continuing to send information that people want to ignore damages your credibility with the recipient. It will cost a lot more down the road to stand out in their mind (i.e. may need to call or invest in new content) if they have already “tuned out”. It is the cost to overcome the perception of “nagging”.

    (3) I believe that some have reported that data quality processes (such as managing inactive contacts) can increase revenues by up to 66%.

    At any rate – I think Sean’s insights are worth testing and determining optimization potential for any database.

  6. August 26th, 2010 at 13:18 | #6

    The only question I have is what about email newsletters within the b2b environment? I have found that my list of my SEO newsletter works well but have an open rate of about 15% on average. This means 85% of people don’t open, but what I find is that folks see the newsletter in their inbox, don’t open until they are really ready to learn about SEO. So much of what you say makes sense for retail but I am not too sure for b2b. Our typical sales cycle is 3 to 6 months so a long term newsletter program I find is effective.

    Do you have any tips or recommendations for me for my SEO newsletter?

  7. August 28th, 2010 at 14:28 | #7

    Great advice but I wouldn’t mail to the unresponsive segment more than once or twice before removing those from the list. A large broadcast with almost zero response can be harmful to your reputation with certain inbox providers.

  8. September 22nd, 2010 at 19:08 | #8

    But having a large list is always great to work with 🙂

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