Inactive or Unemotionally Subscribed?

The term "emotionally unsubscribed" as a way of describing the subscribers who do not interact with your emails for long periods of time seems to be making a comeback – unfortunately.

I first came across the term 2 – 3 years ago and I have never liked it, particularly when it comes to describing people who have given you permission to email them.

I dislike the term because:

1. I really find it hard to believe anyone is so disengaged with your program that they can’t be bothered to unsubscribe – it only takes a click!

2. It is a very negative way of looking at the issue of inactives and implies that it is a result of some kind of failing on the part of the person sending the email; a classic case of what I call fear and self loathing in email marketing.

With very few exceptions when it comes to sales and marketing, long term inactivity is perfectly normal. After all, how often do you actively interact with marketing communications of any kind from a car dealer, insurance company, estate agent, bank, consumer electronics retailer, hotel chain etc? 

 So why should email marketing be any different?

I prefer to call them Unemotionally Subscribed

Given that between 35% and 55% of your list will NOT have interacted with your emails for between 6 months and a year,  I think that a better description is that they unemotionally subscribed – that is they do want to receive your emails, but don’t need your content or offer yet.  They would prefer to ignore your messages until they are ready to buy, because it is easier than unsubscribing and having to remember your url or Google you at a later date.

We have gathered plenty of evidence of this phenomenon, from our deep dives into client data and here are some examples:

- £70,000 generated by subscribers who had not opened (downloaded images) or clicked on the previous 25 to 40 emails – it was a great offer.

- 10% of 2008 revenue generated by subscribers who did not open or click at all in 2007

- The most common or modal open, click or purchase frequency across every email audit we have ever conducted is 1.

The takeaway is simple.  While some of those inactive addresses may be people who fit the emotionally unsubscribed description, the vast majority are unemotionally subscribed – they don’t need you – yet!

So don’t beat yourself up over the fact that they don’t feel compelled to read every email you send.

This entry was posted in Best Practice, General, Newsletters on by .
Dela Quist

About Dela Quist

Dela Quist, has nearly 15 years of online media, advertising and marketing experience, the last 10 of which have been in the email space. He is CEO of Alchemy Worx, a digital marketing agency with a 100% focus on email and a diverse client portfolio of global and UK based brands such as Tesco, Vodafone, Hilton Hotels, Lilly, AOL, Intercontinental Hotels Group, The Carphone Warehouse and Virgin Holidays.

Dela is regularly invited to speak on the creative, legal, commercial and technical issues that affect email marketers.

  • Kristen Gregory

    Hi Dela,
    Very interesting post! I am, in fact, taking this kind of action in my own personal inbox.
    So, would you say these people (the ones who want your emails because they plan on taking advantage at some point in the future) would then be the type who would "click to confirm their interest" if one were to run a re-opt-in campaign for those who haven't opened or clicked in a year, for example?
    I would assume that if people truly wanted your email for a future purpose, they would take action accordingly to remain on your list, therefore making it still a wise choice to run a re-opt-in campaign for an audience at a certain level of non-engagement.
    What are your thoughts?

  • Steven

    This was a insightful article. Thanks.

  • Dylan Boyd

    Dela: Nice post and I appreciated your comments on mine when I brought this up at the beginning of June. I think that we all only have a certain amount of time to be attached and engaged to emails and cycle in and out in our levels of engagement and interaction.
    Here were my thoughts on it

  • Stephanie Miller

    Dela, as always I love how your mind works and you certainly show here that there are levels of inactivity.
    However, I beg to differ. This whole concept you advocate here is just another excuse for poor email marketing.
    You are talking about the “edges.” Not the core of a good email marketing program.
    If 10% of your revenue came from people who had been ignoring your email messages for a year, then 90% of it comes from those who have actually found some value in your program. Which of those groups buys more? Which are strong brand advocates? I’m sure it’s the 90%. Where should you put your energy and talent and resources?
    Certainly in the application of creating meaningful subscriber experiences for your most likely customers. Why settle for any portion of your audience completely ignoring you?!
    IF you do settle, and if you are content to only sell one thing to me once a year, then email me for the three months around that lifecycle. And save the rest of the effort and expense – and reduce your deliverability risk from expired addresses.
    Would you prefer that I buy 2x a year or increase the number of products I own?
    Use email to engage me and strengthen the relationship, not just put me on “pause” until my renewal notice comes up.
    Stephanie Miller
    VP, Return Path

  • Dela Quist

    Hi Kristen
    In theory yes, running a re-opt-in campaign should do the trick; in practice however things are not so straight forward. For a start you cannot assume that everyone who does not respond (the vast majority of the people who get the re-opt-in campaign) definitely wants to be removed from the list. It‘s a perfect illustration of why deciding what to do with inactive subscribers is one of the greatest dilemmas facing email marketers.
    There are 5 reasons why someone who subscribed to your list may be inactive:
    - Unemotionally Subscribed – they want your email, but haven’t needed your product, service or information in that time
    - False negatives – your email is optimised to be read with image blocking on and the subscriber is opening your email without you knowing (the reverse is also true because some subscribers who you think are opening are not).
    - They don’t want your email, but do not care to unsubscribe, they are so disengaged or mistrustful of your brand that they prefer to delete your email or mark it as spam
    - Email address churn – they no longer use or rarely check that email address
    - They don’t see your email because it always goes to the junk folder
    What we don’t know however is which people on your list fit into each of those categories, which why it is so difficult to decide who to remove.
    In a perfect world all the false negatives and unemotionally subscribed people on your list will open and click on your re-opt-in email, leaving you free to delete everyone who did not interact. In reality you will be very lucky if 20% of them respond by opening and or clicking, leaving you back where you started; with inactive subscribers who do not want your email and should not be on the list mixed in with (a now slightly smaller group of) inactives who do want your email and should be on the list.
    I am not saying you should not ever remove unresponsive people from your list, but I do think you should try to answer the following questions before you start a wholesale cull of inactives from your list:
    • Do you have reputation or deliverability issues?
    • Are you trying to cut your costs?
    • Are you trying to improve your open and click rates by reducing send numbers?
    • Are you doing it because everyone says you should?
    • Have you explored other options such as sending an exceptional offer, prize draw or voucher?
    • Have you followed the money? – Many of your “inactives” may be transacting via other channels. We provide clients with reports where we overlay the timing of emails sent with the timing of sales from other channels e.g. in-store, the website, call centre, PPC and affiliates. You would be amazed at how people make purchases within 24 hours of an email they did not open landing in their inbox
    The answers to those questions will make a huge difference to the value you place on the unresponsive people on your list and make it easier to decide whether to remove them or not.
    Hope you find that useful and sorry for taking so long to respond to your question.

  • Dela Quist

    Hi Stephanie

    I can see where you are coming from and appreciate the opportunity to debate this with you, however I am surprised you think that my point is an excuse for poor email marketing – I have never been accused of advocating that before!

    I prefer to think of my blog posts in terms of challenging people to think beyond conventional wisdom especially when that wisdom is driven by vested interest and purveyors of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    Where to begin?

    First of all it is important to point out that my thoughts only relate to retention campaigns i.e. email activity aimed at people who are already customers or have specifically asked to receive information about a brand or product.

    In your post you state that I am talking about the “edges,” not the core of a good email marketing program. You are absolutely right about that!

    Where you completely misunderstood me is when you make the assumption that we do not put our talent energy and resources into the rest of the program first – we DO! Nor was I advocating that other email marketers should ignore their active customers. Believe it or not, continuing to mail people who haven’t opened an email in a while and doing your best to engage or strengthen your relationship with your active subscribers (to paraphrase you) are not mutually exclusive. I would also like to make it clear that I was not in any way suggesting that it is a good idea to mail certifiably dead email addresses.

    The point I am making is that very few of the inactive email addresses ARE certifiably dead; the vast majority do not open emails they receive because they haven’t need your product or service (think hotel, car rental or furniture) for a while and not because your email program has failed them in any way.

    Yet almost all “best practice” documents seem to advocate indiscriminately purging your list of every inactive/dormant/unresponsive subscriber every 12 months or so. Despite the consistency of this best practice advice the vast majority of email marketers continue to send to long term non openers. Given that every ESP and most email marketing experts have been saying the same thing for years most email marketers must be aware that they are doing the “wrong” thing.

    So are they all really bad professionals/working for disreputable companies or could it be that the experts proof is less than convincing?

    The problem with best practice is that it is usually written by people who have little or no responsibility for the outcome of an email campaign. And once best practice becomes received wisdom very few people can be bothered to publicly challenge the assumptions that it is based on. They just ignore it.

    As far as I can see the main (only?) reason email marketers are advised to remove inactive addresses from any list is because they might be honey traps monitored by ISP’s. And as we have been told emailing a honey trap email address will damage a brands reputation with the ISP’s and messages will be more likely to bounce or be delivered to the junk folder.

    However, as most practicing email marketers know, things are never that simple!

    In the real world:

    • The people on your list are either customers or have opted to receive email from you.

    • You cannot assume that everyone who has not opened for any given time period definitely wants to be removed from the list.

    • It is almost impossible to actually prove the scale of any negative financial impact caused by sending email to dead addresses.

    • The cost of continuing to send email to these people is very low.

    • The revenue generated by addresses that become active after a long period of inactivity can be very significant.

    Faced with a choice between hard numbers such as the low cost of mailing inactives and how much revenue is generated by their email programs and the mostly theoretical cost of a bad reputation (based on an average of 20.7% of commercial emails failing to reach 337 seed inboxes), it is hardly surprising that so many email marketers working for well known and reputable brands ignore “best practice” advice when it comes to inactives. Because they know that while you can say every dead address, honey trap or person who does not want your email will not open it; you cannot say a person who does not open your email is a dead address, honey trap or does not want to be on your list.

    No one disagrees that it is a good idea to remove certifiably dead email addresses so telling them that achieves nothing. What email marketers really need help with is how to ensure that they are not culling apparently dead people who are happy to be on the list and plan to re-engage in future – the unemotionally subscribed.


  • Dela Quist

    You might want to read I have written about extensively and call “Fear and Self Loathing in Email Marketing