Kresten Bergsøe
Kresten Bergsøe 5 May 2020

Reasons Why Your Email Subscribers are Inactive

Taking the time to ask new subscribers why they subscribe and saving their last visit data are two of the most powerful things you can do to keep your email readers engaged.

Many marketeers obsess about the total number of subscribers and unsubscribe rates on their email lists. However those numbers are often highly misleading. The total subscribers and the unsubscribe rate are the typically only the top of the iceberg when it comes to inactive subscribers. For all practical purposes - a much larger part of the subscribers are already inactive and the damage typically happens long before the unsubscribe event occurs.

Capture the purpose

Subscribers sign up to emails for a reason and with a purpose.  Those companies who do not try to identify the reason or purpose when new subscribers sign up are missing out. This is one of the main reasons that delivering on the subscribers' intent and expectations is so hard.

Subscribers all have very different reasons for subscribing - identify them per subscriber and you are in a much stronger position to deliver on their expectations, engage, grow and keep the relationship.

Purposes include:

  • Interest in your domain,
  • Industry colleague,
  • Researching products
  • Considering buying,
  • Existing customer

This shows how different subscriber needs can be and why you should identify and capture this data, if you want to establish a relevant conversation. When people sign up for your newsletter or register - they are the most motivated to answer your questions. Especially if you keep questions to a minimum, make them meaningful and promise to align your messaging accordingly.

Subscription lifecycle

Typically new subscribers are more engaged than older subscribers. New subscribers open, click and convert more often than older. As time goes by - the typical pattern of subscribers is that engagement fades away.

For most, the time between clicks and email opens becomes larger until a point where opens and clicks stops or unsubscribe happens.

Subscribers have a lifecycle and most eventually become inactive. This means that the total subscriber count is pretty meaningless if your objective is to drive business from your lists. It's the number of engaged subscribers that is important - not the total.

How many of your subscribers are already inactive?

In a recent survey we did with a number of our customers - we found that up to 80% of subscribers were inactive. They were still subscribed, but they did not respond to the emails that they received. We typically conclude that a subscriber that have not opened or clicked a email in the last six month can be classified as inactive. The likelihood of these kind of subscribers to re-engage is very small.

Do the reality check

A very productive exercise is to define when a subscriber is inactive in the context of the business you run and count the percentage of your subscribers who are in fact already inactive. Repeating this exercise quarterly will give you insight into the impact your messaging is having on your subscriber lifetime - and as a result how many new subscribers you really need in order to compensate for the inactive ones.

The most important engagement metric

The single most important metric to monitor on a subscriber level can be captured directly on your website. By recording this metric and updating it on your individual subscribers, you will be able to differentiate your strategy against the most important behavioral segments of your subscriber list.

The metric is last visit date. Subscribers with a more recent visit date will be more engaged than subscribers with a older visit date. The longer the recency, the smaller the engagement and the smaller change the subscriber will ever come back.

We typically create five behavioral segments with the following definitions:

Recency is calculated as number of days since last visit until today

You should consider developing different strategies to each of these segments in order to keep as many subscribers as engaged as possible for as long as possible and to re-engage previously engaged again.

I will return with a separate article outlining some ideas for each of these segments, but for starters, reduce frequency of mailings the further the subscriber moves down from engaged. Consider restructuring your regular newsletter into automated flows that are triggered by visits - so frequency is high following a visit and it automatically drops if the visit is not repeated. Content elements can be shared among the different flows as one subscriber will only be in one flow at any time.


The single most important thing you can do to improve your email performance is to stop sending the same message to all subscribers on your list. If you have tracked what the subscribers purpose was when subscribing, you know what your emails should be delivering to each individual subscriber.

If you track your subscribers category interests based on their visits to your website, you should deliver content that is aligned with the individual category interests. If you use our behavioral segments above - you should differentiate the frequency of mailings to engaged, fading and inactive.

Dynamic frequency

Lots of research into why subscribers unsubscribe are pointing at too many emails as a core reason. I don’t agree. Too many irrelevant emails is more to the point. If you emails are relevant, there is almost no upper limit to how often you can send. But if you continue to send irrelevant stuff - the leash gets shorter and fast.

Consider automatically reducing the frequency for subscribers that shows signs of fatigue - non-responders who do not click or even open your emails should have longer intervals between contact than highly engaged subscribers. Or event better - a separate communication track entirely.

Track interests

If you track your subscribers interests in your business by tracking what categories of content they consume on your site and when - then, you have a live high resolution image of what each subscriber is interested in from your business. The cool thing about tracking your subscribers interests are that they constantly change - and if you personalise your email content, the emails will automatically reflect the individual subscriber's actual behavior.

Build flows

Build automated tracks that are specifically designed to address the purpose your subscribers report upon sign-up. These tracks may likely be the most productive lead generators to your business.

The take-away

Using basic segmentation and moving away from campaigns toward triggered and highly personalised messaging flows will position you very differently compared to your competitors. You would likely keep the conversation going with a larger percentage of your subscribers and you should convert more subscribers to whatever your business objectives are with your email lists.

Try it out - it's not hard...and it works!

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn

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