The Benefits of Sunsetting Inactive Subscribers

Mike Arsenault
July 21, 2021
minute read

Did you know that you can get a better email marketing ROI by making your email list smaller?

It might sound outlandish. But, if you stopped sending emails to subscribers that you knew weren’t going to open your emails or click through, your email sending costs would go down and your email marketing metrics would improve.

Subscribers that never touch your emails are inactive subscribers. And, removing them from your list will boost your email marketing performance. But, it also helps protect your sender reputation.

Email service providers don’t like to talk about it, because they make money by sending more emails. But, purging inactive subscribers from your list is vital for building a high converting email program.

Here’s why you need to get rid of inactive subscribers and how to do it.

Email Services Rank Your Emails Based on Recipient Behavior

Email services like Google and Microsoft have started using engagement metrics—open rates, click-through rates, replies, and so on—to rank your emails in the inbox.

These platforms are secretive about their algorithms. So, we’re not sure how severely this ranking impacts your sender reputation. But we know that your email ranking does impact your sender reputation.

The way the ranking works is based on positive and negative email engagement. Positive engagements are things like:

  • Opens.
  • Clicks.
  • Replies.
  • Forwards.
  • Marking as important.

These actions improve your email ranking. On the other hand, negative engagements lower your ranking. Negative engagements are things like:

  • Deleting without opening.
  • Leaving emails unopened.
  • Marking as spam.
  • Unsubscribes.

Inactive subscribers often exhibit negative engagement behaviors (all except unsubscribing). Therefore, too many inactive subscribers on your list can cause your emails to rank lower in the inbox, and potentially end up in the spam folder.

In the end, inactive subscribers not only decrease your email marketing performance and ROI, but they can also cause deliverability issues when you send to new subscribers.

So, it’s important to periodically purge inactive subscribers from your lists. This is also called “Sunsetting.”

How to Purge Inactive Subscribers

Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to track inactive subscribers and systematically remove them from your email lists. This ensures that you only send emails to your most engaged audience, and helps you get better responses from new subscribers.

The process is fairly straightforward, and it’s not difficult if you use email software that tracks engagement metrics. Your email service provider may also be able to help you with it.

Here’s how it goes:

1. Establish sunsetting policies. This gives you trigger points for removing subscribers from your email lists. It’s best to set a hard rule, and follow it. It’s impossible to define whether or not someone is an inactive subscriber, and even more impossible to evaluate thousands of subscribers.

Where you draw the line will depend on your email program. For example, if you send a daily email, it’s probably best to remove people quickly. Daily emails are intended for highly-engaged audiences, and inactive subscribers send a lot of negative engagement data to email services.

On the other hand, if you send a monthly newsletter and a couple of marketing emails a month, you may want to keep people on your list a bit longer to give them an opportunity to respond.

You can establish your sunsetting policies based on time or on email volume.

If you send a lot of emails, a sunsetting policy based on email volume might be best. If someone didn’t respond to the first 25 emails, they probably won’t respond to email 26, even if they’ve only been on your list for three weeks.

On the other hand, for a less intensive email program, you may want to start sunsetting subscribers after three months of inactivity.

In either case, though, set your criteria and follow it. You won’t miss inactive subscribers.

2. Track your email marketing metrics to enforce your sunsetting policies. Once you’ve established your policies, it’s just a matter of using your analytics system to find out who’s in violation of your sunsetting policies and removing them from your lists.

You can send an email to notify people that they’ve been removed from your list, with a link to resubscribe. But, this is optional and will depend on your sunsetting policies.

If you’re kicking people off your list quickly, you may want to give them an opportunity to re-engage. But, if you have a generous sunsetting timeline, it’s probably best to quietly let them off the hook.

3. Set an inactive subscriber purging schedule. Depending on the capabilities of your email software, you may need to set up a schedule and purge your lists on a regular basis. Or, you may be able to set up an automated, continuous process. The method you use will depend mostly on your email infrastructure and email service provider.

For instance, Rejoiner has a system for tracking subscriber behavior, and algorithmically sorting your subscriber base into cohorts, based on their behavior. The cohorts exhibiting the most negative engagement behavior can be proactively removed from your list.

Or, you can use the cohorts to segment your list, and match your email content to subscriber behavior. In short, separating your subscriber base into distinct cohorts based on their engagement behavior gives you more granular control over your email program and enables you to respond to the implicit feedback you get from your subscribers.

What to Do Now

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Mike Arsenault

Founder & CEO

For the last 10 years, Mike has worked with brands like Moosejaw, Hydroflask, Peak Design, Triumph, Hearst & Guthy Renker to provide the strategy & technology with which they use email to drive revenue growth. He's also the Founder of Rejoiner, a SaaS marketing platform built for ecommerce businesses.

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