Over time, you might find that your users “check out” of your marketing emails—even letting entire accounts go dormant. That’s a problem, obviously, and email deliverability concerns are definitely one aspect of it, but the real issue could be more foundational.
Ever have an email address so riddled with junk mail that the only way forward was to get rid of the account entirely?
Platforms like Gmail, Outlook.com, and Yahoo Mail, of course, make it very easy to create an email address and let it fall into disuse over a period of time. And there are other factors—say, a new job or a transition to grad school—that can lead someone to drop an email address.
However it happens, it makes an organization’s email marketing a whole lot less valuable over time. And that can prove a big problem.
Recently, a report by the U.K.-based Direct Marketing Association (DMA)—not to be mistaken for the U.S.-based Data & Marketing Association, which changed its name last year—noted how big a problem this really is.
The 2016 edition of the association’s Consumer Email Tracking Study [PDF] found that 62 percent of people have either abandoned email addresses or considered doing so because of too many emails—and that this problem was more likely among younger consumers (58 percent of whom have either done or considered this) versus older consumers (27 percent).
Furthermore, unused “ghost” accounts are fairly prevalent among consumers—45 percent of those surveyed say they have dormant accounts that remain open but are never checked.
“Despite 79% of respondents using special accounts for marketing messages, a significant number of additional ghost accounts remain in circulation,” the report notes.
There are lots of reasons that this state of affairs is frustrating:
You’re wasting resources on inactive users: As I pointed out a couple of months ago, email costs money. And while you can minimize the costs of those messages by doing your homework, you’re ultimately wasting resources on people for which there will be a slim chance of re-engagement, at best.
Dormant accounts can eventually become inactive: If an email goes dormant, large webmail providers are likely to eventually shut down the account if it remains unused by the original owner. That can prove a problem over time, as it increases the number of bounces attributed to your domain, lowering the quality of your sends in the eyes of email providers and making it more likely that your messages are treated as spam.
It exposes weaknesses in content: If a user really cares about you and your value in their inbox, they’ll keep you around. But if that value isn’t apparent—if the content isn’t living up to its promise—then you’re going to struggle to keep your place as part of a person’s daily routine. Bad content equals weak ROI.
The last point is the one that the DMA report leans on—both for individual senders and the marketing community as a whole.
“Brands clearly need to work harder to appeal to consumers and persuade them to open and read their emails,” the report states. “If email becomes the channel perceived to be a stream of irrelevant information, then this will be bad for the marketing community.”
So What Steps Should You Take?
The good news is that not every email subscriber is a lost cause. Sometimes, dormant subscribers may not actually be “ghosts,” but are taking other approaches when it comes to ignoring you—by aggressively filtering their messages by using keywords, for example.
A Litmus post from last year makes the case that there are three kinds of inactive subscribers—people that were never active in the first place, those who were once customers but aren’t active currently, and those who are current customers but ignore your emails.
Litmus Research Director Chad White recommends handling these emails differently, by putting them on different kinds of leashes over time. But, ultimately, you should attempt to ping the user and ask them to re-verify themselves after a period of time.
In the case of never-actives that haven’t ever opened a message, he says, it’s good to send a re-permission email after the span of four months or 10 emails, whichever comes first. For inactive customers, he suggests re-verifying after either six months or 13 months, depending on your sending frequency. And you can wait even longer in the case of active customers.
But White warns that it’s important to know your own readership.
“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to how to manage inactives,” he writes. “Every organization needs to determine their own risk tolerance and then put in place an on-going process for how and when to deal with each of the three kinds of inactive subscribers to maximize success and keep the risks in check.”
(That said, your approach likely shouldn’t involve a bulk list cleaning, something MailChimp generally recommends against.)
And it’s worth keeping in mind that deliverability issues may also be at play—say, if you’re seeing a lot of dormant accounts on the same domain. A good tool to test your email marketing’s technical capabilities is Mail Tester, which offers useful diagnostic information, such as whether your domains are getting blocked by spammers, whether you need to make technical changes to your DNS records, and the likelihood that your message will get to its source without any problems. It’s a good way to triage issues before they become more significant.
But barring all that, it’s worth going back to the point DMA pounded its fist upon. If your email marketing is getting stale or ineffective, the way your readers are going to tell you this is with their clicks and opens. Look historically at your data. Analyze whether a tactic is working, or if it’s simply growing dull. And use the data you glean to make the case for updates.
The thing with “ghost accounts” or inactive users is that, when it comes down to it, the problem you’re trying to solve is one of relevance. If your association is sending messages irrelevant to a huge chunk of users, you need to ask why that is.
The more fundamental your questions are, the more fundamental the answers will be.