Don’t Let Disengaged Subscribers Become Inactive

May 20, 2013 2:35 PM  By

email-yellow-button-300When should I consider a subscriber inactive?” If I had a nickel…, no wait, scratch that, if  I had a penny for every time I have been asked that question, I would have at least a dollar.  Maybe two.  The question is simple enough.  The answer is more complex.  It’s the dreaded answer you hate to hear from your partners.  “It depends.”  While that’s an honest and accurate answer, I’m going to show you how to better define, target and sell to subscribers who have started to doze off.

In a recent study Bronto conducted with RSR Research, we turned the tables and asked marketers when they consider their customers to be inactive.  The largest group (43%) classified subscribers as inactive after 3-6 months without opening, clicking or buying. The remaining ranges were nearly a draw with 18% claiming less than 3 months, 21% at 7-12 months and 19% on the longer end of more than 12 months.

So, should we go with majority rules and use 3-6 months as the definition of an inactive customer?  Not so fast.  When we narrowed the perspective to brands that consider email as a primary revenue-generating channel, 33% considered subscribers inactive after just one month.

Basically, marketers were tossing the “it depends” response back to me.  Oh, karma.

To bring more clarity to the conversation, let’s begin by shifting your concept (not definition) of inactive subscribers and expanding your strategies to include “disengaged subscribers.”

All new subscribers are active in some way.  There was enough interest for the person to opt-in to your email program.  You probably have a welcome email or series of welcome emails to introduce the subscriber to your brand and encourage their first purchase.  Limiting the classification of your subscribers to only “active” or “inactive” is short-sighted and can result in miss-targeting subscribers during their purchasing lifecycle and a loss of sales.

There is a phase between a period of being an active subscriber and totally checking out.  Customers in this phase are disengaged subscribers.  Disengaged subscribers have started to show less interest in your brand but may still be opening or clicking in your emails.  This is where your diagnosis begins.  Start by analyzing the subscription date of your openers over a period of time.  You will discover a trend where the newness of your email program wears off.  You will also see a population of longer-term subscribers who are opening less frequently. They haven’t completely checked out but their interest and engagement are waning.  These are two important segments of disengaged subscribers (new to the list and longer-term subscribers) to target.

Email may not be the preferred communication channel for some new subscribers.  Promoting other ways the shopper can interact with your brand, like Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, could help you maintain the shopper’s interest in your brand and promotions without overmailing.  Encourage their first purchase by offering an exclusive first-time buyer coupon.  At this phase, you should focus on converting disengagement to engagement rather than inactive to active.

Seasonality and other factors contribute to increased periods of disengagement and inactivity, so these ranges for new and existing subscribers may fluctuate throughout the year.  Triggering messages based on the engagement timeframes you discover is a great idea, but keep in mind  you may need to adjust these ranges over time.

Monitor engagement for this population to determine which efforts are keeping subscribers interested.  Understanding what is and isn’t working can help you optimize the data fields and locations of your opt-in forms, build a better welcome series and combat subscribers’ waning enthusiasm.  Targeting disengaged subscribers will also better inform your reactivation efforts when subscribers have completely quit opening, clicking and buying.  You will have better insight about which programs did not initially capture their interest and how you can either attempt to save the subscriber or consider them dead weight to be cut away.

Jim Davidson is Manager of Marketing Research for Bronto Software ( Jim can be contacted at