How to Win Back the Emotionally Unsubscribed

Posted by Huw Jenkins 22 Dec 15

shutterstock_307348730.pngMy email inbox has a problem. Like a post-Christmas belly, it’s holding onto an undesirable tyre of unopened mail. The culprit? Newsletters. 

I routinely check my email (mostly for updates on mum's latest terrarium) scrolling past endless blue dots vying for my attention - but like a bagel down a hill, I roll on by.

Research from Econsultancy shows that an average 61% of email customer databases are ‘inactive’, so I’m not alone. With the majority of databases lying dormant, their potential untapped, what can brands do to reactivate these sleeping subscribers and increase click rates?

Moreover, should the inactive even be re-engaged, or would they be better dumped into the abyss like Rose did to Jack?

This blog post will explore the main flaws in email strategy that lead to a disengaged subscriber list, and recommend quick win remedies to bring the dormant back from the dead.

Defining the emotionally unsubscribed

Marketers define inactive subscribers as those who have not interacted with their messages for a certain period of time. How long depends on the email marketer’s business model. A seasonal retailer may define inactive as someone who has not opened or clicked on a message for two years, for example.

A key question: Is the address inactive, period (i.e. has the recipient changed email address?)? Or is it just inactive with the marketer’s brand?

So, with this in mind: let’s look at ways to reignite the inactive.

Send better email in the first place

One way to avoid disengaging your subscriber base in the first place - be relevant.

We all have different DNA. Some people love marmite, and some people are just Beliebers...OKAY. Tarring your entire subscriber base with the same brush is just silly.

“Every time a customer receives a marketing message they have no interest in, they lose a little respect for the brand, they are a little less likely to open the next message and a little less likely to click through,”  comments Dr Mike Baxter, an ecommerce consultant.

We couldn’t agree more.

According to Experian’s 2015 Digital Marketer Report only 42% of brands leverage behavioural data, such as past or abandoned purchases, to tailor the customer experience to an individual.

Similarly, only 9% of marketers personalise based on attitudinal data.

Tailoring your messaging to individual customers is vital - and with Econsultancy's email Census report suggesting that 78% of consumers expect emails to be personalised in the next five years - it’s a growing consumer expectation.

Segmenting your lists based on the basic demographics (gender, age, location, buying history) should be a given. Take things further by:

  • Harnessing the power of dynamic content. Dynamic content is a powerful tool that allows you to deliver unique, personalised content to individual subscribers based on the data you store about them.
  • Leveraging user generated content (UGC). It enables you to build a loyal following of brand advocates that are eager to make their voices (and your brand’s message) heard. Plus, it increases the relevance of your emails by directly tying your consumers’ real-life experiences to the content you serve them.

Win back: establish a triggered email strategy

Launch reactivation campaigns aimed at turning dormant customers back into active customers.

A 2014 study by Return Path (based on 33 brands who implemented reactivation campaigns) saw open rates increase by 13%, with 75% of the reactivated subscribers continuing to open emails after 89 days and 25% up to 300 days later.

How? Segment your reactivation campaigns based on whether the person has been onsite (they’re still ‘warm’) or whether they haven’t engaged with any marketing messages at all and try offering customers some sort of perk or discount is a popular way of incentivising them back onsite to re-purchase. A 30% off coupon, a free ebook that usually costs £25, or even a free 30 minute consultation with a personal shopper would all work, for example.

Try sending a short series of engaging emails over a period of time with a message showing that you miss and care about winning back the customer’s business. Using words like “miss you” in a subject line achieved a 13% read rate, and messages with the words “come back” in their subject lines achieved a 12.7% read rate, according to Return Path’s research.

  • Offer discounts to those who you want to re-activate.
  • Lay down the red carpet to incentivise lapsing heros back on-site - while you can’t afford to offer incredible discounts or offers to all of your dormant customers, segmentation will enable you to target those most valuable to you.
  • Reference prior engagement, purchases, or other data so that the customer recalls their relationship with your company. Show you care!
  • The best subject lines to use for reactivation campaigns include “Miss You”.

Check out this excellent example from beauty brand Sephora. Their targeted win back email demonstrates how to incorporate personalisation and time-based discount incentives to encourage conversions online (and offline).  


download Ometria's win-back email cheat sheet

Maybe email isn’t the one           

Email continues to be among the leading channels for delivering ROI, but in the age of multi-channel, maybe it’s not the right place to target your “emotionally unsubscribed”. Many of your dormant email base could well still be active on-site, but would be better targeted through a different channel.

According to Reach Mail, 78% of an average brand's facebook fans are existing customers - so where better to warm-up disengaged subscribers than via their favourite social channels.

Identify your “emotionally unsubscribed” customers and implement a custom audience campaign on Facebook, for example, to warm them up.

If they’ve been active on-site, you may want to retarget them with the items that they’ve browsed or abandoned. If you’ve not seen them around recently (i.e. you’d consider them an ‘at risk’ or ‘lapsed’ customer), try personalising ads with offers or products they’ve bought in the past.

Consider why people appear emotionally unsubscribed

Maybe your boring marketing messages aren’t turning your subscribers off after all - there are many reasons why large chunks of your list may appear inoperative:

  • You’re not mobile-ready. Around 80% of consumers delete emails that don’t render well on a mobile devices, according to Experian. If your email looks dodgy, you’ve lost respect already.
  • New tools such as ‘Unroll Me’ have entered the market. Letting users instantly unsubscribe from whatever they want in one fell swoop.  
  • People switch email addresses. Whether ditching your embarrassing childhood account when you need to get a job or changing your account to get another free month with Netflix - things change.
  • Spam. Worldwide, just 79% of commercial emails lands in the inbox. This means for every five emails sent, one never reaches the intended recipient. Instead, it’s either sent to a spam folder or goes missing—most likely blocked by the mailbox provider (according to research from Return Path).  
  • They want your email, but haven’t needed your product for a while.


Waking up your dormant subscribers is no mean feat. The easiest way to stop them from drifting into obscurity is to start delivering relevant content from the very beginning. However, to win back the idle in your list: try establishing a triggered reactivation campaign and consider targeting them on better-suited channels outside of email. But firstly, be relevant.


 Triggered email for retailers by Ometria - find out more


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