Published: 15 March 2012

The art of email disengagement

Ever wondered why a friend doesn’t return a call, and seems too busy to see you? In the end you may either ask them if you have done anything to offend them, or let the friendship quietly fade away.

As marketers we work hard to acquire and keep supporters, but sometimes fail to notice those that are getting a bit quiet or inactive. With all the opportunities open to today’s marketers, there are often more statistics and opportunities than seemed possible even a decade ago, and much effort can be stacked up at the early and intermediate stages of the customer relationship.

With direct mail, it would not have been financially viable to target dormant customers. However, with the perceived low or no value of email communications it can be all too easy to bat out messages to a base of mixed customers. The good ones will respond, so what’s the problem?

The problems of ignoring unresponsive supporters can be manifest. These can range from an inability to be able to read statistics correctly as volumes are swollen with unresponsive segments, to a communication problem of ignoring the clues these customers are giving you. It can be the marketing equivalent of bad manners, and bad manners in this environment could mean someone hitting the spam button.

However, the very size of an organisation’s email list can be a minefield. Senior management like to hear that there is a six or seven figure email list and it can often be seen as a panacea – in the pressure for more sales, the cry of “Email everyone” can be heard in many companies.

It takes a brave and robust marketer to assess and attempt to address poor email responders. What signs are there for poor performance and how do you identify them?

As with creating targeting segmentation, it is worth creating email specific segmentation. Look at the overall performance of your list and then at the pattern of the worst 5% – initially looking at open rates, identifying how much of the file have never opened, never opened in a month etc.

Start talking to these people differently. If you mail them twice a week, reduce it to once. Throw in a special offer, prize draw or survey as alternative subject lines. If this doesn’t work, humour can sometimes re-engage the shy ones. I have seen subject lines like ”We haven’t heard from you”, or ”Was it something we said?“ generating open rates from dormant recipients.

Remind them they have a choice. Offer them the opportunity to reduce or change their preferences. For those who have indications of profitability send them a direct mail or call them – it could be they have just changed email accounts.

If you have tried a variety of approaches, then relax and put them with all the other sleeping partners – group the dormants together and keep them in the loop at a low frequency. Exclude them from all other activities, and do not include their number when asked for list size. Your list will grow again, and meantime sit back and take the credit for the higher levels of open and click through rates in your results.

Top tips

  • Define dormant email behaviour based on customers not opening
  • Aim to re-engage
  • Reward the responders
  • Reduce the frequency of emails to poor performers
  • Exclude poor performers from mass emails and compile their results separately

CharityComms' Enhance your Email Marketing Seminar explored how you can make sure your email campaigns are up to scratch. See resources from the day: www.charitycomms.org.uk/email_marketing_seminar_resources


Lucy Conlan, specialist associate – digital marketing and new media, RandallFox

Lucy gained experience working in-house with organisations including Help the Aged and the Barbican Centre. As a freelance consultant, she has helped organisations such as the Landmark Trust and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development.