3 Steps to Revive Your Email List

Re-engage email list

Guest blogger Karla Capers specializes in using the internet to raise visibility for progressive issues and engage people more deeply in campaigns. She has worked for advocacy organizations since 1996. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), where I’m Director of Engagement, faced a daunting challenge a couple of years ago: How to re-engage the many folks who were not reading or acting on our emails. It’s a common problem, for nonprofit organizations and beyond, and one that’s crucial to address.

Here’s how we tackled our “dead” email list:

First, we segmented our “Inactives:”

  • We defined “inactive” as anyone who’s never donated (online or off) and hasn’t opened, clicked, or taken any action from an email in the last 12 months
  • We segmented the “inactive” people on our list (initially, this group was about 25% of our deliverable email file)
  • We excluded them from “regular” email campaigns and messages.

Then, we launched our three-part reactivation campaign:

1) Initial email

  • Sent as soon as an individual moves to the “inactive” list
  • Subject line: We miss you [first name]
  • Call to action: Click here to let us know you still want to receive our emails
  • Clicking the link moves the recipient into the “Active” list, and takes her to a “Thanks and welcome back….” landing page.

2) Second email (if recipient doesn’t click on the initial email)

  • Sent one week after the first email
  • Subject line: “Science still needs you [firstname]”
  • Call to action: Tries to re-engage people with an action alert, talks about recent attacks on science and asks the person to sign a generic pledge to “stand with science.”

3) Final email (if recipient doesn’t click on the second email)

  • Sent one week after the second email
  • Subject line: “Thanks and Goodbye”
  • Informs the person that since we haven’t heard from them for a long time, we are going to unsubscribe them. Offers one last chance to click to continue receiving UCS emails.
  • The landing page is a survey where they can update their email subscriptions by issue topic and type of message, and share feedback on why they have been out of touch.

Our Results—Good but We Want to Do Better
We re-engaged almost 5% of our inactive file in the last five months. The third email performed the best re-engaging 3.17% of the inactive file. Email one re-engaged 1.56% of the list and email two only 0.88%.

Next Steps—Start Earlier, Before a Year of Inaction
One change I’d like to make is adding an email to the series to re-engage people before they fall into the inactive pool. I think that if we reconnect sooner, we may pull more people back into the active file. I’m figuring out the best timing for this additional email; whether its three or six months after people click or act on an email.

How do you reengage inactive supporters, whether those on your email list who don’t respond or lapsed donors? Please share your reactivation methods here.

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Nancy Schwartz on February 23, 2016 in Email and E-Newsletters | 10 comments
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  • Thank you for sharing the details of your campaign.

    One question… are you certain it’s wise to actually unsubscribe inactives? While that’s certainly the conventional wisdom, a recent study by Mailchimp suggests it may be a mistake.


    Their study focused on e-commerce sites, not nonprofits. But the theory is that even a simple brand impression, like seeing an email enter your inbox, can ultimately make a difference in terms of the organization being “top of mind” for a specific cause or issue. I know there can be issues with deliverability if you have too many inactives though, so I’m wondering where you draw the line.

    Anyway, the Mailchimp study does seem to turn the conventional wisdom on its head a bit.

  • Scott, thanks so much for bringing the MailChimp study to my attention. Love their work and respect their expertise.

    I think you’re point on “drawing the line” is a good one – always hard to know where that line should go. Anyone have recommendations?

  • Peggy Davi

    While I’ll take your word that you got fairly decent return trying to re engage past supporters via email, I’m wondering why you would actively unsubscribe people who didn’t reply and who have had a relationship with you? I SO agree with Scott. Anecdotally, when I have unwanted emails, I unsubscribe. Why not stay in their inbox until they take action?? Was it a cost issue?

  • I would imagine that most people actively unsubscribe inactives because they believe low engagement rates can hurt deliverability (i.e. gmail will push your emails into spam if too few people open/click your emails.) But isn’t it best to just segment your list and keep the inactives around for big, important blasts?

  • Peggy and Scott, thanks for sharing your takes. Many folks don’t subscribe to unwanted emails but either 1) just trash them; or 2) identify them as “spam” because it’s quicker than unsubscribing.

    My recommendation is that it is important to at the very least segment your list as Scott recommends. Scott, have any case studies or data to share on the impact of the segmentation approach?

  • Good article Nancy, and good discussion in the comments. Here is my take on this.

    1) Some people unsubscribe, but a lot of people simply label it as spam or just are in the habit of ignoring and deleting. (I am guilty myself of doing the later sometimes).

    2) One of my concerns about maintaining long time inactive subscribers on an email list is the degree to which that will dilute meaningful metrics on how new email campaigns are performing, and complicate meaningful AB and other testing of campaigns.

    3) However, rather than simply unsubscribe all of them, I would first segment them into their own Inactive file in my email lists, as you did. In addition to a pre-defined system like the one you suggested, I would try some exploratory campaigns centering on just this email list, trying to re-engage them. Are there types of content you haven’t used in your email campaigns, can you space the mailings different, will a poll or quiz or contest directed at this group result in some engagement, will some guest emails from other volunteers or donors get their attention, etc.? You might not only re-engage some of them. You may learn something about additional types of content that you should be trying.

    If they are not worth a continuing effort, that is one thing — and you may eventually need to make that decision. But I think there is indeed a choice between cut or no-cut.

  • John, fantastic synthesis. I agree fully with you on the segmenting out of the “inactives.”

    I like your re-engagement approach, with some relevant content or opportunity…if resources allow (as always, right)? Any chance you can share an example or two of an organizations that’s succeeded with this approach? Thanks!

  • Alaina

    This was so timely for us! We’re currently trying to organize and clean up our email list. Did you do this in Mailchimp? If so, how did you go about removing people from the group?

  • Hi Alaina,

    You can select folks who didn’t open or click or whatever criteria you define for a time period you define, and then create a group or segment for that list. The MailChimp help is great, as is the customer support if you need more guidance.

  • Alaina

    Thanks! I’m so sorry I didn’t respond sooner. I didn’t get an alert that you responded. We’re going to use Mailchimp’s member rating for our criteria. Wish us luck!

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