Don’t take it personally. Many of your email subscribers will lose interest or forget to tell you they’re no longer using an old email address. In fact, 20-60% of marketing email subscription lists is “inactive”, say various industry surveys.

Get over the rejection — move on with this six-step win-back (or break-up) plan for your inactives.

Warning: Denial is not an option. Leave your list with a lot of undelivered or unopened mail (or worse, mail marked as spam by users) and the email services may eventually send all your messages to the spam folder.

Step #1 Identify Inactive Subscribers

In your email management program, you can easily create a segment of your mailing list based on a parameter such as the last time the subscriber opened a message or clicked a link in a message. So the question is, how to define inactive?

That depends on the length of your sales cycle or the action you expect to get out of your messages (for instance, a click, a call, a purchase or just staying top-of-mind by continuing to open). For many businesses, three to six months with no action is a good rule of thumb.

Caution: An inactive email subscriber may be an active customer who visits your website or buys in your store. Your customer relationship management (CRM) system can flag those active inactives for separate treatment.

Step #2 Create a Campaign

Plan to send three messages, one a week for three weeks, enough to attract attention without annoying.

  • Messages one and two aim to get themselves opened and get something clicked in the message.
  • Message three goes to the hard cases that don’t respond to one and two, and announces that your messages will stop (with a last chance for a change of heart, of course).

Note: Only send your win-back list win-back messages during this time, don’t include them in your ongoing campaigns.

Step #3 Write Your Messages

Some pitches might be:

  • An awesome offer. And if that doesn’t work, follow with an even awesomer offer.
  • “Please update your email address.”
  • “Take our survey” – ask how your email campaigns can better fit their needs.
  • “We miss you – please come back,” with a pitch to click a button to continue receiving.
  • Send something completely different. If your usual messages are promotional, try a message that’s just useful information of interest to the customer.

Important: Work a prominent “unsubscribe” button into your message. You’d rather have your lapsed subscribers click that button now than click their email provider “report spam” button later to get off your list.

Step #4 Test and Send

As with any email campaign, use A/B testing to find the most effective pitches.

And send cautiously: Since your list by definition is not very responsive, you’ll need to protect yourself from looking like a spammer to the email service providers.

One protective technique suggested by Hubspot is to send in segments starting with the most recently engaged subscribers, who will give you the least problems with bounce-backs or spam complaints, working back in time till you hit the part of the list with the worst response, then stop sending.

Another technique: Send re-engagement campaigns from a spare IP address so as not to tarnish your main address.

Step #5 Measure Success

Talk about a low bar – if your win-back list currently takes no action on your messages, then any action is some kind of victory, even if it’s just a fraction of the usual open or click-through rate you see.

Ultimately, the goal of a win-back campaign is to re-energize the customer to read your emails going forward. And these campaigns can do surprisingly well. Email deliverability experts Return Path ran a study of win-back campaigns by 33 retailers and found that 45% of those who received the messages went on to read subsequent messages from the retailer.

Great, but…76% of those 45% actually didn’t read the win-back messages. Maybe just seeing a subject line like “we miss you” was enough to re-engage them.

Step #6 You Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Maybe.

Set a deadline: Any subscriber who doesn’t respond to the re-engagement campaign goes off your active-send list after a few weeks to a few months, depending on your business.

But don’t be too hasty. The Return Path study of retailers found that the average length of time between receiving the win-back messages and opening another message was 2 months. Another study found opens went on for 10 months.

So some email marketers believe you should never fully break up with inactives, but set them to the side and message them a couple times a year, for major sales, for instance. Just remember that, according to email marketing wisdom, a list that’s not hit for more than six months is probably not worth hitting because of expired email addresses.