Win-Back Campaigns: Inactive Is No Longer Neutral


GetResponse has always had a strict opt-in policy, as have many ESPs for as long as I can remember. Permission based email is the key to success in Email Marketing. However… this may not be enough for your friendly ISP. The new word on the street is ACTIVE.

We’re hearing it at industry events and on blogs, everywhere the experts are talking about trends.

What does this mean? Well, when it comes to deliverability we’ve always been concerned with hitting the inbox and reducing bounces. Anything after that was gravy. This is changing. Here’s the deal.

Repeated mailings to inactive mailboxes are frowned upon by many ISPs. They consider it bad email marketing practice at best, spamming at worst. Either way, it can affect your domain reputation. So I’m going to kick off a discussion, and our GetResponse Deliverability Experts will follow up with detailed tactics and advice.

The bottom line is emails now have to be active, which means opens, clicks and forwards, in order to avoid ISP scrutiny. If you’re sending to people that rarely do any of these things, your deliverability (and rep) will suffer.

So what can you do about it?

First, you have to assess an inactivity date. What’s the standard inactivity period  for your industry? If you’re a year round business, then I would recommend 90 days. If you’re seasonal, then maybe a little longer.

Ok, so what to do next. You have to set a cut-off date – the point of no return. I would recommend around 90 days after you class it as inactive.

Now what?

The key is what you do between these dates.

The Win-Back Stage.

This is where you need to do everything in your power to get these subscribers active again and here are a few quick tips to get you started.

Subject Line.

We’re talking unopened emails here, so maybe your subject line isn’t reaching this audience? Time to test – and consider this:

  • Subject lines that imply exclusivity have a 24% higher open rate. Words like “For Selected Customers”, “For Insiders” and “Private Event” etc.

  • Subject lines that include an end date have a 29% higher open rate. “Offer ends Friday” and “5 days left” are prime examples.

The Offer.

At some point you interested these subscribers… they wanted what you had to offer. Now they don’t, and you have to go the extra mile to get them back.

Limited time offers exclusive to the win-back segment work.

Your offer should be big and it should be short term, like “50% off your next in store purchase when you bring this email.”

Be bold and offer real value.

And if that doesn’t work?

Frequency is key to a successful win-back campaign. Not to push harder, but to offer more value when you do connect. Remember, you don’t want ISPs downgrading you because you’re sending a ton of emails to an unresponsive client of theirs.

So set a lower frequency and improve your offer… or offer them a different connection method. Let them know you’re on Facebook and Twitter, then track the click-throughs or spikes in new fans or followers.

Say Goodbye.

Even if you decide that a subscriber is a lost cause, be open and tell them that you’ll remove them from the mailing list; but also remind them what they signed up for, and how they can re-activate their subscription.

Ask them what you need to do to win them back. People (and preferences) change!

And if they become active right away?

This is a problem you want! Remember that your mainstream communication didn’t work for these people, so you need to create a new stream for “reactivated” subscribers using the methods that worked for the win-back campaign.  Then… watch for expert advice in upcoming blogs!

Ok, so you like my topic and realize it will help your email marketing.  Don’t worry. My colleague Maciek Ossowski will be following up with detailed posts about re-engagement campaigns this week, so stay tuned!

And if you have any insight to this type of campaign or experience with ISPs, please let us know.

Until next time,


  • I’ve always been curious: why is it that all these anti-spam policies do nothing to stop the constant onslaught of disgusting spam into my email inbox? All policies like this do is add more overhead to legitimate small business.

  • Ken

    I read emails using Outlook or on my cell phone. Neither automatically downloads photos, and it’s rare that I do.

    A while back I dropped several mailing lists when they started wasting my time; they began resending the same information they sent out a few days or a week before.

    It’s also rare that I’ll click through, I just like a quick idea of what’s happening. I’ve gone over a year between click throughs.

    When I no longer want to be on a mailing list I unsubscribe. If a company were to drop me for any reason, that will ensure I never do business with them.

  • Web Audio Player Dude

    Thanks for sharing Mick!

    This just goes to show that we as marketers have to be more and more creative when it comes to email maarketing and making suare our messages are getting through…

    …both past the ISP filters and through to our subscribers.

    The latest rumor is that email marketing is dying… but I beg to differ.

    The opposite holds true for me considering huge spike in “mobile phone sales” – people are extremely attached to them 🙂

    Just think outside to box to stay ahead of the pack!



  • Coming from what I believe is a position of authority and experience being CEO of more then one successful ISP since 1996 to present, I feel it is my duty to address many of the comments made by author of the article described above.

    Typical of “everything seems backwards” relevant to today’s modern man, more so with corporations, and even worse with Government – most seem to not claim responsibility for their actions and their responsibilities – always trying to blame someone or something else.

    The first subject I will address from the article is and I quote “We’re hearing it at industry events and on blogs, everywhere the experts are talking about trends.”

    Are these the same experts whom told us about how to raise our children but do not have any? or similar experts like Al Gore on Global Warming perhaps? Timothy Geithner on Taxes? Bernanke on the Economy?

    The term “expert” is obviously used too loosely, obviously in many cases without real world qualification, and if you want to know the truth just follow the money.

    The next subject I will address from the article claims the following and I quote “Repeated mailings to inactive mailboxes are frowned upon by many ISPs.”

    Well I agree and that is good – but then if the mailbox is inactive why hasn’t the ISP burned that mailbox? It is in their power to do so not ours.

    Why would the ISP blame the mailer when clearly it is the Client or the ISP themselves that is directly responsible for the mailbox by either the client not using it or the ISP not burning it? They have the inactive mailbox, not the mailer – they said so themselves didn’t they?

    In this example the ISP is clearly trying to put the blame on the mailer rather then where the responsibility clearly and undeniably belongs – on the MailBox OWNER and the ISP.

    Next – “They consider it bad email marketing practice at best, spamming at worst.”

    I consider it trying to shuck responsibility for not taking out the inactive mailboxes and trying to blame someone else.

    Spamming? How can it be spam if it is double opt-in?

    and I quote “Permission based email is the key to success in Email Marketing.”

    Absolutely true – then how could it be spam if they gave their permission via double opt-in?

    Once again the responsibility of the bounces and the inactive mailboxes are clearly and undeniably on the mailbox owner and ISP.

    The way I see it – for a real world example is in our Free Gifts Giveaway Events – the subscriber is authorizing via double optin to receive marketer emails in exchange for a report, software, or some other legal product or service absolutely free – but they themselves submitting an inactive mailbox to receive said item is at minimum theft and at worst fraud with the ISP facilitating the fraud.

    Last but not least – how does one know the “Open Rate” of the people receiving the Text Version of the sent email or the people whom block imaging from there email? THEY DO NOT KNOW!

    In general the article has some very good ways to recapture the attention of subscribers, but I totally disagree with several of the concepts which are clearly skewed and who’s to blame as indicated above from the qualified positions of being both an ISP CEO and having an email marketing team.

    It is further my position that bounces, complaints, and unsubscribes self clean the list …..

    Bounces can be for many reasons to include full mailboxes, inactive mailboxes, fraudulent email addresses or mistyped email addresses etc.

    Unsubscribes show the unsubscribed is no longer interested in the subject, content, or hearing from the mailer.

    Complaints show several possibilities to include the person “forgot” they subscribed, didn’t like the content of the particular newsletter or email, or just do not want to hear from mailer anymore.

    One of the greatest Sales Managers of all time told me – Dr. Phil Proctor – “if you are not getting any complaints you are not getting market penetration because there is always a complainer out there even if there is nothing to complain about.”

    As for the ISP’s, if you got inactive mailboxes then BURN THEM – this is your problem and your clients problem.

    Once burned the email address will be removed from my list because it bounced.

    My list size decreases reducing the size of my list and possibly the fee my list host gets reducing their revenue and saving us money 🙂 Works for me 🙂

    Case closed problem solved.

  • Hi All,

    @Andrea – Your comments are very true. Recently I was listening to a Mail Master from Yahoo and they said that legitimate email marketers take only 1% of their time. The other 99% going towards stopping the scams out there. I hope that we can do the hard work for you, and keep you in the inbox.

    @Ken – I understand your point of view, however both myself and the ISPs are talking about considerable evidence that a user is no longer interested. The major reason for many email campaigns is to engage the user, and this is what they are looking to encourage. As I mention above, the key is to be very open to the subscriber and inform them if they wish to continue receive the mail to simply engage in some respect.

    @Dude – We see and hear from many sources about the rise and fall of email. The truth is that email inbox is flooded at present, and with more users on mobile devices with limited time, they do not want to look through the 100 new messages to find the 10 relevant ones. The key here for both ISPs and Email Marketers is to use subscriber behavior to determine what they like, and what they do not. The emphasis will always be on the sender to improve their practices, rather than to educate the subscriber on how to manage their inbox, and I couldn’t agree more. We have to lead the email marketing channel and make it better and more relevant for subscribers.

  • Hi Mick,

    in your article you have mentioned ESP and ISP. Please explain to me what is that mean?

    Also when a subscriber fills opt-in form and confirm the confirmation link he become a member of my campaign.

    Question: why is then listed as an inactive?

    Have a nice day,


  • @Franci,

    Hi Franci. An ISP is an Internet Service Provider such as Yahoo or Gmail. These organizations are providing the free mailboxes to a large portion of email users, and in tern regulate all the mail going into the mailboxes.

    ESPs are Email Service Providers like GetResponse, who offer services for sending email messages.

    With regards to inactivity. This is a status of behavior. I am talking about a subscriber that did, as you say opt into the campaign at some point, but who over a period of time has no longer shown any interest in what you wish to send. The way that ISPs will soon work is that if they are not listening, it is your responsibility to stop sending, rather than the subscribers responsibility to say ‘no thank you’.

  • Hi Mick,
    wow that was a quick respond. I thank you for that. So if I understand you correct I must send some newsletters for certain campaign first and then observe have responsible is list of registered subscribers (if they were open my e-mails). So if they not I must act as described in your article.
    I hope my English is understandable because it`s not my first language.


  • @Joseph

    Firstly, thank you. Such a detailed response is certainly the type of intellect I would like to interest with my posts.

    GetResponse are in between both the mailer and the ISP and the main reason of my post is to educate the mailer of what the ISP are now looking for and what is coming.

    Where the responsibility lies is certainly up for debate, and the idea that ISPs should burn inactive addresses is something I agree with. However, this is not the only inactivity I am referring too. An inbox can be very active and open various emails, however if they do not open mail from a specific sender for a large period of time the subscriber is still inactive to that sender.

    Marketers worldwide are using behavioral software to study the activity of their potential audience to find better ways to appeal to them, and so they should. However, I do believe that such software and technology should be used for the consumers benefit. If we act when they open, click, or purchase, we should also act if they don’t.

    Your Dr Phil state is exactly what this is about in my opinion. If your not creating a reaction, then your not marketing well enough. That reaction should be positive in an open or click, or negative in a unsubscribe.

  • @Franci

    Your english is fine 🙂

    You understand well. This is what I am saying. Once you send a campaign you should always be responding to the reaction. Positive, negative and no reaction at all. Set the next step for all these types of responses.

    This article is specifically referring to what to do when there is ‘no response at all’.

  • David

    Interesting comments, it seems there is some scale in experience here. Fragmented comes to mind..

    I have seen a little trick. On the header of each email add a little button called “Report As Spam”. It’s better that users click on that button (and you remove them using a unsubscribe merge tag) than if they actually click it on the mail client.
    Include your normal unsubscribe links too in your template.

    Challenge the data, are unsubscribes a healthy metric or a negative one.

    Its a shame getresponse reports dont give you insight about which links are being clicked especially in pseudo transactional emails for example. Heaps of other ESP’s do..

    respect to Joseph.

  • Hi GR / Everyone
    I have been using GR for 4 years now and yet this blog entry confuses me.
    Can someone please enlighten me as to the definition of an “inactive mailbox?”
    Is this basically a subscriber who may even read my emails but doesn’t respond to them by clicking something or replying?
    Does this mean I have to send everything in HTML &/or with click tracking and not in untracked plain text?
    If it refers to an invalid email, then surely the bounces will delete them from my list?
    Maybe I’m missing something, its Monday evening after all?
    kind regards

  • @David – That is certainly an interesting tactic, and I couldn’t agree more that giving subscribers a clear way of removing themselves from your list is a great move. With regards to the statistics, I’ll be certain to pass your comments on to our product development team.

    @Harley – Thanks for your questions. I would like to point out once again that the inactive subscriber is something that is coming soon from the ISPs. We are trying to give early notice to our readers of this up coming change and the best way to prepare for it. An inactive inbox is when no activity is recorded at all. No open, no click. We know that it is impossible to track these actions 100% however the ISPs will make the rules and we will try our best to follow them.

    It doesn’t refer to an invalid email but a valid email address which does not respond to your marketing.

    We will keep you updated as we hear more information from both the ISPs and the industry as a whole.

  • Kelli

    What are you thoughts about the actual process for sending the reengagement email? We want to protect our sending reputation and have our deliverability in good standing- so does sending this reengagement effort carry the risk of doing more harm than good? We want to weed out the older emails that have the potential of being SPAM traps without sacrificing our legitimate contacts who have simply gone dormant, for the variety of other reasons that contacts become inactive.