Today, more and more email marketers are finally challenging the dominance of open and click rates and finding new metrics.

Campaign-based metrics that merely look at individual mail outs in isolation do not fit in today’s world of on-going email communication programmes. Today’s email marketer is looking towards subscriber-based metrics, which track what their subscribers are doing over time – typically 12 months. Specifically, how many people are opening, clicking or purchasing over that period – what we at Alchemy Worx call ‘Open Reach’ and ‘Click Reach’. Next they are gaining an understanding of how many times a given individual or group of individuals opened and clicked on, or bought from an email sent in that period. And as we have discovered, this extra understanding is delivering results.

When we first started looking at Open Reach on behalf of our clients about 6 or 7 years ago, what we learned really surprised us. We found that somewhere between 35% and 65% of the subscribers on every list we looked at had not appeared to open a single email in the previous 12 months. Initially, our reaction to this data, like many others at the time and since, was to tell our clients to send out a reactivation email (‘we miss you’, surveys, offers – you name it, we’ve tried them all) and then remove – or at least stop emailing – any subscribers that stayed ‘inactive’.

However, as everyone who has ever tried to reactivate their inactive file quickly discovers, we found that no matter how hard you try; only a very small number of your inactive subscribers ever respond to reactivation campaigns. So perhaps understandably, our clients felt that given how little it cost to them to keep sending email to their long-term inactives, they would not act on these findings until we could give them more conclusive information.

So we decided to continue tracking inactives over time for some of our clients. Imagine our surprise when we found that a significant proportion of their revenues in a given year came from subscribers who had not even opened, let alone clicked on a single email they had been sent during the preceding 12 months or more!

To give you a sense of the importance of this finding, I’d like to share a case study with you. In 2007, we identified that 54.51% of the subscriber list for one of our clients did not open a single email in that year. We decided to track this group of people over the two years that followed. In 2008, 19% of these ‘inactives’ went on to open at least one message, generating 12% of total sales that year. In 2009, 14% of them went on to open at least one message, generating 6% of total sales that year.

These results and similar findings from other clients we work with led us to completely rethink our definition of ‘inactive’ within the context of an email programme. With very few exceptions, when it comes to sales and marketing, long-term inactivity is perfectly normal. After all, how often do you actively interact with marketing communications of any kind, whether it be from a car dealer, estate agent or hotel chain? Email is no different, and marketers should remember that.

In the end, we came to the conclusion that unless you have an ongoing or persistent problem with deliverability, the only reason to stop mailing your inactive file is if it is not generating enough sales, conversions or traffic to deliver an adequate return on the cost of sending – which is typically a lot less than £5/thousand.

Of course, this is not really news at all. After all, we were able to show as far back as 2008 that removing inactive subscribers from your list after 12 months (as most people seemed to be advising at the time) was not good business at all.

So why am I talking about this now? Because the inactive subscriber question seems to be back on the agenda again, with a slight twist. The current recommendation is to mail your inactives less frequently than your active subscribers and, as before, the Number One reason given for adopting such a strategy is deliverability.

Perfectly reasonable, you might say. Well, I beg to differ. Firstly, advocates of sending less often seem to assume: “I haven’t open your email in a quite a while” = “I don’t want (so many) emails from you.” That’s presumptuous to say the least. More importantly, if you were to substitute the words ‘just bought’ for your active subscribers and ‘prospects’ for your inactive subscribers, would you still advocate sending more email to the just bought list than the prospect list?

I suspect not; which brings me back to deliverability.

As this debate rages on, I am coming to the conclusion that there would be no argument around this issue if we were to stop confusing lack of response caused by bad data with the natural tendency of human beings to ignore marketing messages until they need them.

I have never and would never advocate that anyone continue to send mail to bad data. Bad addresses should always be removed as soon as they are identified, via your bounce reports, feedback loops and list-cleansing activity. If you do that, you will have a clean list; and if you have a clean list then almost every inactive subscriber is a potential customer.

It is my view that the Number One cause of deliverability problems (assuming you continue to follow the basics of deliverability best practice) is at the point of acquisition – where you sourced your data and how it got on your list.

So my advice is: Call bad data what it is – BAD DATA – and subscribers who have not needed you product or services for a while what they are… PROSPECTS!

Dela Quist

Dela Quist


Dela Quist, CEO of Alchemy Worx.