When to Engage Your Inactive Email Segment, and When to Move On

Every B2C marketer should treat their email list like gold.

Email is often your most direct contact with buyers and prospective buyers, making your list an incredibly valuable marketing asset in terms of driving revenue. However, email lists also must be treated with care.

You can’t just blindly send to your entire list on a daily basis and expect to get a great response every time. That’s why segmentation is so important to effective email marketing in ecommerce. You should always offer your buyers the most relevant and engaging messages you can.

But what happens when a large segment of your email subscribers completely stops responding? What do you do? You can’t just give up and stop trying to engage the list entirely, but you also don’t want to keep sending to inactive subscribers, since it will hurt your sender reputation.

So what should you do? Here’s a step by step process for re-engagement of your inactive email segment, encouraging new purchases, and when to officially stop emailing them. Here are the dos and don’ts for your inactive email list.

Define your active audience

The first step is to determine your criteria for your active email audience. What does it actually mean if someone on your mailing list is engaged vs. unengaged? This varies a lot depending on your industry and your audience segmentation strategy. Look at a combination of:

  • The most recent email open
  • The most recent visit to your website
  • The most recent click on an ad or other asset
  • The last purchase
  • The most recent subscribers

Usually, we recommend that if you don’t really know what your active audience looks like, do a test to see where the response rates fall off. In other words, send an email out to a segment of customers who have opened or clicked in the last 120 days, for example. The following week, send to customers who have opened or clicked in the last 160 days. Finally, send to people who have opened or clicked in the last 200 days. You can create as many levels as you want here to refine your testing further.

If you see a large drop off in the response rate, you’ve found your threshold for inactive users. Stick with the segment that is just on the edge — so if you have a drop off at 200 days, create an email segment that is cut off at 190 days. This way you catch the buyers just before they become completely unengaged, and they may be more open to coming back to your brand.

Engage your inactive segment

Now that you’ve defined your inactive customers, it’s time to try a re-engagement campaign. Split your entire list into two dynamic segments: active and inactive email subscribers. If you had your active audience defined as people who opened or clicked in the last 150 days, then you should automatically send a triggered campaign when they’re 10 days away from falling out of that criteria. You want to intervene and keep them in your active audience before they’ve officially become unengaged.

But how do you do that? Try a winback campaign series to re-engage this audience. You can either send just one email, or you can create a multi-touch campaign that cycles through multiple messages. Don’t beat around the bush with your buyers — acknowledge the fact that you haven’t interacted with the buyer in a while up front in your first message. You can even use humor to keep things light-hearted and fun. If they still don’t respond, try a discount or another reward if they come back and buy again.


While this is really about reviving your email list, sometimes it’s not enough to just execute an email campaign well. If your buyers don’t respond to a multi-touch email winback campaign, try targeting them through either Facebook or Google as well. Sync your inactive segment and create a specific segment of people who have not opened the winback emails. Then, create similar messaging for a Facebook and Google campaign. It shouldn’t be identical since that would be redundant, but it should have a similar feel. Really, it’s just a winback campaign on a different platform.


Celebrate your newly returned buyers

Ideally, a large segment of your inactive buyers will respond to these campaigns positively. They’ll open an email, click and visit your site, and even make a new purchase. This is the end goal of this entire campaign and is really worth celebrating.

If you really want to take your customer segmentation to the next level, you can create a separate campaign to address the buyers who were inactive or on the verge of it and then came back to buy again. I call it a welcome back campaign. Use this campaign to tell your buyers how much you appreciate that they’ve returned to your brand and really personalize it as much as possible. Any time you acknowledge specific things that a customer is doing, you get better results. The buyers understand it’s not just some mass message that’s going out to an entire database — they know it’s personalized and will appreciate the effort.

Still being ignored? Sunset the list

If some segment of your list ignores you completely — your emails, Google ads, Facebook ads, and everything else — you have to accept their signals. If you’ve tried all of this, it’s time to say goodbye to these buyers. Sunset the list, and move on.

This doesn’t mean you should delete this list entirely, however. You never know when someone might come back and buy again. You have an existing relationship with those buyers, so you wouldn’t want to accidentally send out another welcome email if they’ve bought before. Even a completely unengaged email list may be valuable in the future.

But ideally, without the dead weight of your unengaged list, your click and open rates will begin to rise and your bounce rate, spam rate, and unsubscribe rate will decline. You can actually significantly improve your sender score with ISPs just by not sending emails to unengaged buyers. Think of it as pruning your email list. You’ve simply removed the dead weight so the rest of your list can grow and produce revenue.

If you constantly care for your email list — cutting the inactive buyers, re-engaging your unengaged customers, and more — you’ll see real results. Your email marketing will pay off and your ecommerce business will see the impact.

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