Inactive Email Subscribers: Measure and Minimize Instead of Reactivating


For the new year, Webbula is launching a series of blog posts about email marketing metrics. We have a variety of esteemed authors from the email industry lined up to participate. Articles you missed:

  • Understanding and Leveraging the Power of Open and Click Reach Rates in Email Marketing by Jeanne Jennings. View that here.
  • Email as a Conversion Tool: 5 Metrics You Should Be Tracking by Tejas Pitkar. View here.
  • Click-to-Open Rates: The Best Measurement of Email Engagement by Betsy Grondy. Read it. 
  • 6 Ways Customer lifetime Value Can Drive Email Marketing Strategy by Emma Warrillow and Tammi Miller. Read it. 
  • Email Deliverability Guide: How to Interpret Delivery, Clicks, and Opens by Tom Blijleven. Read it.
  • The Surprising Link Between Major League Baseball and Email Marketing Metrics by Chris Marriott. Read it Now
  • Email Metrics to Replace Open Rates After the iOS 15 Update by Dela Quist. Read it. 
  • Open Rates Aren't Perfect: How to really know if your emails are engaging by Emily McGuire. Read it now. 

Did you miss the discussion? Watch it here!


One of the fundamental truths of email marketing is that overtime a majority of your subscribers that you’ve worked so hard to acquire will go inactive. Ouch.

Don’t take it personally.  Even the most popular brands and best-run email marketing programs typically see around 40 percent or more of their subscribers being considered “inactive” at any given time. 

Email subscribers going inactive is a problem for all email marketers whether you are with a B2B company sending a monthly newsletter and webinar promotions with 10,000 subscribers or a large retailer with millions of subscribers and sending an average of an email per day.  But in my experience, most marketers either don’t actively address the issue or take a simple “Band-Aid” approach that doesn’t solve the problem.

Start With an Inactive Email Subscribers Framework

When tackling the issue of inactives, I recommend using a framework that has three main components:

1. Develop an agreed-upon definition of inactives.

The foundation of tackling the inactive email subscriber challenge is first establishing a highly measurable and agreed-upon inactive metric that you can use in your organization to drive change and obtain resources to help attack the problem. Define inactives based on your company’s business model, customer relationships and lifecycle, and email programs goals.

One of the most common definitions of the inactive email subscriber metrics is: The percentage of subscribers who have either opened or clicked on at least one message in the last 12 (or 18/24) months. Some companies also incorporate conversions such as purchase activity. 

The first element of the inactive email subscribers definition is “time frame.” This decision really comes down to the nature of your business. Are you an automotive company where your customers may only purchase every 6 years or a food kit service where your goal is a subscription or at least monthly purchases? Also, consider different time frames for existing customers versus prospects. In other words, not all inactives in your database are created equal.

If you are having deliverability issues, a large number of these long-term inactive email subscribers could be contributing to your challenges and you probably need to use a shorter time frame.

Secondly, what is the measure of inactivity? Is it just opens? Or do you include if a subscriber has also clicked or possibly even made a purchase or other conversion activity? As a rule of thumb, I recommend including if a subscriber has clicked - unless your emails actually convey a lot of content and value simply by reading the emails themselves. And you might also decide to define a subscriber as inactive, for example, if over a year’s time frame they open and click on your webinar promotional emails - but don’t register for a single one.

2. Analyze and determine the root causes of subscriber inactivity.

Start by determining when is your inactive inflection point - that time frame when the highest percentage of inactives start disengaging. This helps you understand and identify what may be causing subscribers to go inactive. 

If it is relatively quick - say within two weeks of opt-in - it probably means that there was a reason such as a discount offer, free white paper, or similar offer or promise that was the primary reason many subscribers opted in. And so after a few emails from you, they tune out because their interest was the offer, not your ongoing value proposition and content.

On the other hand, if a high percentage of inactive email subscribers stop engaging after two months and many emails - it might mean that your email program simply isn’t delivering on expectations. You’ll need to do a deep dive with your data, but it will pay huge dividends as you start to uncover the main causes of inactivity.

3. Develop proactive strategies to minimize subscribers from going inactive.

Ultimately measuring what percent of your subscribers are basically ignoring your emails is meaningless unless you actually take actions to reduce this subscriber disengagement. I am not a fan of “We want you back” messages because while they might get some subscribers to open the email, they don’t address the reasons for inactivity. 

Instead, I recommend taking a proactive approach and working to minimize subscribers going inactive from the start. Approaches include:

Fix the problem: Hopefully, your analysis around the timing of disengagement and root causes uncovered some issues that you can immediately tackle and fix. It could be multiple factors or something as simple as your opt-in page hasn’t been updated in ages and promises specific content, frequency, or an offer that you no longer deliver on. Or you might need to change email frequency, add segmentation, personalization, and automated messages based on behavior, or vastly improve the quality of your content.

Manage expectations: When people sign up for your emails, what were their expectations based upon? Was it the content they saw on your website, how they got to the website through your top searches and landing pages, and what promises or expectations did you create on your opt-in page or pop over? Take an objective look at your email program and see if it lines up with what a first-time visitor to your site would expect.

Re-onboarding track for subscribers going inactive: Rather than waiting until subscribers go inactive, when their behavior is indicating signs of disengagement, put them into a “re-onboarding” program designed to convey your brand’s value proposition with special content, “surprise and delight” offers, and to capture preferences through questions or links that clicked.

One final important note about inactives is the idea of brand value. My friend and email marketing industry provocateur, Dela Quist, (who will be joining me on May 5 for a webinar on this topic), has long argued that emails have significant value - even when not opened. 

When subscribers are going through their inbox and see your brand’s from name and a hopefully compelling subject line, the combination serves much like a billboard on the side of the road. It provides a quick reminder about your company and brand - even without opening the message. The point that Dela makes (and I heartily agree), is that companies need to tread carefully when looking at inactives. Just because subscribers haven’t opened a message in a year or more - doesn’t mean those messages may not be leading to online or offline conversions. 

There likely are no quick and simple wins to increase engagement and reduce inactives, and a “we want you back” email is certainly not the answer. Track and measure subscriber inactivity, analyze the root causes, tackle them one by one, and you should expect to see fewer subscribers putting your emails on their virtual snooze list. Good luck!



Loren McDonald
CEO EV Adoption

Loren consults with companies to maximize revenue, leads, and customer retention through content marketing programs including webinars, thought leadership/research and email marketing. He has 36 years of experience as a consultant, marketing executive and thought leader at companies including IBM, Silverpop, Acoustic, Arthur Andersen, USWeb/CKS, EmailLabs, and Lyris.

He has written more than 500 articles, produced dozens of white papers and special reports, spoken at more than 350 conferences in 14 countries and presented on 200+ webinars. Loren has won multiple awards including 2005 Best Marketing Executive (American Business Awards - "Stevie's") and 2011 Email Marketer of the Year (Email Evolution Council).

Social Media:

Twitter: @LorenMcDonald


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