Seven email re-engagement tips to win back your audience webinar recap

Email re-engagement webinar
Nov 08, 2023

Unengaged subscribers can hurt your chances of reaching the audience members who do want to hear from your brand. And that’s bad news, especially for email marketers gearing up for the holiday sending season

Brad Gurley, MessageGears’s Director of Deliverability recently shared his expert advice for how brands can best handle the portion of their database that feels like it’s just gathering dust. 

Read on for his top seven tips!

Determine the “why”

Sending to unengaged recipients can represent a pretty significant risk to your reputation. Before you get started it helps to know what you’re realistically hoping to achieve. Then Brad advises taking a critical look at whether those results will be greater than the risk involved.

Some common drivers for re-engagement campaigns include:

  • It’s crunch time –  A holiday or season that traditionally generates a lot of revenue for your organization can be a good time to try to reengage your audience. 
  • Falling revenues – If your database is shrinking or you’re seeing just overall declines in the number of people subscribing, engaging, and purchasing it might be time to try to re-engage some of your cold recipients.
  • You were told to – You might begin a re-engagement campaign due to a request from a company decision-maker.

Once you’ve determined what triggered the re-engagement efforts, you can ask: What am I hoping to achieve here? What is the end goal? You may just want to drive revenue for a specific holiday season. You may decide you want to do something a little more evergreen to grow your list, keep recipients loyal, and increase lifetime value for your recipients.

Define “unengaged”

Brad explained that there are many ways to define engagement when we’re looking at e-mail. While open rates are the most common data point, they’re also the most controversial. Open and click data can be flawed it can still give you a good starting point for defining what we call engaged. 

A microcosom of unengaged recipients.

This isolated view of engagement captures data points on a single message, giving you a feel for engagement as a whole. 

In the example above, you can see an average open rate of 21 percent. The average unsubscribe rate is between 0.10 and 0.3 percent, and the average bounce rate is somewhere around 1 percent. If we combine those metrics and extrapolate the results, we can see that for any given email, just under 78 percent of the recipients are unengaged.

Looking at metrics over time offers a larger view of engagement data. 

Unengaged recipients over time.

The graph above shows trend data for around half a billion unique recipients going back to the beginning of 2022. For our purposes, we used a 12-month open window to represent unengaged recipients here. 

We can see that while Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) adoption was still stabilizing, unengaged rates were in the range of 20-25 percent. Around a year after MPP took effect we see the lowest percentages of unengaged recipients, with a bit of an uptick since then. This gives us an idea of the effect of MPP on this metric, but also the knowledge that 10-15 percent of recipients are showing no opens at all – even proxy opens.

We believe tells us that, for our purposes, open pixel loads can still be a reliable metric of who’s truly unengaged.

While email re-engagement is the focus here, Brad pointed out that other metrics are often used to define engagement. Purchases, website traffic, and account or loyalty program logins can all signal engagement as well.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that e-mail providers can only see what happened in an e-mail,” Brad said. “So if we’re talking about Gmail, they don’t know that this person went into the store and bought something last week.”

Segment your audience

As a general rule, the longer it’s been since a recipient engaged, the more risky it is to send to them. It’s risky to send to older addresses as they may:

  • No longer want your messages
  • Have abandoned the mailbox
  • Have even been recycled as spam trap addresses

Sending consistently to subscribers who show no interest in your email will harm your sender reputation. 

“If you just start blasting promos to your full audience of unengaged recipients you’re going to have a bad time,” Brad said. “Instead, you need to be smart about how you’re targeting and engaging recipients.”

Level of risk by engagement window.

Sending to anyone who hasn’t engaged in 2 years is considered highly risky and not recommended – with very few exceptions. As you move lower in the engagement spectrum, the level of risk decreases. 

“We would recommend, for most senders that the 12 to 18 month window is probably where you should be targeting with your re-engagement campaigns,” Brad said.

Because only sending to unengaged recipients in a given day is likely to cause you some reputation damage Brad also advises sending your win-back campaign or re-engagement messaging alongside your regular mail to engaged recipients.

Segmenting audience by engagement

This chart shows the percentage of total daily traffic that should be composed of unengaged recipients. If your typical marketing volume is 1 million emails per day, your win-back audience should be no more than 50,000 per day. The more recent your engagement, the more flexibility you have with increasing that volume. 

“That’s obviously a pretty small number when you’re looking at your total overall volume,” Brad said. “But we’ve seen many cases where trying to push that number beyond that can cause reputation damage and stop messages from getting delivered to those folks who really have been engaging.”

Plan your timetable

Because your re-engagement messages should be sent alongside your engaged email sending, Brad recommends running ongoing campaigns throughout the year. What that said though, Brad also confirmed that one-off time-limited re-engagement campaigns work.

Here are a few recommendations:

Plan ahead

If the reason behind your re-engagement campaign is engaging your audience ahead of a priority sending date or season, don’t run the re-engagement campaign too early so that it wraps up weeks before your target date. 

Don’t overdo it

Give recipients more than one chance to engage, but avoid the potential of annoying them and driving more spam complaints. Brad says that senders who send 2 to 4 messages per re-engagement campaign tend to see the most success.

“Sending more than four and you get to the point where you’re getting diminishing returns,” Brad said. “Very few people are actually going to engage after four messages, but they may be more likely to mark your spam or to ignore the message. And that’s going to hurt your reputation as well.”

Pick your sending cadence

Don’t send a re-engagement message every day as those campaigns are going to have a higher likelihood of driving complaints. Limiting to every second or third day allows you to monitor your reputation at Gmail, and if a problem comes up either stop or temporarily pause the next message and recover your reputation.

Create the right content

Elements of good design are critical when running win-back campaigns. You’ll want to keep an eye on:

The subject line – The first impression of the email, your subject line should allow the reader to very quickly realize this isn’t the same marketing message they’ve scrolled past repeatedly. There’s something different in this message, and it should grab their attention without using gimmicks or misdirection. 

Branding – Within a message preview, the branding should be consistent. Using a from address, domain, and from name your audience recognizes helps ensure that recipients feel safe interacting with the email and potentially clicking links. 

Body content – Call out exactly what action you want your audience to take. Make the CTA clear, but you can also give useful options as you see in the sample below. Give the reader a good reason to engage, and make it easy for them to do it.

Sharper Image re-engagement email example 

Target the most engaged first

So you’ve defined the portion of your audience that’s unengaged and you’ve got your emails ready to go. Now what do you do?

It’s a best practice to start sending with the most recently engaged recipients. 

Targeting 9-18 month engagers

Let’s say you’ve decided your audience is anyone who last engaged 9-18 months ago. You might start the campaign with recipients who engaged 9-10 months ago. 

On day one, send your typical campaign of 50,000 engaged recipients (engaged less than 9 months ago) but also 4,000 additional recipients who opened an email 9-10 months ago. Take a day off, and move forward with those who last engaged 11-12 months ago. This approach allows you to grow volume with the most engaged of the unengaged recipients. In that 6-12 month engagement window, you can send messages to unengaged recipients as up to 10 percent of your daily volume, which makes 4,000 a reasonable number. 

When possible, it‘s also a good idea to:

  • Throttle the unengaged recipients over several hours instead of delivering all at once. 
  • Split up the sends for the engaged vs. the unengaged recipients, sending to the engaged recipients earlier in the day and mitigating potential issues caused by sending to the unengaged group. 

Pay attention to bounces

Your re-engagement campaign is off and running – congratulations!

As you’re monitoring for deliverability issues and watching for throttling Brad advises that you keep a close eye on the types of bounces you receive. The bounce type will help to inform how you want to proceed.

Depending on your provider data, you may see detailed Delivery Status Notifications (DSNs) or you may see general categories like Spam Bounce, Invalid Recipient, and Mailbox Full. 

Pay extra attention to bounces that reference spam blocks, poor reputation, or addresses that no longer exist. If you’re able to view the DSNs, key terms to look for include throttle, deferred, rate limit, or try again later.

If you’re following Brad’s volume and cadence recommendations, you should have a relatively low likelihood of seeing these types of bounces. If you do, that may be a sign to slow your rate of sending to unengaged recipients or to pause your win-back campaign and make some adjustments to your targeting or messaging.

Watch the full webinar featuring Brad’s advice!


About the Author

Elsbeth Russell

Elsbeth has nearly two decades of experience helping brands attract and engage audiences through content. For the past six years, she’s been dedicated to helping B2B companies in the email marketing space connect with audiences through community building and social media marketing.