‘Tis the season for email re-engagement campaigns

A woman is checking her email on her phone as a Christmas tree stands in the background.

Are those…sleigh bells?

Okay, as I write this it’s barely September (and still pretty darn warm in the South), but chances are good that you’ve already seen some holiday decor popping up in your local department store. Each year, the run-up to the Q4 holiday season seems to last longer, and marketers must start planning their revenue-driving campaigns (like the email re-engagement campaigns we’re talking about here) that much earlier. 

By now, most retailers and brands that rely on heavy end-of-year outreach have started work on their holiday plans. Many are finalizing marketing calendars and maybe even digging into those old, dusty lists of recipients who haven’t been targeted since last holiday season. And it’s those unengaged recipients that tend to cause the most problems for brands as the year comes to a close. 

With revenue goals on the line, most marketers want to increase their reach in any way possible – with hopes of driving those recipients to spend money with their organization. But what happens when those recipients don’t actually want the emails? Recipients who don’t interact with your emails, and especially those who mark as spam or consistently ignore them, can actually hurt your brand’s sending reputation significantly. When that happens, you’ll also have trouble reaching the recipients who truly want your messages and are ready to buy. This leaves many senders in a precarious position, wanting to drive as much traffic as possible while preserving a good reputation

What’s a marketer to do? 

While your outdated, unengaged recipients may be suppressed from campaigns for most of the year due to lack of purchase or email interactions, they still represent an audience that has shown interest in your brand and requested your emails. But simply adding them to your regular email rotation and blasting with promos for 2 months is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. Instead, we recommend targeted re-engagement efforts to get them back “into the fold” and ready to buy.

Ideally, re-engagement should be an ongoing process; a recurring re-engagement campaign targeting recipients with little or no recent engagement can keep them from falling into email oblivion. When your holiday season starts in mere weeks, though, you may need something a bit more timely. Fortunately, one-time re-engagement/win-back campaigns can be quite successful if done properly. Our team has a wealth of experience helping senders turn unengaged recipients into happy customers, and we’re always willing to share our thoughts on how to do it successfully.

Define “Unengaged”

Before you start, you’ll want to determine the engagement cutoff to use for your campaign. Depending on how you typically target recipients, this could range from as little as 3 months to nearly 2 years. While engagement windows will vary by audience and industry, we recommend using the following as a baseline when building a re-engagement email strategy:

  • 0-6 months = lowest risk
  • 6-12 months = low-moderate risk
  • 12-18 months = moderate-high risk*
  • 18-24 months = higher risk
  • 24+ months = do not attempt (very few exceptions)

*For marketers running annual holiday campaigns, the 12-18 month category may give you a bit of pause. We know that it’s not uncommon for some recipients to only interact around the holiday season each year, so you may see a bump in engagement around that 12-month window. In these cases, expanding the window to 13-14 months may help reach those recipients while limiting the associated risks.

Recipients in higher risk categories should be targeted more sparingly, with content tailored to their seasonality. You may also want to employ a reconfirmation option allowing them to choose whether to receive additional mailings.

Email Re-Engagement Campaign Guidelines

Once you’ve defined your audience, you’ll need to build out the win-back campaign itself. Remember that these are recipients who haven’t responded to your typical marketing messaging, so you’ll want to change things up a bit to drive a response. Here are a few points to keep in mind as you develop your re-engagement email strategy:

  • Re-engagement email campaigns should be set for a limited timeframe – allow recipients a chance to engage, then eventually sunset those who don’t. Generally, we’ve seen that campaigns of between 2 and 4 messages tend to show the best results. Sending more than 4 messages in a re-engagement attempt increases risk without a significant increase in reward.
  • Message content should be explicitly targeted to drive engagement from dormant recipients. Specifically, you’ll want to pay extra attention to subject lines when reaching out to unengaged users. These limited-time campaigns may allow more flexibility with your subject formatting or content – and you may find strategies to help increase interaction across your engaged audience as well.
  • Sending a re-engagement email to your full list of unengaged recipients at once is not recommended, especially if that list is as large or larger than your list of engaged recipients. Even with limited time before the holidays, you should spread the volume over as many days as possible. This will prevent the mailbox providers from seeing a large dip in engagement (or spike in complaints) all at once from your domain and IPs.
  • Send to your engaged contacts first. On days you plan to send a win-back message, be sure to send to your more engaged contacts as well – and we recommend sending the engaged contacts earlier in the day. This helps avoid any potential delays or issues delivering to your engaged recipients if you see problems from the win-back message.
  • It’s also a best practice to limit the percentage of traffic sent to unengaged recipients on a given day. We recommend keeping that rate below 5% for recipients who haven’t engaged in more than a year, and closer to 1-2% for recipients who haven’t engaged in 18+ months. You may be able to increase the percentages  if sending to more recently engaged contacts (6-12 months for example), but we recommend never exceeding 15% of your daily volume to known unengaged recipients.
  • When possible, segment your unengaged list by recency of engagement, and start sending to the most recently engaged first. For example, if you have recipients who haven’t opened in more than a year, the first segment might be those who opened between 12-15 months ago, then 15-18 months ago, and so on. As you move farther back on engagement frequency, you’re likely to find diminishing returns. Pinpointing where those returns become too small to warrant the effort can determine your final cutoff – the point after which a recipient should be considered too far gone and removed from your mailing database. 

The holidays can be stressful enough for marketers even without deliverability issues, so we hope our tips help you maximize your outreach without turning your sender reputation into a lump of coal.

About the Author

Brad Gurley

Serving as MessageGears’ Director of Deliverability, Brad spends his days watching mail queues, analyzing customer delivery data, and researching the latest updates to email technology. He’s been in the email marketing space for the better part of two decades and harbors a passion for educating senders on how to more effectively deliver mail to their subscribers. When he’s not busy updating MTA configurations, you might find him preparing a variety of smoked meats or leading a group of friends to the closest karaoke bar.