Unengaged Email Recipients, Misunderstood and Mismanaged

Email Marketing

As email marketers, we face problems that closely resemble hurdles seen in the dating world. (Editor’s note: or the parenting world.) Sometimes, no matter how determined we are and no matter how many times we try to get some kind of response from an email recipient, it just doesn’t happen.

Sometimes we get consistently denied and ignored by our recipients. The worst part is we have much more visibility into our recipient’s actions or inactions, in this case, compared to the dating world (or it might be the better part; the ambiguity around dating can be one of the most difficult things). The hardest decision to make as an email marketer is when to stop trying and give up on these particular recipients. Too many email marketers never do; they continue this fruitless endeavor indefinitely, harming their email sending reputation in the process.

These recipients I’m referring to are (appropriately) referred to as unengaged email recipients.

Perseverance is a virtue, and “Never give up!” is a battle cry. But as tempting as it may be to keep trying, to continue sending to these particular recipients, it may end up hurting your overall deliverability and effectiveness in reaching out to the people who are more likely to welcome your email to their inboxes.

The email metrics that indicate they’re just not that into you

Many marketers in the email environment have a general knowledge and overview of deliverability and engagement, but most of them may not be able to identify all the metrics that affect deliverability.

  • The first, and most obvious, metric to point out is opens and clicks. These metrics are fairly simple and straightforward. The more opens and clicks you receive from your recipients the higher your engagement
  • The second, and still somewhat obvious, metric is spam complaints, in which recipients identify and mark your email as spam. This particular metric can surely and effectively bring down your engagement and overall deliverability

The one thing you may not notice (but your recipients probably will) is the inbox placement of your emails. As an example:

A prospect signs up for a weekly or monthly newsletter from you, and since you pack it with great content, they look forward to getting it. But you’re starting to get blocked by some ISPs, and that newsletter doesn’t arrive in their inbox. (They may find it in their spam folder if they look there.) They may think you’ve forgotten them, or they may think you’ve gone out of business.

Other examples would be webinar signup confirmations, and so on. Recipients that have opted in, or signed up for emails, may notice that they aren’t getting them. But you, the sender, will NOT know.

The point is: the lower your engagement metrics are with your overall recipients, the likelier it is that your emails will have trouble reaching the inboxes of those recipients who do want your email.

ISP as Big Brother

This makes sense when you look at it more closely: A recipient sees an email in his inbox that he is unfamiliar with, or that he knows he doesn’t want, and he marks it as spam. This action tells the email client to notify the user’s ISPs (Internet Service Provider). Think of an ISP as an overprotective older brother in this scenario. This notification from the email client tells the ISP that this email is definitely unwanted email (remember the definition of spam: it’s not necessarily junk mail; it’s any email the user no longer wants to receive, and it could be mail that was originally wanted and asked for). Therefore, any future emails you send to this user will get marked as spam. The more of these complaints you receive, the more often ISPs will tend to step in and proactively mark your emails as spam placing all of your emails to that particular domain in the spam/junk folder. Imagine getting blacklisted from Gmail.

Let’s get back to unengaged recipients. This is something that most of you will overlook when considering engagement metrics that affect your deliverability. I understand. If they are not identifying and marking your emails as spam, or taking any other negative action, then how can they possibly hurt your deliverability?

Well, remember the overprotective older brother – the recipient’s ISP – I mentioned earlier? Those ISPs notice all the fruitless attempts you’ve made sending to those long-term unengaged recipients (they notice everything). They have algorithms in place that will score your sender reputation and engagement. If your engagement rate is low enough (combined with the other metrics I talked about) it will essentially hurt your inbox placement across the board at that domain, making it more difficult for you to reach even your active, engaged audience.

This means that all the recipients you have engaged with on that domain – and new recipients you’re trying to establish a relationship with – will effectively not receive your emails.

The more you keep sending to unengaged recipients the more you’ll see your emails begin landing up in the spam folder. Right next to emails advertising those dating websites. You see the irony.

Still unengaged? It’s past time to take a hint

When is it time to give up on those unresponsive names? The answer to this question can vary quite a bit from organization to organization. There is no direct science to it but you want to focus on the size of your list, and the cadence and volume in which you send.

If you send daily, with a large volume, then you may want to think about cutting back on your sends to unengaged recipients much sooner than a sender who sends only once a month. Also be mindful of the ratio of engaged and unengaged recipients you have on your list. If you have a high ratio of engaged vs. unengaged recipients, then it is less likely ISPs will bring down your sending and engagement reputation. The question you may have is “What’s the benchmark ratio?” There’s no one answer to that; it depends on a host of factors. Track your own ratio, create your own benchmarks, and protect your engagement rate by removing unengaged recipients off your list.

Biting the bullet

It sounds simple, “remove unengaged recipients from your mailing lists,” and it’s easy to think about, but it’s hard to do.

Nobody likes to see their list shrink, and if you don’t have a healthy flow of new leads coming in, it seems like a very negative thing to do (and your boss, and the sales team, may not like seeing the number of leads go down). But you really do have only two viable choices:

  • Remove those no-action-names completely from your mailing lists
  • Do a re-engagement campaign. And if you pick this option and they still don’t engage, then just do it – take them off your list

The main point to take away here is to pay attention to your unengaged recipients. They only look harmless; ISPs are weighing engagement more heavily, and so you risk your deliverability by allowing those addresses to stick around. Think hard about how much risk you can take, and whether there’s any reward past keeping your list at a certain size, no matter how meaningless those unengaged names are. Email gets kudos for being inexpensive, and the fact that these numbers don’t appear to be costing you much (in direct costs) is misleading. They can and, sooner or later, will hurt your bottom line.

So you wash them out of your lists – what are you really losing? Someone who wasn’t interested in you anyway, so it’s not a loss at all, but a net gain in favor of your email reputation and deliverability. Now it’s time to get creative with your lead generation efforts and replace those cold fish with engaged leads who will be interested to hear from you.

The art of successful email marketing depends first and last upon proactive deliverability management. Download Act-On’s eBook, Best Practices in Email Deliverability to learn tips and tricks that will help you manage the critical factors that affect the deliverability of your email messages.