Silent but Engaged: A Powerful “Hidden” Segment Lurks in your Email Database

One of my favorite quotes in the past few years is from David Daniels of Forrester Research who often says that “sending email to people that haven’t opened or clicked in a year is like flying an airplane advertisement over a ghost town.” Love it. That visual really brings the point home that mailing to seemingly unengaged subscribers is a waste of time, and often does more harm than good. I have always 100% agreed with it, however I now think it isn’t always true. There may actually be life in parts of those seemingly deserted towns.

Let me start by saying that I still recommend all marketers regularly review engagement and modify content and/or frequency to those that haven’t opened or clicked in 90 or 180 days. This is especially important for marketers that have deliverability problems, since many of them may improve their reputations and deliverability by cutting this dead weight. Unresponsive list segments, after all, are more likely to generate complaints or to contain spamtraps. In fact, earlier this year we were able to help a client get out of the bulk folder at Gmail by ceasing mailing any names that hadn’t opened or clicked there in 90 days. Now, however, when I’m asked by a client if they should re-opt-in subscribers that haven’t responded, opened or clicked for months, I’m forced to add the qualifier: “it depends.”

Here’s why it depends. There is growing evidence that many mailers have at least some subscribers that don’t seemingly do anything, but they are valuable nonetheless. Here are a few camps to consider:

1. Hidden Segment #1: Subscribers that view and read emails with images off. There may be some email marketers that are in fact too good at rendering their email titles, main stories and calls-to-action in HTML text. I say “too good” since some (maybe lots) of their subscribers don’t register as an open since they never enable images – yet they are actually engaged and reading the emails.

2. Hidden Segment #2: Mobile, invisible, but engaged. Mobile, email-enabled phones now represent a majority of some company’s opt-in subscriber base. If they don’t render images they won’t render an open, but the recipient might be eating up the content day-in and day-out, and the marketer will never know.

3. Hidden Segment #3: Subscribers that never click, or shop online, but buy from your brick-n-mortar store. These actually could be some of your best customers, you just can’t tell. Certainly there is life in this ghost town. Multichannel retailers should especially keep a watch out for these subscribers.

4. Hidden Segment #4: Fans that forward your email to friends, but don’t use your forward-to-a-friend link. You can’t track them since they are using the forwarding mechanism of their email tool, not your trackable link. Jeanniey Mullen’s recent ClickZ article highlighted the story of Burntoast Marketing in Australia that had this problem. Some of their mailings to high-quality prospects had “…clicks come from other people both within and outside the same company who were not on the original mailing list.”

The bottom line is if you’re not looking at subscriber engagement, you are missing out on the ability to improve your deliverability, improve relevancy, and cut the unprofitable names from your list. However, beware of these hidden, engaged subscribers and develop strategies to make them visible.

First, rather than automatically re-opting in unengaged subscribers or discarding them from your list, try reducing frequency. A recent test of ours showed we were able to get 4 times the number of subscribers to reengage by reducing from weekly to monthly mailings when compared to sending a single re-optin campaign.

Second, entice your offline-only shoppers to use a coupon or other tracking code that will help them identify themselves.

Finally, provide a number of ways that recipients can share their emails with their friends – either standard viral links or via new technologies allowing sharing with social networks.

– Chip House, ExactTarget