Your guide to optimising reactivation emails and winning back inactive subscribers

4 October, 2017

Some people are in our lives for a day. Others remain for a year. A few last a lifetime.

When we were in school, we thought our friends would stay with us forever. But friendships change, time moves on and we welcome new people into our lives. It’s the process of growing and evolving.

Have you ever tried to keep a relationship going? Maybe when you parted ways you realised your relationship meant more.

Sometimes you can keep someone in your life by saying, “I miss you.”

Would you lose the opportunity to keep someone in your life or would you fight for them?


Let’s apply this anecdote to the field of email reactivation.

A Sherpa report found up to 75 per cent of email subscribers are inactive.

It costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one. Are we ready to lose someone we spent so long developing a relationship with? Or will we ask one last time for them to stay?

Forget about cold feet.

I’ve got a plan.

I’ve developed an email re-engagement guide – just for you.


What are reactivation emails?

To understand reactivation emails, we need to know what inactive subscribers are. A helpful Reactivation Resource by Cheetahdigital describes inactive subscribers as “an email subscriber who no longer engages with your branded emails, yet hasn’t explicitly unsubscribed.”

The main goal of reactivation emails is to persuade inactive subscribers to become active again.

Say a person signs up to your subscriber list. At first, they read the emails and click links but in time, they lose interest in your content.

We want our content to be engaging and give subscribers a good experience. Unfortunately, maintaining a 100 per cent engaged list is like living in a fairytale.

But not all fairytales mean saying goodbye. When Shrek saved Fiona from the tower, he knew he had to let her go so he could get his swamp back. But this didn’t stop Shrek from fighting for Fiona. He burst into the castle and proclaimed his love for her.

We don’t need to proclaim our love to our ‘inactive’ subscribers. But it helps to let them know we’re thinking of them.


Does my ecommerce brand need email reactivation?

Rowland Marsh from Enchant wrote a succinct article about the importance of email reactivation. This article explains reactivation emails are a part of the email marketing strategy. Their goal is to “Wake up sleepy subscribers and turn them into active customers.”

Rowland isn’t alone. Many ecommerce professionals agree that a reactivation strategy should be part of every brand’s marketing plan. Robert Allen from Smart Insights has a similar view. He describes creating a specific strategy to re-engage past active subscribers in his article about email reactivation and re-engagement.

Robert recommends any ecommerce brand with a digital marketing strategy should build a reactivation strategy. “It has the potential to create impact for brands in any sector, and should not be underestimated.”

Manny Ju, another marketing expert from Maropost Marketing Cloud, says a reactivation email campaign improves email marketing outcomes in two ways:

  • They will re-energise unengaged subscribers and convert them into active subscribers.
  • They identify truly inactive subscribers who are immune to reactivation.

Reactivation campaigns can reveal why your subscribers stopped engaging with your emails in the first place and how to keep them interested in the future.

The subscribers who are no longer interested in your content are best to take off the subscription list. Inactive subscribers can cause issues such as:

  • Poor engagement rates
  • Risk of your emails ending up as spam
  • Low inbox placement rates

When speaking to Phil Weltman, industry expert from Klaviyo about his anniversary email article he said, “If they haven’t opened in years, forget about them.”

Don’t let your subscribers’ inboxes turn into a never-ending list of spam. We want to be helpful. People subscribe to a list to stay engaged with a brand. Take inactive subscribers off your mailing list.

How to optimise your chance of re-engaging inactive customers


We would all be dancing with open arms if inactive subscribers wanted to come back to us. Unfortunately, we need to put in a little more work than just asking subscribers to remain on our mailing lists. Use these simple tactics in your reactivation campaign to re-engage subscribers.

Define Segments

Is inactive subscriber someone who hasn’t opened an email or purchased a product in a certain amount of days? Or are they people who haven’t clicked any links in your emails for a certain amount of days?

Cheetah digital created a helpful visual example of how to segment inactive users.

Pasted Image 0-3.Png

A resourceful article about reactivation emails by VerticleResponse reveals segmented email campaigns have 14 per cent higher open rates and 64 per cent higher click rates compared to unsegmented lists.

Set parameters to help you segment your list. When a subscriber reaches one of the inactive parameters, place a trigger to send a multi-stage email to reactive the subscriber.

Still scratching your chin on how to segment your list? No worries, have a read of VerticleReponse’s detailed guide to list segmentation.

Create an appealing subject line

Generally, short subject lines with the receiver’s name and purpose of the email work best. A study by Experian Marketing services revealed subject lines with the text ‘I miss you’ have the highest transaction rates. Cheetahdigital also has a similar view.

“Using the word ‘miss’ in the subject line saw a 23 per cent increase in unique open rates for reactivation emails, and emails using first name personalisation saw 2x the unique open rate of other reactivation mailings.”

The Experian Marketing Services put together a great bunch of subject line examples.

Subject line type 1: “We miss you, and we want to see what’s new.”

Subject line type 2: “We have a confession… and an offer you won’t want to miss.”

Subject line type 3: “We hate spam, too. Let us know if you want to stay on file.”

Reactivation emails target sincerity and pull on emotional triggers. We want our subscribers to feel valued. When you play on emotion, inactive subscribers are more likely to connect with your subject lines and open the email.

Create a survey

Interested to know why your subscribers are suddenly inactive? Ask them.

Make it clear you want to resolve any issues and ask if they want to change their email preferences. A simple survey can uncover reasons why subscribers feel disengaged from your content.

The survey could reveal many reasons such as:

  • Too many emails are being sent to the subscriber.
  • The subscriber isn’t interested in the content anymore.

You can create a survey using tools such as Survey Monkey. Be sure to include an incentive to fill out the survey such as going into a prize draw.

The number of questions you create in your survey depends on the type of information you need. I would suggest aiming for a short, easy survey containing one to three questions.

Send more than one reactivation email

You would have heard it before. Always send more than one email.

Whether it’s part of an abandoned cart email series, a post-purchase email series or a reactivation email, always send more than one.


If your subscribers are inactive, one reactivation email is not going to be enough to convince them to re-engage. Manny Ju from Maropost recommends sending four reactivation emails. His article on willing back inactive subscribers clearly describes his reasoning for each step.

Reactivation email one:

Ask your subscriber to re-engage with you. Use subject lines like ‘We miss you’.

Reactivation email two:

If the first email isn’t opened or doesn’t include any level of engagement, send a second email. Just remember to leave a gap in days. Three days to a week is a good amount of time.

The goal of this email is to be helpful. Use this email to link the subscriber to their preferences and ask what types of topics they want updates about.

Reactivation email 3:

The third reactivation email is optional. You can use it as an incentive to get subscribers to become active again. Maybe the option to go into the draw to win a prize? Or a sneak peak at a future article?

Reactivation email 4:

It’s time to say goodbye. Your subscriber has shown no signs of engagement. Make it clear this is your final ‘goodbye’ email and it’s the subscribers ‘last chance’ to remain on the subscriber list.

A/B Testing

Remember good old A/B testing? Don’t forget to use it. I can tell you all the benefits of using reactivation emails and how to optimise your emails, but you really should test the results.

A/B testing helps identify the subject lines that work best for your particular brand or how many reactivation emails to send out.

What to do when you re-engage an inactive subscriber

Congratulations. Your hard work has paid off and your inactive subscriber is keen to join you again. Use this as your opportunity to let them know how much you value them.

Make your re-engaged subscriber feel they’re part of your online community.

Send them a welcome back email.

A welcome back email generates 86 per cent higher open rates compared to regular promotional emails.

Your welcome back email should start off with thanking your subscriber for returning. Keep the positive trigger going so subscribers continue to be eager to hear from you.

Use this email to remind them of your social networks and any compelling information they may have missed out on. Use this as your chance to start a new conversation with your subscriber.

Common mistakes brands make when creating a reactivation email series

A lot of the time, we forget emails are made to foster valuable, long-term relationships with our customers and subscribers.

If our reactivation emails don’t focus on being helpful then we’ve lost the opportunity of creating fresh conversations.

Don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions about subscribers or sending them the standard automated reactivation email. Take the time to create a meaningful email series.


One of my favourite marketing resources, Smart Insights posted a super helpful article about common email marketing reactivation mistakes. I caught up with the article’s writer, Robert Allen, for his personal opinion about the most important feature of a helpful reactivation email.

“It needs to impart a reason (to reactivate) extremely clearly and succinctly. People won’t waste time reading through if they’re not engaged. It must be inductive rather than deductive reasoning.”

Too many brands make the mistake of sending out standard automated reactivation emails. If the email doesn’t have a direct purpose then why would a subscriber open the email?

It’s your job to give subscribers a reason to engage with your content.

I’ve compiled a bunch of Robert’s article to give you a helpful overview of the common reactivation email mistakes.

  • Timing

Your subscriber hasn’t opened your emails for more than a year. At this stage, they’re likely too disengaged to even have a small chance of returning.

Don’t wait too long to re-activate your subscriber. Around 90 days of disengagement tends to be the warning number. At 90 days it’s time to start your reactivation series. If you don’t, you could risk your subscriber becoming inactive for life or unsubscribing from your list themselves.

2. Discounting incentives

“Read our article to get 50 per cent off your next purchase”. Yes, it’s captivating but does it work? Unfortunately not. Don’t fall for the discount trap. It lowers your brand value.

There are many more alternatives to discounting. Invite your subscribers to join a loyalty program or entice them with a freebie. Read of our blog for more ideas on discounting alternatives that won’t affect your brand’s value.

3. Forgetting about testing

Please don’t forget about A/B testing. What works well for one ecommerce business may not work for another. The best way you can find what works is to test.

Choose one element such as the subject line, the copy or the number of emails you send and test it. If you find four reactivation emails work best, then develop a strategy to optimise getting the most out of those emails.

4. Not going through with the strategy

I know, it’s scary to delete inactive customers. You worked so hard to grow your list of subscribers and now you’re cutting a huge proportion from your list.

The benefit of deleting inactive customers is you’ll improve your open and click-through rates. The subscribers left on your list will be the people who want to read your content.

Don’t make the mistake of telling a subscriber it’s their last chance before you take them off your subscription list and not going through with it. People value honesty. If you don’t take them off the list when they’ve already lost interest, don’t expect them to come back.

Delete inactive subscribers. If they want to come back to you in the future they will subscribe again.

Sometimes you need to learn to let go.

Re-engagement is part of your email marketing strategy

We want to be helpful with our emails. Standard automated emails can’t create powerful emotional connections the way personalised emails can. Subscribers want to feel like you’re personally asking them to stay.

Creating a reactivation email strategy will help re-engage inactive subscribers as well as say goodbye to those who don’t want to be a part of your brand’s community.

Make a decision on how you want to segment your subscriber list. Set triggers to warn you when subscribers are becoming inactive. Put a strategy in place to re-engage inactive subscribers.

Some subscribers will be loyal to your content for life. Others become less interested and need to move on.

Use a reactivation strategy to begin a new conversation with your subscribers.

By Jessica Goerke
Since 2018 Jess has smashed client goals as a PPC specialist with her signature holistic approach to digital marketing. When she’s not driving awesome results for her clients, you’ll usually find her in the gym.
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