How to Create Better Email Re-engagement Campaigns

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Got a lot of inactive email subscribers? You’re not alone. The average email list loses 25-30% of its subscribers every year.

Most of these people don’t actually unsubscribe. They just kinda… linger. Some marketers call them “emotionally unsubscribed.”

You can try to keep them – and we recommend you do. You can create great emails, segment your list, personalize your messages, the whole enchilada. But no matter how great an email marketer you are, some subscribers will disengage.

As they stop responding to your emails, a couple of bad things start to happen.

First, the emails you send these subscribers will start going into their spam folder instead of into their inbox. Unless you’re tracking something called “inbox placement”, you won’t even see this happening. You’ll just see your emails’ engagement rates dribbling down.

Your emails’ deliverability rates may stay the same – at least at first. That’s because most email service providers actually count emails that end up in a spam folder as “delivered”.

Over time, as the percentage of disengaged subscribers grows and the length of time they’ve been inactive grows, you will begin to see deliverability rates fall. This will eat into your profits, too, of course.

Even worse, you’ll still be paying to mail to all these inactive subscribers. That can add up to quite a lot of overhead. Most marketers don’t like to pay to send messages to people who aren’t even seeing (much less responding to) your emails.

Despite the problems, many marketers put up with this situation for a long time. Some of them, for years. There are estimates that 70-75% of the subscribers on the average email list are disengaged. Per Caroe of Lyris said so back at the 2011 MarketingSherpa Email Summit. And Return Path recently backed up that stat in their “Frequency Matters” report, when they said, “only 24 percent of email lists consist of highly engaged subscribers”.

I hope your list is doing WAY better than that. But even if it is, why pay for all those inactive subscribers? Why not “practice good email list hygiene” as we marketers say, and cut all those inactives?

Because it’s hard, that’s why. Because while you might logically understand that all these inactives aren’t doing you any good, purging, say, half your subscribers sounds about as fun as chopping off a hand. You worked hard for those subscribers!

So if you’re like most marketers, you’ll get to this point of knowing you’ve got dead weight on your list, but not wanting to delete these people, either. And so you’ll decide to send a re-engagement email (or emails), aka a “re-activation email” or a “win-back campaign”.

And that’s a good idea. Because most email marketers say re-engagement campaigns are effective… even though only 57% of us actually use them.


If you want to be among that 57%, excellent. Here’s a few best practices to consider while you’re crafting your re-engagement email/s.


1. Start things out right.

We’ve been talking about the end of your relationship with your subscribers up ‘til now, so it might be surprising to start talking about the beginning of your time together. But what you do when people first subscribe can affect how long they stay engaged.

It’s called a Welcome series. You can, of course, just send one welcome email, but sending a series is more effective. Think maybe four emails, sent every few days to once a week at the beginning of your subscriber’s signup.

If you can get people to click early in the relationship, you’ll have “trained” them to respond to your emails, but you’ll also have gathered some information about them that can be used for personalization later.

Something like this might do. This is about the fourth email in the Welcome series from Pawstruck. They’re sending it because I haven’t used my Welcome coupon yet.


Nice countdown timer there, too. More about those in a moment.


2. Send a birthday email.

These won’t reactivate everybody (especially if you clean your list more than once a year), but they can bring back some people. Birthday emails are one of the most effective emails around – they get clicked like crazy.

So send one.

Don’t have people’s birthdays? Craft an email to get this information, like this one from Starbucks:


(Hint: This can be an excellent email for a Welcome series, too.)

Here’s a spin on this tactic: Send an anniversary email. As in, the anniversary between you and your subscriber.

Like this one from The Grommet:


3. Reach out before they drift too far.

Don’t wait until a subscriber is all but dead to try to re-engage them. Have a standard re-engagement email at the ready, and send it every week (or few weeks) to anyone who hasn’t clicked an email in the last three months. Or the last four months… or whatever suits your fancy. Recapture some of these people before the trail has gone cold.

Here’s an email from Sidekick that gets sent if someone has been inactive for only two months:



4. Troll Pinterest for re-engagement email ideas.

A bunch of people in the email industry collect their favorite re-engagement emails on Pinterest boards. You could spend hours viewing all of them.


Really Good Emails has a great selection of reactivation emails, too. Here’s one of them:


5. Automate it.

Scott Hardigree has written a pithy post on how to do this. Here’s the steps he suggests, verbatim:

  • No opens/clicks in 12 months?
  • Dump into ‘inactive’ segment
  • Send 4 emails in four weeks
  • Mix up the Subject line and From line formula (be bold, standout)
  • Simplify email copy, use a responsive template
  • Offer an incentive if possible, use urgency if you can, otherwise use your best controversial or evergreen content
  • Exit series on first open/click
  • If no response, carry on as usual

He says you can set that up in an hour or less. I think it might end up being 2-3 hours for some of us, but the plan is still valid.

If you’ve got an email service provider with decent marketing automation capabilities, you could automatically move anyone who clicked a link in these emails back to your active list.

The retailer Munchkin has an automated re-engagement campaign that works extremely well for them. Here’s how they describe it:

The re-engagement campaign also deploys a 10% off coupon and is sent to customers who haven’t opened an email in four months. The second message offers a managed preferences form for those who want to select how often Munchkin communicates with them. And the third email confirms a plan to “break up” with inactive subscribers. The re-engagement campaign has a 4.8% conversion rate and a 2.8% open rate.


6. Send the last-ditch email.

I started seeing these about a year, year and a half ago. They’re fairly straightforward – the subscriber has to click the email if they want to stay subscribed. If they don’t click, this message is goodbye – they’ll be taken off the list.


7. Use a countdown timer.

Say something like, “If we don’t hear from you in 24 hours, that’s it. We gotta cut you off.”  Here’s a weekend only sale email that tells the subscriber there’s a time limit.

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8. Test your reactivation emails.

Just like you would any other kind of email. You want optimal results from these campaigns, right? And now that you know how important reactivation emails are, you’re gonna send them more often, right?

So use that opportunity to test.


9. Offer a discount.

Here’s an email Russell Hobbs sent to their list ( It got 19% of recipients to open the email. 12% of those openers clicked.



If that seems low… you may need to adjust your expectations for your re-engagement campaigns. Getting even 20% of inactives to respond is a win.

One tip for discount offers: Use dollar off discounts, not percent off. According to Return Path, dollar off offers get two times as many opens as percent off win-back offers.


10. Put your offer in the subject line and in the preheader text.

This may be one time when a nice design barely matters. Why? Because these people haven’t been opening your emails… so you need to get through to them based on what they can see in their inbox. Namely, the subject line and preheader text.

So don’t be shy. Offer something great. Say it plainly and up front. This is no time to be coy.

One proven way to boost open rates? Use their name. Personalize that subject line.  You might also try a personalized image in your email, too. That way, if they do open, they’ll be more compelled to click.


11. Offer to downgrade your relationship and have them follow you on social media:

If they don’t want to connect via email, maybe social media is their thing. Offer to connect with them there instead. Like Habitat has done here:


12. Send more than one re-engagement email.

This is gonna take more work, but you’ll be glad you did it. Even a great offer won’t work on everybody. So try at least 2-3 different tactics, and try them at different times.

If you can get back even 2% of your subscribers with each email, isn’t that worthwhile?


13. Segment your inactives.

We’ve talked about automating your re-activation campaigns… but I might have made it sound like you’d send only one email, or send emails only at a specific time.

Reconsider that. What if you sent a re-activation email to people who haven’t clicked in 60 days… then send another one to the subscribers who didn’t click the first email, when they become non-clickers at 90 days. Then send reactivation emails every 30 days after that.

With a frequency like that, by the time they get to six months of being inactive, you’ll be ready to let them go.

This strategy has some nice things going for it:

  • It’s automated, which frees up your time, but also means those campaigns will definitely go out.
  • It catches subscribers while their interest is fading, but before they’re completely disinterested. This also shows you’re paying attention to them, which gives that standard company line about “we care about you” some meaning.
  • It lets you try different tactics over time.


14. Offer multiple benefits in the email.

This tactic gets mentioned in a lot of resources for how to re-engage inactives. I like the idea behind it – have something for everyone… but in terms of conversion rate optimization, it’s a no-no to have more than one call to action. All those options distract the subscriber, thus making them less likely to click.

But I certainly could be wrong. Do you know of a case study or split-test where a multiple offer re-engagement email beat an email that had just one call to action?


15. Consider re-targeting ads.

If your subscribers are disengaged via the email channel… perhaps they’re more responsive on social, or on your website, or on another website. Consider testing this: Could a re-targeting campaign affect an email re-activation campaign?



Disengagement happens. It happens a lot, actually.

So why not set up a system for re-engaging your subscribers? Stop postponing this somewhat unpleasant task and just automate it.

With a little time, some marketing automation software, and some testing, you could probably cut your list’s churn rate in half.




Author: Pam Neely has been marketing online for 18 years. She has a background in publishing and journalism, including a New York Press Award and a Hermes Creative Award for blog writing. Pam holds a Master’s Degree in Direct and Interactive Marketing from New York University and is the author of a bestselling Amazon Kindle book “50 Ways to Build Your Email Marketing List.” Follow her on Twitter @pamellaneely.

1 comments on “How to Create Better Email Re-engagement Campaigns”

  1. The examples you recommended are great, but you can’t avoid sending emails to them altogether. Normally if someone is not engaging with you, it is because they are not getting the content you want. So if a large portion of your list is acting this way, we would recommend to keep sending to them, but maybe modify the content/offer.

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