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Win back lost subscribers: The art of the re-engagement email

by Kate Lindemann  |  March 15, 2021

6 min. read
Illustration of a re-engagement email showing an email envelope on a laptop.

It’s a fact of life in email marketing: Not every subscriber will open every email you send. But what about the subscribers who never open any of your emails? These contacts are called inactive subscribers, and nearly every mailing list has lots of them.

They haven’t technically unsubscribed, but they might as well have.

Fortunately, there’s something you can do about it. With a re-engagement email campaign, you can reanimate your inactive subscribers and reignite their interest in your brand. Here’s how.

What is a re-engagement email?

A re-engagement email is a marketing email sent to inactive subscribers. Its purpose is to get people who have stopped interacting with email campaigns interested again. Re-engagement emails also help marketers identify uninterested subscribers (and inactive email addresses), so they can remove them from their mailing list.

First, segment off your inactive subscribers

The first step to reactivating inactive subscribers is move them from your main email list into a separate segment.

When should you consider a subscriber inactive? It can be hard to know where to draw the line. After all, most people won’t open every marketing email they get – even from their favorite brands.

In most cases, six months to a year is a good timeframe. Anyone who hasn’t opened your emails for that long has clearly disengaged.

Once you identify inactive subscribers, move them to a separate group, so you can send targeted re-engagement campaigns and track their engagement more closely.

Illustration of email list subscribers divided into blue and orange segments.

How to write a re-engagement email

Once you’ve identified inactive subscribers and segmented them off, you’re ready to move on to the next step: sending a re-engagement email or campaign.

There are no set rules for what a re-engagement email should say. That’ll depend on your industry, brand and what types of emails you usually send.

However, there are a few best practices you can follow to maximize your re-engagement emails’ chance of success.

Mix things up

If you always send the same type of email, subscribers will tune them out. It’s hard to get excited about content you’ve seen a million times before.

One way to tell if subscribers need some fresh content is to send something totally new that’ll stand out. Don’t do much video email marketing? Give it a try. Don’t usually offer big discounts? That might be just the thing to catch subscribers’ attention.

Subject lines for video and discount emails on phone screens.

Pay extra attention to your subject line

Writing great email subject lines isn’t easy. You’ve got to convince people an email’s worth reading in just a few words.

But that’s also what makes them so important – doubly so for an audience that doesn’t usually open your emails.

Re-engagement emails are by nature something of an uphill battle. So if you’ve been cutting corners and rushing your subject lines, be sure to give these a little extra love.

Give people a reason to re-engage

A key element of a successful re-engagement strategy is reminding people why they signed up to your list in the first place.

Are they missing out on something fun? A unique opportunity? A sense of community? This is the time to brush off your most persuasive copy and remind them what they love about your brand.

Email subject line on a phone screen warning that member points will expire.

Make it easy to unsubscribe

A re-engagement email should also make it easy to get off your mailing list. This might seem counterintuitive. Why would you want to lose subscribers? But someone trapped on your list will grow to dislike your brand more and more with each unwanted email.

Put a clearly marked unsubscribe link in each email and make sure your unsubscribe page is clear and easy to navigate. This is a legal requirement in many parts of the world, but even if it weren’t, it’s still a best practice to let unhappy subscribers go.

Subject line of a re-engagement email on a phone screen.

Write more than one email

If you just send one re-engagement email, you run the risk of simply catching some subscribers at a bad time. Instead, make it a re-engagement campaign.

Start small by mixing up your content. Then, offer an incentive to reactivate, like a juicy discount. Finally, give your inactive subscribers a chance to adjust their email settings or opt out altogether.

Re-engagement email examples

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what goes into a re-engagement email, let’s look at some of those ideas in action.

Bonobos keeps it short and sweet

Screenshot of a Bonobos re-engagement email.

Subject: Hey! Are you still there?

Re-engagement emails don’t have to be complicated, as this example from Bonobos shows. With minimal copy and a single CTA button, the brand makes it easy for customers to stay subscribed in just one click. The attention-grabbing subject line will stand out in people’s inboxes – making it clear this isn’t just another marketing email.

Animoto offer options

Subject: Do you still want to hear from us?

Screenshot of an Animoto re-engagement email.

Video animation tool Animoto also keeps things simple in their re-engagement email. They don’t hide behind clever copy, and instead use clear language to explain why they’re sending the email and what steps the subscriber can take. The CTA really stands out in this email: By linking to an email preferences form, Animoto gives people more options than just “stay” or “unsubscribe.”

Pinkberry makes us an offer we can’t refuse

Screenshot of a Pinkberry re-engagement email.

Subject: A free yogurt, on us!

This email from Pinkberry reminds customers on their rewards mailing list why they signed up in the first place: sweet, delicious fro-yo. This email has a lot going for it: free food, mouth-watering visuals and a sense of urgency (the offer expires in 7 days). Gifts make customers feel appreciated, and give them an incentive to stay engaged with your brand. After all, who would turn down a free dessert?

Buzzfeed makes it a (nearly) done deal

Screenshot of a Buzzfeed re-engagement email.

Psychology research shows that we humans pay more attention to what we lose than what we gain. Buzzfeed’s approach to re-engagement taps into that effect.

They tell inactive subscribers they’ll be unsubscribed automatically. To stay on the list (and prevent the loss of email content), they need to click a link. By tracking opens and clicks, Buzzfeed can easily tell which subscribers to keep on their list.

Now what? What to do after a re-engagement campaign.

If some of your long-dormant subscribers reacted to a re-engagement email, congratulations – the campaign was a success! You can either move them back to the main mailing list or keep them in a separate segment to keep nurturing them with a targeted campaign.

But what about people who didn’t? This one may surprise you: Delete them from your list.

It sounds harsh, but there’s a good reason to do it. While all mailing lists have some inactive subscribers, a list with too many inactive subscribers can damage your sender reputation and affect email deliverability.

Illustration of a marketer pruning inactive subscribers from his mailing list.

That’s because email engagement is one of the many metrics email service providers use to identify spammers. If your engagement drops too low, your emails might start landing in the spam folder.

Because of this, removing inactive subscribers is simply good email list management.

Let’s recap

Inactive subscribers on your mailing list may be holding your engagement rates back. Fortunately, a targeted re-engagement email campaign can bring some life back into those dormant email contacts.

If you haven’t been giving your inactive subscribers much thought, now’s the time. So segment them off, dream up some subject lines that’ll stand out in their inboxes and let the re-engagement begin!