You’ve done it! After months (or years) of investing your organization’s time, talent and acquisition budget, you have a highly sought-after email list of prospects and members. You have a treasure trove of people giving you permission to freely (and CAN-SPAM compliantly) communicate with them via email. Everything from e-newsletters, to special offers, to renewal and membership reminders, and even value-add information from your partners.

So that’s just what you do, right?

Keep emailing them (ALL of them), day after day, week after week, month after month. If they don’t open, who cares? Some day you’ll send a subject line that’s snappy enough to catch their eye and they’ll start opening those brilliantly crafted emails again. And in the meantime, you are the proud owner of a robust email list that internal teams and external advertisers will want to monetize as they send their messages to your audience.

Unfortunately that’s not the whole story. There’s a dark side that you might not want to think about. Within that nice, big number is a group of chronic non-openers who have disengaged with you, and continuing to email them is likely polluting the email water and doing more harm than good. You need to develop a strategy to increase email engagement with as many of these non-openers as possible.


People stop opening your emails for a number of reasons:

  • Perhaps your content isn’t new or compelling anymore. Are you still relevant?
  • It could be their inbox is just too crowded. We’ve probably all done it—emails hit the inbox and are immediately deleted rather than unsubscribed from because it’s easier and less of a commitment to simply hit “delete.”
  • They also might have simply stopped participating in what your organization offered them when they initially signed up.
  • Your emails might be relegated to the “promotional” mail folder (thank you Gmail), in which case they aren’t even SEEING them.

Whatever the reason, life happens and email subscribers move on. Try not to take it too personally!

One of the hardest things to do with your carefully cultivated and lovingly nurtured list is to let someone go when they haven’t made the first move to unsubscribe. But rather than just letting those non-openers go, why not try to re-engage them first (you’ve got nothing to lose by trying!). A re-engagement and list hygiene strategy is something every email marketer should have in their tool box.


You can start by analyzing your email list by time-on-file and last-open-date criteria. For example, identify how many of your subscribers who have been on file for three months have not opened an email in that time. Depending on how often you are emailing to your file, your specific criteria might vary. But three months is a good starting point for considering someone to be “disengaged” with your email content.

Once you understand the volume of your unengaged audience, dig a little deeper into the source of the names within each bucket. For example, is there a source channel that appears to have produced less-engaged subscribers? Understanding the quality of the list by source might indicate you should adjust how much you’re spending on acquisition from a certain source.

Also consider what communications you are sending to your email file in the selected timeframe. Is there a notable point in time when people stop opening (a “cliff”)? Analyze how many emails you’ve sent in the timeframe. Perhaps you’re sending TOO MANY emails and they’ve just become an annoyance that some of your audience has chosen to ignore.


You are armed with valuable information now that you have done the analytics. You have cold, hard facts indicating how people are reacting (or in this case, not reacting) to what you’ve been sending.

Your next steps might be scary, but hang with me and you’ll understand why you need to take them:

Step 1) Create a relatively simple email series with the goal of getting the newly defined “90-day Non-Opener” audience to open your email messages.

For example, if you regularly send a newsletter to your file, A/B split the Non-Opener audience, with half getting your regular newsletter subject line/preheader/content and half getting a special subject line/preheader AND Lead-In messaging (before the content).

Here’s some sample messaging you might try:

Subject line: NOTICE➡️ Please act soon to stay connected.

Preheader: You’ll lose your connection if you don’t act!

Lead-In Copy (above your content): Being part of {community name} is a great way to stay connected. We want to make sure you keep receiving your {newsletter name}. So please be sure to keep opening (and reading) when it lands in your inbox. That way, we’ll know you’re still interested in hearing the latest news, and you will continue to receive it each week. Thank you!

Create three variations of messaging like the above, and run this A/B test to the Non-Opener segment for a few weeks and compare your open rates between the two groups. Make sure you remove openers from your non-opener send pool before each send.

There are some non-openers who will open regardless of which subject line they receive. But it’s not unusual to see at least a 50% improvement in your open rates on the group with the re-engagement themed subject lines. 

Step 2) For those whose attention you have grabbed and are now re-engaged, here are a couple techniques to help keep them around:

  • Create a re-engagement onboarding series. Include highlights of new content they might have missed while they’ve been away. Update them on new benefits you’ve developed that will be important to them.
  • Survey them and see if you can discover clues as to why they stopped opening (and why they returned).

Step 3) For those who did not open and continue to be unengaged with your messaging, you need to remove them from your sendable email pool (gulp). This is often a hard pill to swallow. After all, you’ve invested all that time, talent and acquisition budget.

This is a very important step in this process and here’s why—chronic non-openers:

  • negatively influence your file’s performance metrics
  • have an adverse impact on your sender reputation and ultimately your deliverability
  • over-inflate the true size and value of your list (for your own marketing efforts as well as for potential advertising partners)


Imagine what your house would look like if you only cleaned it once a year. Unused “stuff” would pile up, cobwebs would gather and grow in the corners and your overall quality of life would suffer. Same goes for your “email house” (your ESP). The old saying about garbage-in/garbage-out has never been more pertinent. Developing a good re-engagement and file hygiene strategy is fairly easy to do. And once it’s set up will benefit you in the long run through better email deliverability, open rates and file performance.

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