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 amassed an audience of people who have given you permission to freely (and CAN-SPAM compliantly) communicate with them via email. Everything from onboarding and renewal reminders, to e-newsletters, to special offers, 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 maybe you’ll use 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 an email list that you can monetize by sending offers and content on behalf of your internal teams and external advertisers.

Unfortunately that’s not the whole story. There’s a downside to the absence of an email list management strategy that you might not want to think about. Within that large email audience is a group of chronic non-openers who have disengaged with you. Continuing to email them is likely polluting the email water and doing more harm than good. Consider developing a strategy to improve email engagement with as many of these unengaged subscribers as possible.


People stop opening and clicking on your emails for a number of reasons:

  • Perhaps your content isn’t new or compelling anymore. Are you still relevant?
  • It could be that 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 time commitment to just 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 email audience is to remove someone when they haven’t taken the action to unsubscribe. But rather than just removing the unengaged subscribers from your audience, why not try to re-engage them first (you’ve got nothing to lose by trying)? A re-engagement and list hygiene strategy is critical to have in your email marketing tool box.


You can start by analyzing your email audience list by time-on-file and engagement activity. There are many variables that impact the reliability of email open rates (mail privacy protection, email client settings and behavior, mobile device usage, to name a few). However, this along with click rates are metrics you can monitor over time and use as an indicator of engagement. 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 the types of emails you are sending (promotional offers, newsletters, event announcements) and 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 and/or clicking (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 appear 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 and click 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 clicking (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-engagers:

  • negatively influence your file’s performance metrics
  • they have an adverse impact on your sender reputation and ultimately your deliverability reputation, and
  • 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 it will benefit you in the long run through better email deliverability, open and click rates, and overall file performance.

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