How publishers reengage dormant email subscribers

Increasing email subscriber lists make newsletters more appealing to advertisers, but having a list made up of dead leads drops the value of that list, dragging down open rates and click-through rates substantially. 

Beyond amassing big numbers, publishers are increasingly focused on quality in their email lists. That means taking on the unenviable, some say nearly hopeless, task of reengaging subscribers who have gone dark, which can look like automated follow-ups at the 30- to 60-day mark or cutting your losses and removing disengaged readers altogether.

Newsletter publisher Morning Brew has a quick-triggered filtering process of dealing with disengaged readers. Tyler Denk, senior product lead, said that the company currently has 1.6 million active subscribers for its daily newsletter, but it’s constantly churning subscribers who have lowered their engagement level and over the course of its lifetime, it’s had over 3 million. 

If at any given point since signing up a reader hasn’t opened the newsletter for 60 days, Denk said a reengagement email will go out and if they don’t respond within 48 hours, the name is removed from the list. But for those who sign up and don’t open the first email within three weeks, the same 48-hour reengagement process begins, with slightly different messaging.

“We have pretty strict churning process, so if you show levels of you not engaging with the newsletter, we don’t care about the vanity metric of total subscribers. We really care about the total opens,” said Denk. “If we acquire you as a subscriber and you stop reading, we don’t really care to keep you on our list for the sake of saying we have more subscribers. We keep open rates high, which makes deliverability better, which increases the total unique opens, which is the only metric that really matters.”

Axios also starts its reengagement process as early as one-week post-sign-up, where inactive users are prompted with a multiple-choice question as to why they haven’t opened the newsletter yet. The company also started doing a second-week churn process, which asks subscribers who haven’t engaged in two weeks since sign-up if they want to stay subscribed and removes those who don’t answer. Axios said it has seen success with running early reengagement campaigns, even maintaining an average open rate of 43% from before running this strategy to after.

Publishers who rely on newsletter advertising, like business-to-business newsletter publisher SmartBrief, which runs 275 newsletters, see the strategy as necessary.

“The majority of our revenue comes from ads in newsletters, so reengagement is worth it for us,” said Joe Webster, vp of marketing and audience development at SmartBrief. However, the bulk of the company’s reengagement strategy is focused on the top 50 revenue performing newsletters, which he said has the more valuable subscribers.

Webster said that their reengagement strategy is set up like an automated drip campaign and once someone hits the 30-day mark of not opening emails, the follow-up begins. From a resource standpoint, the hardest part is creating the campaign, but once it’s built, it’s easy to maintain and monitor and has helped SmartBrief reduce churn, assisting the company financially.

Another exec at a digital media company, which has been using an automated reengagement strategy for the past few years, said that “generally, it’s difficult to get [disengaged subscribers] to be your most engaged users.” Therefore, the company’s reengagement strategy is focused more on meeting advertising goals than editorial goals, meaning its more valuable to keep list lengths long and open rates high to appeal to advertising partners versus trying to get the reengaged cohort to view the brands’ content.

This year, The Wall Street Journal invested in its email reengagement strategy, which membership product lead Annemarie Dooling was tasked with spearheading. Inheriting 50 newsletter lists, some several years old that had never been cleaned before, Dooling said her entire efforts last quarter were dedicated to the newspaper’s email reengagement strategy and in her opinion, it was not worth the outcome. 

Dooling said that less than 1% of subscribers that went through a reengagement campaign, not including readers who request to stay on the list, actually started engaging again. “It’s a small amount, less than 1,000 for a huge list,” which could be as large as 200,000 to 300,000. 

Dan Oshinsky, a consultant at Inbox Collective and former director of newsletters for BuzzFeed and The New Yorker, said that the reason reengagement is a struggle for a lot of companies is because they’ve never done something like this before, and only a handful of clients had some sort of engagement strategy already in place before working with him. 

“They’ve been collecting addresses for years and years, most of whom they’ve not talked to for years and years, so trying to win them back after five years, that’s tough,” Oshinsky said.  

But for clients that establish automated programs that target readers at the moment in the relationship when they have a good shot to win them back — typically around the 30-day mark — Oshinsky said reengagement works really well. And publishers that have these reengagement strategies in place typically saw open rates that were two to three times higher than the industry average, he said. 

Aside from the front-end lift to clean up the lists and create the automated reengagement campaign, Oshinsky said that it’s substantially cheaper to chase after disengaged subscribers than it is to find new ones. Where the cost per email acquisition might range between $.25 and $3, he said reengaging a single subscriber is essentially free since many email marketing services have reengagement services built-in. 

Making the decision to let the subscriber go is another challenge, but Webster said, “If they’ve shown value historically, trying to keep them in your audience makes a lot of sense. If they came in because of an offer and they haven’t engaged with you since then, then probably not.”

The post has been updated to clarify the details of the WSJ’s re-engagement strategy.

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