When it comes to deliverability, sometimes breaking up with unengaged subscribers is the best thing to do. After all, they may be affecting your ability to reach those who really want to hear from you. So don’t be shy about unsubscribing contacts once you‘ve determined that their value to you is limited, Jeff Bartlett of RootsRated told attendees at Bronto Summit 2016.

RootsRated curates content by local experts to help connect outdoor enthusiasts with the best experiences nearby. They recently took the aggressive step of deleting 30% of their email list and have seen positive gains.

“Figure out at what point you are willing to cut bait, and say, ‘This person is more of a liability to my overall list than they are a future lead for me to sell to,’” Bartlett said.

When Bartlett became director of content marketing at RootsRated in Nov. 2015, spam complaint rates were high, engagement was low, and a large portion of its email list hadn't been sent a message in 90 days. Bartlett shared list management, workflow and re-engagement techniques RootsRated used to start reaching the inbox again.

Canoe-Man Cometh

Bartlett clearly has a passion for his company’s mission and the great outdoors. He turned his presentation in days before the due date so he could paddle the Buffalo River in Arkansas for eight days. And in Miami, instead of staying at one of the awesome hotels on the strip, Bartlett bedded down at a state campground eight miles away and biked or kayaked to Bronto Summit most days. But when he joined RootsRated, Bartlett acquired an email list that was, frankly, a hot mess.
  • It had about 42,000 people on it, but about 14,000 had signed up during a contest and had not been emailed in 90 days.
  • A total of 12,000 more subscribers had been sequestered into a list called “do not mail” and also hadn’t been emailed in 90 days.
  • Meanwhile, another 11,000 were on the newsletter list, which received monthly emails.
  • And about 5,000 had either been orphaned inside Bronto or were too newly subscribed to have ever received an email newsletter.

Graymail Can Hurt You

One problem that became quickly apparent was graymail. Seeing low engagement rates, some ISPs flag email from known graymail senders and send it directly to junk folders, even for brand new subscribers who haven’t even had the chance to engage with your email.

RootsRated suspected that the 14,000 who signed up for the contest didn’t really want their emails. And if 30% of the company’s email list is people who aren’t engaging or opening emails, that can keep emails from being delivered to people who do want your emails.

To test this theory, Bartlett pulled a Bronto report and zeroed in on people who had not opened 20 consecutive emails. He recognized a couple of addresses, including one of a friend who checked her inbox and found no RootsRated emails. And yet she had previously engaged with the company’s content, had good click and open rates and was definitely interested in the company’s content.

Bartlett admits that unsubscribing 14,000 people “was scary.” But after someone doesn’t respond to 15 to 20 emails, one has to ask, “Unless this person is crossing the Atlantic on a cargo ship, what’s going on that they are not interested in your stuff?”

Oops! I Did It Again

RootsRated also wanted to re-engage others, some of whom had signed up and never received an email even after more than 90 days.

The challenge? How do you email more than 11,000 people who haven’t received anything after that much time? Owning the problem, the company sent an email that said, “Oops, we haven’t been emailing you.” The open rate was 37%.

Recipients were given the option to unsubscribe, but those who opened the email were put back on the promotional list. Those who didn’t open received the same email a couple weeks later with a different subject line and image. And those who didn’t open either message were eventually cycled off the list.

Looking Ahead

RootsRated considered other reasons people might not be engaging. They may have provided an email address they don’t actually use, or they may have images turned off, thereby foiling the tracking pixel.

RootsRated used Bronto to begin building workflows to see how to re-engage unengaged subscribers. The first step was to send a text-only reactivation email (OK, it wasn’t technically all text since it was an HTML email and had the Bronto tracking pixel, but the text-to-image ratio was nearly 100:0) with the subject line, “We’ve Missed You.”

The copy mentioned something like, “Hey, we noticed you’re not opening our emails.” Would you like fewer? Emails better targeted to you? Subscribers had the option of filling out a preference form or unsubscribing.

Suddenly, a 0% open rate grew to 20%. Bartlett says that was a clue there were inbox placement issues because one of the filters that providers use to determine whether or not you’re spamming is the text-to-HTML ratio, which is a problem if you’re sending one huge image in all your emails.

The company has since used workflows in Bronto to build segments using zip codes to send more relevant emails based on preferences, such as whether someone is interested in mountain biking in Seattle, camping in Colorado or beaches in Hilton Head, S.C.

Bartlett said efforts are paying off. Open and click rates have gone up consistently for the past six months, and are nearly double what they were in November. And the spam complaint is one-tenth what it was five months ago.

In the end, Bartlett said, “Engagement is the key. It’s all about people opening and clicking your messages. And the more that happens and the better your deliverability gets, the more you’re convincing Gmail and other email providers that your emails are worth putting in (people’s) inboxes.”

More Tools You Can Use

Want to give your subscriber list a good checkup? Here are some other tips from Bronto:

Don’t buy email lists – and purge any you bought in the past. Shoppers don’t like unsolicited email and certainly don’t want to be on any lists they never subscribed to. Let users make their own choices. By doing so, you’ll avoid spam traps.

Don’t automatically subscribe e-receipt recipients. An e-receipt program isn’t an opportunity to go all crazy growing your list. Ask customers who sign up for e-receipts whether they want your emails. Don’t assume that they do.

Put your unsubscribe front and center. Put the unsubscribe button at the top of your emails. Consider making it bold or adding a splash of color.