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E-tailers Sending High Volumes of Email to Inactive Subscribers

August 24, 2010

Most top-brand online retail marketers ignore signs of inactivity among their email subscribers, and continue to send email messages at steady and frequent rates, despite their subscribers' lack of response (no opens, clicks, or purchases), according to a study by Return Path.

That finding is based on an analysis of 40 online retailers that sent email messages to non-responsive subscribers—one-time buyers, who after their initial purchases, did not open, click, or buy again during a 19-month study period.

Email Frequency High and Climbing

During the first three months after signing up for email, subscribers received an average of 10 emails per month from each company included in the study. Thereafter, the average level ranged from 9 to 11 emails per month—despite no responses from subscribers.

There were exceptions to that pattern: The Container Store, though continuing to send email, slowly and consistently decreased frequency with each passing month, presumably recognizing the growing gap in time since the subscriber's last action.

But more commonly, retailers ignored subscribers' inaction: Neiman Marcus, for example, sent more than one email per day in the first three months (almost eight per week), decreased to five to six per week for six months, and then increased to one per day again—all with no response from the subscriber.

Moreover, throughout the study period, none of the online retailers studied explicitly offered the option to change preferences for content or frequency.

Below, other findings from Return Path's study, The One-Way Conversation: Email Marketing to the Non-Responsive Subscriber.

Win-Back Efforts the Exception

Only 12.5% of online retailers (5 out of 40) sent at least one win-back message to a lapsed subscriber. Among those win-back efforts:

  • A total of 14 messages were sent over 18 months, of which seven were from one company.
  • Only one of the five companies sent emails asking for permission to continue sending email, and none asked for email preferences.
  • None of the win-back messages were customized based on the subscriber's previous purchase.

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  • by Mark Smith (Portrait) Wed Aug 25, 2010 via web

    Interesting article, and I agree with Bonnie that the widespread perception of email being free can result in marketers incurring the costs of wasted resources and lost customers. With regards to the statistic that none of the online retailers surveyed had asked for their customers’ email preferences, incorporating preference management into a company’s marketing strategy has proven to be an effective marketing tool for any type of company with an email marketing campaign, not just online retailers. By helping marketers to ensure that their customers are emailed with only relevant offers and services they’re interested in receiving, preference management helps increase the success of marketing campaigns. If you’d like to read more about the benefits of incorporating preference management into marketing strategies, my colleague’s post “Email Marketing Isn’t Free” expands on the subject. (

    Mark Smith
    Portrait Software

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