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Subscriber engagement refers to the level of engagement or interaction an email subscriber maintains with a brand's email communications. The lack of subscriber engagement has become a critical topic for email marketers in recent years.

Engaged subscribers, generally defined as recipients who have opened, clicked on, or otherwise interacted with an email message in the previous 3-6 months, often make up only 30-40% of an email marketer's database.

It is truly a sad state of affairs when marketers are immune to the fact that at least 60% of email recipients ignore communications.

To make matters worse, email is undergoing rapid change at the subscriber level:

  • The inbox is morphing. Solutions like Gmail's Priority Inbox and Xobni take control away from the email marketer and make it more difficult to guarantee meaningful placement in the inbox.
  • The proliferation of daily-deal sites (e.g., Rue La La, Groupon) has raised consumer expectations around discounting and offer variety.
  • Perhaps most important, Internet service providers are beginning to use engagement as a gauge to determine where emails appear in the consumer's inbox—or whether they should be delivered at all. Confronting such a headwind, email marketers must understand how to maximize subscriber engagement.

Below is a short engagement strategy checklist to help elevate engagement in your email programs.

The Basics

1. The Welcome Series

The welcome series is perhaps the most underused program in the subscriber lifecycle. As subscribers enter your program, setting their expectations—about frequency of communication, content, etc.—is critical.

Brands should be transparent about what the subscribers will receive and when. Brands should also use the welcome stream to educate subscribers on the value of the program.

Consider the welcome series your subscribers' crash-course intro to your email program and content. The more they understand and believe in the value of your program, the better their engagement with it will be.

2. Triggers

Subscribers are nearly immune to the daily promotional emails they receive. Many use mobile devices to triage email communications, and only the most relevant and compelling messages make the cut and avoid immediate deletion.

Email marketers should look for triggers in the subscriber's relationship with the brand and automate as many programs as possible. Purchases, browser behavior, life events, and alerts/reminders are all examples of ways marketers can trigger email communications.

3. Re-engagement and Winback

No matter how strong a welcome program is or how automated email communications become, you will always have a percentage of subscribers (most likely, a large segment) that will become disengaged from your email program. To mitigate that unavoidable problem, make re-engagement a part of your email marketing lifecycle.

Many brands track engagement and trigger a re-engagement effort as soon as disengagement occurs. Re-engagement strategies include time-based offers (e.g., "Last chance for free shipping"), subscription confirmation (e.g., "Please confirm your subscription to continue receiving..."), profile update requests (e.g. "Please update your profile, so we can provide more relevant content and offers…"), and the like.

Regardless of which tactic you choose, creating an automated re-engagement stream and removing or suppressing unengaged subscribers will help boost your brand reputation and improve delivery and program performance.

More Advanced

4. Cause Marketing

The Gap recently launched a program called Give & Get, which offered consumers a 30% discount on purchases and the opportunity to donate 5% of their purchase price to a charity of their choice. This Cause Marketing tactic is catching on nationwide, and several new technology startups are attempting to capitalize on the trend.

Cause Marketing accesses a common passion shared by subscribers and allows the brand to offer its support to causes that are important to its consumers.

5. Loyalty and Email

Companies, such as GameStop and Southwest Airlines, have decided to reward engagement within the email channel. When subscribers open, click on, and share emails, brands track their activity and reward it.

6. Social and Applications

Finally, we email marketers should by now understand that emerging technology has driven our subscribers to opt in to other communications channels with the brand. Though the term "subscriber" has become synonymous with permission in the email channel, "Like" and "Follow" have become the same thing for Facebook and Twitter, respectively.

Those who "Like" your brand on Facebook and "Follow" you on Twitter have given you permission to communicate with them via those channels. Create programs for these segments and give them the opportunity to hear from your brand in the channels they choose.

The result could be an email opt-out in favor of Facebook or mobile application engagement, but that's OK. Attaining increased engagement (via any channel) and enhanced brand reputation justifies the culling of inactives from your file.

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Ryan Deutsch is vice-president of strategic services at StrongMail, a leading provider of online marketing solutions for email and social media.

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