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Inactive Subscribers and the Potato Skin Myth

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by: Stephen Guerra (@StephenGuerra)
17 February 2012

I’m often told the associations I make between digital marketing and everyday life are a bit “out there.” One of my favorite examples? Revealing what email marketers can learn from dolphin trainers in “Dolphin Training, Email Marketing and Incentives.”

Well, here I go again! This time I’m going to explain how an email list is like a potato—and what email marketers can learn from a popular potato myth:

So, where does the myth come from, and how does it relate to your email list?

The myth arises from a misunderstanding of percentages. Let’s take the potassium content of a potato as an example, using numbers from the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • A 100g potato with skin has 535 mcg of potassium.
  • The percent of potassium in the skin is about 7 percent while the flesh is about 0.39 percent potassium.
  • Clearly, the skin has a much higher ratio of potassium. BUT, the skin is only a very small fraction of the total potato mass.
  • Since there is much more flesh than skin, there is actually more total potassium in the flesh—144 mcg in the skin versus 391 in the rest of the potato.

I’ll bet you can guess where I’m going next.

Your list may have a lot of inactive recipients along with a smaller percentage of very active ones. A common myth in the email world is that you can improve campaign performance if you stop sending to the inactives because the percent return for that segment is low.

From a deliverability standpoint, this argument does have some merit. But deliverability, while critical to manage, is not the point of email marketing. Return is. If you can send to the entire list, even though your inactive segment will return a smaller percentage rate, the total return will likely be greater than a send to just the active portion.

The trick is to use a smarter strategy than just “stop emailing your inactives.” Here are three approaches for minimizing your deliverability risk while continuing to benefit from your entire list:

1) Stratify your inactives. With a bit of segmentation work, you can identify various levels of activity within your list and treat each level accordingly.

2) Send less to the inactive segments. Go ahead and exclude inactives from your weekly mailings, but send to them once a month. That way, you stay in touch without bothering them.

3) Monitor when recipients become inactive—and set up automated, customized campaigns to reactivate them. For a more advanced strategy, as Loren McDonald suggests in “Unengaged Subscribers Are Costing You,” use reporting and scoring to predict when they may become inactive and head them off at the pass.

The Silverpop Strategy team works with our clients to develop approaches that take full advantage of your entire list while minimizing deliverability risk. If you’d like some help with strategies that incorporate both your active and inactive recipients, let us know at And remember, have fun and keep learning.

Related Resources:
1) Webinar: “Inactive Email Subscribers: Tips for Taming the Beast
2) Blog: “Inactive Subscribers: What’s Your Strategy?
3) Blog: “Guest Q&A: Dela Quist on Managing Inactives, Subject Line Length & Marketers’ Fear and Self-Loathing


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