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Dealing with inactive email subscribers – should you bid adieu? 

The real problem with inactive email subscribers is that they aren’t just sitting there. They’re just sitting there and costing you money. 

Did you know that email marketing distribution costs are linked to the number of subscribers on your mailing list (or that that’s how most email service providers will charge you)? 

To complicate things further, there’s the argument that it costs five to ten times more to acquire new subscribers than to re-engage those you already have. 

So you’re left asking yourself, “Should I cut out inactive subscribers and save on ESP spending that is not yielding any results?” while at the same time wondering, “But engaging brand new subscribers would cost me at least five times as much as retaining these, so maybe I should just leave them be.”

However, leaving inactive subscribers does not work either because you are still incurring costs that are not delivering any ROI. 

Agenda #1: Engage with your dormant subscribers

It’s a fact that if your inactive email subscribers represent leads that are merely dormant and not completely dead, they are still warm enough. Shouldn’t you, then, be doing something to move them from dormancy to engagement? 

You should know that email platforms like Google, Yahoo, and Hotmail will automatically start sending your emails to spam after a few months of your emails getting ignored. That’s a whole new Pandora’s box for companies because if your emails are going to spam for a good number of subscribers, you could get categorized as a spammer, and once slapped on, it takes a lot of work to shrug off the spam label. 

So what can you do to re-engage inactive email subscribers? 

The good news is that inactivity is not necessarily a sign of definitive disinterest. The bad news is that a portion of your subscribers will typically indeed be beyond revival. That’s because some people might only have offered their email address because they needed to download a report that maybe had some figures that they needed. Others might have once needed your product, but their context might have changed, and it might no longer be of interest to them. But there will be inactive email subscribers that are also easy to engage. Use this three-step process to filter your subscribers. 

Step 1: Categorise

No matter what your sector or your product is, you can divide inactive email subscribers into three buckets: 

  • Dormant leads

These leads have a high potential of becoming active subscribers and should be the easiest of the lot as far as re-engaging inactive email subscribers goes. These now inactive email subscribers were once upon a time active and engaged subscribers. They were opening your email, clicking, downloading, following links, etc. until a few weeks or a month ago. 

This bucket represents the ‘easiest-to–re-engage’ inactive email subscribers. 

  • Hibernating leads

These leads are dormant leads a few months down the line. Like their dormant counterparts, these leads might have been active and engaged once upon a time but have been inactive email subscribers for a while now, say about six months. 

Alternatively, if this is your second round of categorizing your subscribers, maybe these are subscribers who did not respond to the first outreach. 

  • Dead leads 

These leads were never engaged. Don’t take it personally. You probably got their email address because they visited your website once, but it is possible they were looking for another product and lost their way or that they had only momentary use of your website (or some resource you had uploaded) for some reason. Some of them could be students, researchers, or writers who just visited your website for figures or data to help with a project. 

It is also possible that their context changed. Maybe your product is a dating app, and the inactive email subscriber got hitched. Maybe you sell stainless steel pipes which were important to your subscriber when they worked in manufacturing, but now they have decided to follow their dreams and open a restaurant, in which case they’re most likely not interested in stainless steel pipes. 

These are actually the easiest to spot because they are characterized by having visited your website once, after which they ghosted you completely, and they will not have responded to any outreach programs that you have tried/ will try. 

Step 2: Outreach 

Now that you have greater visibility into what is going on with your subscribers, you can start making targeted moves.

For the dormant leads, try email automation where your emails arrive at a better time. For example, you might want your email to reach them when their email activity is slightly slower-paced. Some brands prefer for emails to reach when the subscriber wakes up. Basically, one tries to zero in on the time of day when the subscriber is most receptive to messages. It might take some trial and error. You can figure out the exact time by checking out email campaign metrics on platforms like HubSpot.

For the hibernating leads, it’s best just to ask if they would like to stay on your mailing list. Keep your subject and email to the point. The subject should say something like “Want to keep hearing from us?” and the email body should have a button that lets them stay subscribers and another that lets them unsubscribe. Keep it short. A wordy email could tip the scales in the wrong direction. 

The best way to optimize for subject lines or in-mail content by analyzing success metrics of an email campaign on HubSpot. The platform also shows what part of an email body the readers paused on the most.

If you don’t already have one, a subscription center that allows subscribers to adjust the frequency of emails is a good idea. Every email should contain a link allowing subscribers the option to change subscription preferences. 

Pro Tip: It should be as easy to unsubscribe or change preferences as it is to hit delete. 

Speaking of preferences, here’s a red flag you shouldn’t ignore: If you find that a large number of your email subscribers are becoming active, you might need to examine your content. Clearly, you’re doing something wrong. 

If all your emails are invitations to buy or spend, you are going not only have a problem re-engaging inactive email subscribers but a larger problem of all subscribers losing interest rapidly. Throw in some useful content between promotional mailers. This includes how-tos or expert interpretations of news relevant to your product. For example, a trading app should not just send out emails telling people to download the app or place a trade or invest but would also offer explainers on recent stock market dips and spikes or on a recent merger. 

Make sure that your content is interestingly presented, easy to read, and relevant to your audience. Fonts, layouts, and color palettes go through trend cycles just like the fashion industry. Stay on-trend so that you don’t come across as redundant. 

Pro Tip #2: Do not send out an email before previewing it first. 

Step 3: Au Revoir

So you’ve done your very best and have managed to re-engage some of your inactive email subscribers. But not all. Some leads just won’t engage. 

The leads that remain firmly dead, showing no response to outreach initiatives, should ideally be cut from your subscriber list. You can leave the door open with a warm goodbye email that says something like, “We haven’t heard from you in a while, so we are closing your subscription, but we would be delighted to share updates with you whenever you need us. Click here to re-subscribe.”

Check out – Inbound Marketing Agency


It indeed costs more to get new subscribers than re-engage inactive email subscribers that you already have, but these subscribers represent a cost and a risk to your overall deliverability in the long run. Mindful outreach initiatives, frequent content refresh measures, easy-to-access subscription centers, and regular clean-ups can help you maintain a mostly active subscriber base. 

You should also keep your email subject and email body optimized for content. Using platforms like HubSpot will give you easy access to crafting attractive and gripping emails with the liberty to A/B test emails with ease. Want to know the best practices for outbound email campaigns? Connect with us right away, and allow us to show you around HubSpot for a clear understanding of how to optimize your email campaigns for an inactive subscriber list.

Author avatar
Shriya Garg
Shriya is the co-founder and CEO at ContentNinja. She started her first blog when she was 12 years old, and coded her first website by the time she was 14. An avid reader and writer, she published her first book when she was 16 years old and has sold over 10,000 copies since. When she's not fielding client calls, Shriya can be found cleaning cat hair from her clothes.