Sky and top of modern building in blue | re-activation or re-engagement email program

A reactivation email program is not a re-engagement program

By Kath Pay

A re-engagement and reactivation email program are not the same, so don’t send everyone the same ‘We Miss You’ emails.

I’m a little irritated right now.

A brand sent me an email with this subject line: “Do you still want to hear from us?” I see emails like this one all the time, but this one really irked me. I buy from that brand a few times a year, and I consider myself to be a loyal customer. I don’t open every email it sends me every day because I’m not in the market every day. When I’m ready to buy, I might click through from an email (because it came along at the precise moment I was ready to buy), or I might even bypass the email when I see it in my inbox and go right to the site.

Either way, this re-engagement email indicates the brand doesn’t recognize me as a regular-but-infrequent buyer. It treats me the same as people who don’t open or click on emails and need to be persuaded to engage. This scenario is the opposite of the “right message” mantra we’re all trying to achieve, and it can be enough to drive customers like me away. We aren’t the same – why are we being treated as if we were?

If your reactivation email program doesn’t give you the results you want – more revenue, more purchasing, more email opens and clicks – you might conclude reactivation email programs just don’t work.

No. Your reactivation program isn’t working because you’re going about it wrong. You are treating all of your lapsing customer and subscriber ghosts the same, no matter why they appear to have drifted away.

Get the terminology right: Lapsing/lapsed versus unengaged

Marketers run into trouble when they treat lapsed or lapsing customers like email subscribers who don’t appear to open or act on emails. These are two different segments of your audience. Although they can overlap, they still have different motivations and characteristics.

Lapsed or lapsing customers are email subscribers who either haven’t bought or otherwise converted in your regular buying cycle/s or are getting close to the end of that cycle. If you sell unique, higher-price products (furniture, luxury bedding, fine jewellery), your buying cycle will likely be longer than a brand that sells consumables like cosmetics, household cleaners, meal kits or diapers. Ditto if your brand’s products are tied to seasonal events like holidays that appeal to once-a-year buyers.

Unengaged subscribers are those who no longer open your emails. Or, depending on your definition of unengaged, they might open messages but not click on them. Now, to make things even more complicated…

Lapsed/lapsing customers might also be unengaged subscribers. These are your true ghosters. They have left the building to go to another brand. Or they don’t need your products anymore but haven’t unsubscribed from your emails.

However, seemingly unengaged subscribers might actually be shopping on your site. Just seeing your emails appear in the inbox might be all the incentive they need to go directly to your site without opening the message first.

This is email’s famous “nudge effect.” It’s one reason why a memorable and informative subject line is so important.

When you compare these two audience segments side by side, you can see why you need to address each one separately – why a single reactivation email campaign can flop if it sends the wrong message.

Often, the problem is a data failure because your email platform doesn’t integrate with your e-commerce or CRM systems and is missing those crucial pieces. You might also rely too much on open rates to measure engagement. That’s a failure, too, because opens have always been an unreliable measure, and Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection further muddies the waters.

Furthermore, the email industry itself is failing marketers because many articles and commentaries treat reactivation and reengagement as if they were interchangeable terms for the same challenge.

I’m calling on the email industry as a whole to create a distinct naming convention for reactivation and re-engagement and clearly identify exactly which audience they’re targeting when discussing or writing about it.

What could go wrong?

Plenty! Here are a few dangers of sending the wrong message:

1. Confusing customers

This was my reaction to receiving the “We miss you” email. I might appear unengaged on email, but I did buy something relatively recently. So I’m confused and annoyed that the email didn’t recognize my purchase and the brand considers me inactive.

Humans long to be recognized as individuals, whether it’s a shopkeeper greeting them by name or an email message that reflects their preferences, behaviour or purchases. Your customers expect your brand to use their data to personalise and tailor messages that reflect the data.

2. Unnecessary incentives

Every incentive, like a free product, an upgrade or a discount, cuts into your product margin. I’ll wager yours are razor-thin right now.

Is a discount really the best way to bring back a lapsed customer, or could something else make your brand appealing again? Will the incentive that encourages more customers to buy also nudge more disengaged subscribers to open your messages?

3. Inaccurate activity measurements

These can lead you to make ill-advised decisions that damage your email program’s viability. For example, you might send a reactivation program to any subscriber who hasn’t opened or clicked on an email for three months. A substantial number of people could ignore that email if they aren’t in the market just then.

When you analyze your metrics for those reactivation emails, you’ll see a big zero for opens and clicks from these subscribers. So, you’ll assume, incorrectly, that they aren’t interested and take them off your active list. But if they don’t see your emails, because their priorities do not align with yours at that moment in time, how can they convert from them?

How to fix the problem: Create objective-led email programs

I suggest we email marketers change the way we think and talk about reactivation. Let’s make our objectives lead the way in naming and designing these email programs.

1. Create a re-engagement email program

This is for email subscribers whose email activity has fallen off the radar based on what you know from their open and click behaviour. The objective is to persuade customers to start opening and clicking on emails again. Exclude any customers who have purchase data within the chosen period. Think about why these customers aren’t acting on your emails. Start with your inbox – maybe you need a friendlier “from” name in the sender field or a more interesting and informative subject.

That’s the first step. Next, retool your content to encourage more clicking. Use what you know about your customers to create content that will be more likely to push these subscribers to open and click. Review your emails and identify whether you’re addressing all four buyer personalities, as this is often a contributing reason why a subscriber doesn’t act on your emails.

I’m not talking about buyer personas here. Rather, you should know whether your customers are more likely to pore over product data before they’ll click, buy on impulse or respond to emotional triggers more than discounts or product features.

One last consideration: If you don’t have customer behaviour like browsing, purchases or conversions to inform, resist the urge to simply unsubscribe your nonresponders. Opens and clicks give you only a small piece of the engagement story, and that’s not enough to guide this permanent decision.

Consider creating a new segment of these seemingly unengaged subscribers and testing content that explains the benefits of engaging or suggests other means of staying in touch.

2. Create a reactivation email program

This is for subscribers who have purchase history but are either on the verge of lapsing or have already lapsed according to your buying cycle. The objective is to bring back these customers to buy.

Hence, they need good reasons to buy from you now instead of waiting. It’s not enough to say “We miss you.” What they’ll hear is “We miss having you spend your money with us.”

Instead, show them what they’re missing and what you can offer that other brands don’t:

● Store redesigns or new locations and hours.
● New services like personal shoppers, curbside pickup, extended hours or services.
● New brands or product lines.
● Improved customer service or return policies.
● New ways to pay such as “buy now, pay later” or alternate methods like PayPal, Venmo or bitcoin.

Next steps

Think deeply about your objectives for your lapsed/lapsing customers and your unengaged subscribers. Use those objectives to guide your planning and execution for separate email programs to help you achieve those objectives. Name each program according to the objective to cement the decision-making process.

A reactivation email program aims to bring back your customers who have stopped purchasing from you. A re-engagement program reaches out to subscribers who no longer act on your emails. Each program will have its own creative direction. When you view them in this manner, you’ll see right away why a one-size-fits-all plan just won’t work.

First published on, May 2022