Gmail’s Message to Newsletter Publishers: Get Rid of Inactive Subscribers

As a result of recent changes in Google’s popular Gmail product, newsletter publishers need to take a close look at slimming down their subscriber lists to prevent readership from plummeting.

As a result of recent changes in Google’s popular Gmail product, newsletter publishers need to take a close look at slimming down their subscriber lists to prevent readership from plummeting.

Email services have long tended to punish newsletters that are sent to large numbers of “spam traps” — AKA abandoned email addresses — sometimes shunting them to spam folders or blocking them altogether. So the need to weed out subscribers who never open a newsletter is nothing new.

But Google upped the ante late last year with Gmail, which serves more than half the subscribers for many consumer newsletters. (The changes were presumably rolled out as well to G Suite, the Google product that underlies many corporate email systems.)

“Gmail began to penalize senders more heavily for longer-term inactives — those subscribers who hadn’t opened or clicked in more than 180 days — and there was some intermittent spam folder placement and a reputation drop as a result,” says Clea Moore of Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. That led to a noticeable drop in open rates for email campaigns that Oracle’s clients sent to Gmail addresses.

There are two takeaways:

  • List hygiene has usually focused on avoiding spam traps. But now Google’s machine-learning system is also identifying the much larger pool of people who are actively monitoring their email accounts but simply not opening your newsletter.
  • Now we have a deadline: Just under six months. And remember, that’s Oracle’s estimate for what will send you to the Gmail doghouse. To be safe, you should probably stop sending to subscribers who haven’t opened your newsletter for five straight months.

Screams from the C-Suite

I can hear the C-suite screaming now, “Just when we need first-party data more than ever, why would we shrink our subscriber list? What will the advertisers say? Shouldn’t we be sending the newsletter to as many people as possible?”

No, you should be trying to get the newsletter delivered to as many inboxes as possible. Continuing to send to non-readers will give the newsletter a bad reputation, causing even some of your active subscribers to stop receiving it.

“But our email service provider says that more than 99% of our newsletters are delivered.”

That’s misleading. When an ESP says “delivered,” it means there was no bounce-back message that would prove an email was not delivered. But “delivered” can apply to emails that ended up in a Promotions or Spam folder that the subscriber never sees and even to emails that were blocked by the recipient’s email system.

And, worst of all, some “delivered” newsletters are sent to valid email addresses that haven’t been monitored in several months – perhaps because of a job change, switching to a new email service, or even a death.

Spam Trap

When actual people stop sending emails to an address, it becomes a spam trap; any organization that continues blasting newsletters to that address will find it harder to reach the inboxes of other subscribers using the same email service.

And as for advertisers, from what I see, they’ll be fine. Gone are the days when publishers could wow sponsors with big subscription lists for newsletters that hardly anyone actually reads.

Savvy ad buyers are now more interested in open rates and clickthroughs than in total subscription counts. They would rather place an ad in a 10,000-subscriber newsletter with a 40% open rate, which indicates high reader engagement, than a 40,000-subscriber title with a 10% open rate, which is a red flag that a newsletter is being ignored both by subscribers and the publisher.

The email service providers used by most publishers have automated ways to send what are euphemistically called “re-engagement campaigns” to inactive subscribers using a set of rules — such as anyone who hasn’t opened or clicked in the past four months. These are more accurately described as “click-or-you’re-toast” campaigns because, unless the subscriber clicks a button saying she wants to continue receiving the newsletter, she will be automatically unsubscribed.

No matter how clever the subject line, the open rates and response rates to such campaigns are abysmally low, often below 1%. That’s because, in essence, you’ve already lost the subscriber. She’s either ignoring you or you’ve already been kicked out of her inbox.

It Starts Before the Beginning

Maintaining a healthy subscriber list with a sterling reputation starts with the sign-up process.

Are your promotions overpromising or overhyping the newsletter? That may bring in a lot of new subscribers – who won’t actually read the newsletter.

Dig into your subscriber data to see how many people have never opened the newsletter. If the numbers are high, that may mean the subject lines aren’t living up to the hype. Or it may indicate that bots, pranksters, and others who have no intent of reading the newsletter are signing up.

To prevent such abuse, many publishers have instituted a double opt-in process, where the new subscriber must click a button in a confirmation email to activate her subscription. Another common tactic is a welcome email that confirms the subscription, tells the subscriber what to expect from the newsletter – such as when it’s delivered and what it will cover – and sometimes provides a few links to popular evergreen articles.

What about paid subscribers? Try sending a personal email (there are ways to automate the process), which the inactive subscriber is more likely to see than another newsletter blast. You may get a change-of-email-address notice in reply. And perhaps end up renewing a subscriber who otherwise would be lost.