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.

Concerned About Amazon’s Growing Digital Ad Business? Turn to Email

Amazon’s rise as an advertising force means more marketers will move their digital ad spend. To stay competitive, publishers need to think holistically about new income streams and strengthen predictable ones, like subscriptions. On all counts, email can help.

For quite some time the digital advertising world has been described as a duopoly between Google and Facebook with every other online ad platform picking up the scraps. That state of affairs has been changing over the last few years, with Amazon’s advertising business catching up and becoming the third largest ad platform in the U.S.

How close is Amazon to the walled gardens? The company is predicted to reach $40 billion annually in ad revenue by 2023 — right behind Facebook’s $55 billion in 2018. And per Juniper Research, Amazon’s ad business is expected to grow more than 470% over the next five years. It might not catch Google or Facebook to crack into one of the top two spots, but its rapid growth has turned the digital ad duopoly into a triopoly.

Amazon’s rise as an advertising force means there are simply fewer ad dollars available to those outside the walled gardens. When Google and Facebook reigned as a true duopoly, publishers still had a reasonable percentage of the overall online ad marketplace to share. Now, marketers who might have spread ad dollars across Google, social, and publishers will likely move that latter group’s spend into Amazon ads as a way to reach that same audience where they are making purchase decisions. This is especially the case for CPGs and retailers.

To stay competitive with Amazon, publishers need to think holistically about new income streams and strengthen predictable ones, like subscriptions. On all counts, email can help.

Subscriptions and Email

Subscriptions as a source of revenue got lost in the shuffle as publishers became more digital. For years, publishers have given away their inventory: outsourcing traffic to platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter — and hoping they would deliver better-performing ad revenue. But this has proven to be a losing battle, with third-party distribution contributing a small fraction of total digital revenue for most publishers.

As Amazon emerges as an ad powerhouse, publishers are reverting back to what works. Per a Reuters study, 52% of publishers said subscriptions and memberships would be their main revenue focus in 2019 versus relying on ad monetization. In fact, The New York Times has publicly stated they are looking to grow their online subscriber base to 10 million by 2025.

But how can publishers win new subscribers? Just adding a paywall to the website and hoping readers opt-in to paying for content they are used to getting at no cost on Facebook or Twitter isn’t going to work. They need to entice readers. This is where a publisher’s first-party audience data is so critical — and email is a good place to start.

Publishers pursuing subscription models who have developed their email newsletters and properties have a distinct advantage here. Using the insights that a robust email system provides, publishers can determine the propensity of each potential subscriber to purchase a subscription (who opens, who reads on other devices, etc.).

The email address’s significance for publishers isn’t just a way of sending email: It’s the key to marketing and identity in this mobile world. When publishers use their email newsletters as a tool to drive their subscriptions campaign, they’re able to continue that campaign to a known person with consistent messaging, and dynamic paywalling, wherever that person is paying attention, including across mobile devices.

New Inventory via Newsletters 

However, publishers shouldn’t just rely on subscriptions, as ad revenue will always be important. Many publishers are opening up their email inventory for third-party advertisers to bid on via programmatic advertising platforms, which creates an incremental, recurring revenue stream.

Why does it work? Although email is an older technology, it remains a highly effective and impactful channel for marketers. An Adobe study on email marketing found people still spend hours on the channel each day, with the average consumer checking work email 3.1 hours per weekday and personal email 2.5 hours per weekday. Furthermore, those email newsletters are a fraud-free, logged-in channel that represents a direct relationship with a publisher’s audience — a relationship that is not susceptible to the subtle algorithm shifts that can wreck the best laid-out marketing plans on other platforms. And these emails ads can be personalized based on what the email opener is interested in, according to the publisher’s first-party data.

With this, publishers can partner with retail and CPG marketers to run non-competitive, targeted, and personalized email ad campaigns. For the recipient, it’s all about relevancy. People only tend to get annoyed by advertising when it doesn’t seem relevant to them. But if publishers can connect readers with a brand that really speaks to them, that has a product or service they care about, it’s actually a pleasant experience and produces a good ROI for the brand, and good revenue in turn for publishers!

Amazon may be turning the online ad business into a triopoly, but publishers have the opportunity to go back to a business model where they keep control over their audience and data and still offer value to brand advertisers.