If email engagement is the goal (see last week’s posts here and here on why that is) and snail mail keeps getting more expensive, it makes sense in both channels to more carefully manage who is on your mailing lists so you only send to people who may actually consume that content, right?

That means that you need to decide when you will STOP emailing and snail mailing people and remove them from your active lists.  After all, you are just wasting money in print, ruining your sender reputation online, and skewing your metrics down in both cases if you don’t maintain clean lists.

So Who Do You Consider Cutting off the List?

In email, the obvious ones are the bouncing, bad addresses and people who have unsubscribed or reported you as spam.

In print, it’s people who have died or their mail is undeliverable for some reason (like they moved and didn’t tell you or the address was simply entered incorrectly in your database).

But then we have lots of people in the gray zone: The mail is still being delivered and they were likely engaged at some point (how they got on the list in the first place), but they haven’t responded to you “in a while.”

In email language, we call this your “unengaged” or “inactive” list.  In print fundraising, it’s called your “lapsed donors list.”

But how long exactly is “a while?

Just how long should you give people to start responding again? WHEN exactly does someone move from engaged to unengaged, or when are they considered lapsed?

There are no hard and fast rules. It varies significantly between email and print. It depends on why they are on your list in the first place and how quickly that list tends to turn over.

The bottom line: It’s up to you to decide how long you give them and when you stop mailing.  

Let’s start with email.

Email engagement is typically measured in months.

I’ll use our company as an example.

At Nonprofit Marketing Guide, when we started really paying attention to this a couple of years ago, we started with 6 months as the limit. If you hadn’t opened an email in the last six months, we considered you unengaged, and you went into a re-engagement campaign. If you didn’t respond, you were deleted from the mailing list.

We’ve since shortened the level of inactivity window from six months to four months and now to three months.  If you haven’t engaged in the last three months (which includes email opens and clicks, website form completions, or shopping cart purchases), you are moved to a list that our CRM calls “Unengaged Marketable.”

I think of this list “Unengaged Marketable” list as the “Yellow Light” list. Those people will still get the weekly e-newsletter, but we may suppress them from some campaign mailings and send them other “re-engagement” content, hoping to get them back to Engaged “Green Light” status.

If you haven’t engaged in the last 12 months, you are automatically moved to the “Unengaged Nonmarketable” list. This is the “Red Light” list.  We do not email those people anymore. However, they are still in the database. So if for some reason they were to click on an old email or fill out a new form on our website, their record would automatically be reinstated to the Engaged “Green Light” list.

We could choose to entirely delete the people on this “Unengaged Nonmarketable” list from the database (after exporting the records to Excel just so we have them), and we have done that in the past. The argument for keeping them in the database even if we aren’t emailing them is to have a more complete record of previous customers and to have their personal history available should they re-engage. The argument for deleting entirely is that it bloats and potentially slows our database and could cost us money if the larger list size bumps us up to a more expensive category with our software providers.

In both cases — the 3-month mark and the 12-month mark — we were able to decide on that number and to create that setting in our CRM.

Considerations for Deciding Your Own Email Engagement Windows

Just how sophisticated you get about this depends on your software and how much you know about the people on your list. The more you can segment, the better.

For example, if you email people for programmatic reasons, but those people really only engage with your organization for a few months or they lose interest once you’ve helped them reach a goal, you might have a fairly short window in the 3-6 months timeframe. After that, you can assume they have moved on.

But what about donors who may only give once a year? In that case, you’ll want to be more generous and perhaps use 12 months as your “unengaged but still sending” list and 24 months as your unengaged – stop mailing list.  I do think you could make a case, however, that if a donor hasn’t opened any emails from you in six months that they may need a different kind of email communication from you.

You can see where a good CRM and segmenting are huge assets, especially when people have multi-faceted relationships with your organizations.

What about Print?

Next week, in Part II, we look at how this applies to print mailings and how to handle lapsed donor lists.

Have you defined your email engagement windows? Tell us how you decided and how many months you are using in the comments.