When to Say Good-bye: How to Handle Inactive Prospects

While most of us understand what is needed to generate a new lead, identifying when to say “goodbye” to an existing prospect is often much harder to conceptualize. As a result, it’s not uncommon to have email lists with a large number of inactive/unengaged prospects.

Exhausting resources to maintain an unengaged email list is a waste of time, revenue potential, and if you’re billed by database size, even a waste of company money. These large inactive lists not only hinder marketing initiatives but continually emailing these lists can also cause additional repercussions:

1) Decline in Deliverability rate: When you repetitively email prospects who do not open your emails, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) get the message that those individuals are not receptive to your brand/content, which can ultimately cause the ISP to not deliver your future emails. As Campaign Monitor puts it “Think of it as a snowball threatening to become an avalanche – your low open rates mean that ISPs block your future emails, which leads to even lower open rates which in turn leads to a further lack of engagement.”

2) Lower overall database email metrics (e.g. open rate, click-thru rate, click to open rate): This one is pure math. Let’s say you regularly email a list of 10,000 prospects but only 1000 people typically open your email, you’ll average a 10% open rate.  Low open rates tells ISPs that your content isn’t resonating with clients which negatively affects your deliverability rate as well as sending reputation.

3) Higher Risk of Spam Complaints: Just because a prospect once engaged or opted-in to your email, doesn’t mean they want your email for life. If you’re anything like me and can barely remember what you had for breakfast on any given day last week, is it realistic for us to think prospects will remember lists they opted into 2+ years ago? That’s going to be close to impossible. Continually emailing unengaged prospects increases the likelihood that a prospect will report your email as spam so get rid of these prospects before they feel so inclined.

So when do we say goodbye?

First, identify which activities are important to you. At a bare minimum, you should be aware of who is opening vs not opening emails. This is your absolute baseline for defining activity. However, if your campaigns are focused on driving link clicks, file downloads, or form submissions, you may want to expand your definition of “active“ to mean a combination of email open activity and content engagement activity or perhaps define “active” to only reflect content engagement activity.

Once you’ve identified important activities, create segmented lists for different engagement levels and determine each list’s path. Here are three different paths for your inactive prospects, each serving a different purpose for a different audience.

List 1: Prospects <1 year old who have been inactive for at least 3-6 months

Path: Re-engagement Nurture Program

Use an ongoing nurture program to continually feed inactive prospect lists into a re-engagement campaign. Create a series of 3 emails, each spaced about 7-10 days apart. Place a compelling call-to-action in each email, aimed at getting prospects to re-engage. Feel free to reference the fact that you haven’t heard from them in a while or that you’re wondering if they still want your emails.

Remember, this is a last ditch campaign so pull out your best content or offers to get prospects to stick around. Here are some great examples of these types of emails. If they don’t click a link (email opens don’t cut it in this program) in any of the three emails, add them to an inactive list that you delete prospects from regularly.

List 2: Prospects between 1-2 years old who have been inactive for at least 6+ months

Path: Permission Pass

A permission pass is a one-time email asking prospects if they would like to still receive your emails. Permission passes are often recommended for older lists, lists of unknown origin or in this case, lists of long inactive prospects. After sending the email, allow prospects 7-14 business days to click your link confirming they still want to receive your emails. After this time has passed, any prospect that has not confirmed their opt-in should be marked as “do not email” and can be deleted if desired.

Remember, this is a one-time shot but can be used on a list by list basis, meaning you can create a new larger list of all unengaged prospects or send a permission pass to older existing lists one at a time.

List 3: Prospects created at least 18 months ago who have been inactive for at least 1 year

Path: Immediate Goodbye (aka Delete)

Make light work and immediately delete your oldest and most unengaged prospects. This method is the easiest and least labor intensive because there’s no need to create additional content or wait for a prospect’s response. For this path, I recommend looking at email opens or overall activity in conjunction with the age of the prospect, i.e prospect was created at least 2 years ago and has been inactive for the last 1 year.

As a fan of Marie Kondo and the minimalism movement, this is my favorite method because it immediately “clears the clutter” and gives your database instant breathing room.

So there we have it, three sure-fire methods to quickly clear those old prospects from your database. I’ll leave you with some motivating words from a few old friends:

“I want to see you out that door

Baby bye bye bye”









What are your favorite tips for getting rid of unengaged prospects?