Zombie Prevention!

Managing your email program is a big job. You have to pick the right database and email broadcasting platforms, and you need to be able to wield them well.

By Karen Uffelman | May 25, 2016 |
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(…otherwise known as Supporter Retention & Data Stewardship)

Managing your email program is a big job. You have to pick the right database and email broadcasting platforms, and you need to be able to wield them well. You need to put together a good editorial calendar that everyone on your team understands and follows. You have to be able to write inspiring content and catchy subject lines. You have to test everything and then adapt based on your results. That’s plenty already, right?

Nope. There’s more. It’s the least sexy of your jobs as an email program manager, but arguably one of the most important. You’ve got to be an excellent data steward.

We’ve developed a lot of email program-oriented curriculum for Greenpeace’s Mobilization Lab, and one of our favorite trainings with them was on supporter retention and data stewardship, so we’re going to share the Cliff’s notes from that training with you here. The folks at Greenpeace use some unique vocabulary to describe the different segments of their email list, and they refer to their email contacts that are…ahem…unresponsive…as ZOMBIES. Although your email list is unlikely to rise up as a mob of the undead, having unresponsive email contacts on your list is bad for lots of reasons.

So, let’s talk about how to stop the zombies and make sure you have a healthy, responsive email list.

⇒ Don’t let friends become Zombies in the first place

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound a cure, a stitch in time saves nine, you get the idea! If you love and pay attention to your new contacts from the beginning, you’ll be in much better shape. Here are some tips for that early work which ensures you’ll grow a strong list rather than spending all your time hacking down the zombies:

Good onboarding process for new supporters
This is key. Your best opportunity to keep a new subscriber interested and engaged is when they first sign up. It is not impossible to re-engage a cold contact, but it is DAMN HARD. Make sure your welcome series is in line with the reason that your new subscriber signed up (don’t jump to hardline advocacy for the person who signed up for healthy recipes and vice versa).

Notice and act early with non-responders
If someone signs up and then doesn’t respond to your early emails, either they gave up their email address reluctantly (you made them give it to you for something they wanted), your email subject lines and content don’t match what they thought they were signing up for, or their email inbox is not an effective channel for you to communicate with them. All three of these things are problems, and you need to suss them out immediately and act.

Thank and reward
Show that you notice and appreciate action or other engagement by your email subscribers. Give them insider information, special invitations, and other proof that you see them and how engaged they are.

⇒ Don’t attract zombies

If something seems too good to be true (25,000 new email addresses for free or cheap) it probably is. When you acquire new contacts, either through events, online, list trades, or purchase (almost always risky), make sure that you:

Ensure opt-ins
Never auto-magically check the box for people to receive email from you when they’re doing other things on your website or offline unless you’re sure (based on testing) that people you auto-enroll engage with your email content. Those pre-checked “I’d like to receive email messages” are common but usually not best practice. The best email contacts are the folks that WANT your content badly enough to check that box themselves.

Track source codes, and analyze performance
If a source isn’t a good one, stop collecting contacts that way!

⇒ Keep your list zombie-free

First, you need to define what a zombie is for your list.

We recommend click-throughs as the best way to gauge email engagement, but depending on your list and email content, opens may be an okay measure (but remember that depending on your recipient’s email client an open or no-open isn’t always accurate). Once you decide if you’re using click-throughs or opens, set a time limit. Does an email contact become a zombie after three months of inactivity? Six? Nine? Definitely after a year, if a contact has not clicked on a link, you can probably surmise that they’re NOT THAT INTO YOU.

Here are some sample definitions to get you started:

Sample definitions: from warm-blooded supporters to zombies…
SUPER ACTIVE – taken at least 3 actions in the last 90 days
ACTIVE – taken 1 – 2 actions in the last 90 days
AT RISK – taken action in the last 91 – 120 days
COLD – taken action in the last 121 – 360 days
ZOMBIE – no action in the last 360 days

⇒ Launch a resuscitation campaign

Unless you already have a super-tight email list stewardship practice in place, you probably have zombies and almost-zombies on your list. Don’t freak out! Here’s what you should do:

  1. Establish ages for all of your contacts (the date the contact was created, for example)
  2. Determine criteria for Zombie definition (Length of time from last open/click through? Last action of any type with Greenpeace? Etc.)
  3. Segment lists as appropriate (by age, by time from last sign of life, by interest, by source code)
  4. Draft resuscitation series (depending on what you’re trying to do, you can go one of several directions: send a “Hey – Are you still there?” kind of email, an offer for re-engagement “take this survey and we’ll send you X” or something else…check out some examples of resuscitation campaigns here, here, and here)
  5. Watch metrics carefully – you’re mailing the least responsive portion of your list which can harm your reputation if your stats are terrible – may require multiple, phased sends
  6. Archive or retire contacts that don’t respond (the choice here depends on a number of variables…it’s usually better to keep contacts archived, but may not be worth the data storage costs)

⇒ For the remaining zombies – PRUNE!

It may sound scary if you’re not accustomed to archiving contacts or winnowing down an email list. You may worry that your boss or your board will be sad to see your email list shrink, or that somehow your organization is losing out on the potential power of those unresponsive contacts. Don’t be fooled, though. In the same way that having a friend who’s a zombie is considerably worse than having no friend at all, having a bunch of unresponsive contacts on your list is actually doing harm to your email program and you’re better off without them.

The more contacts on your list that don’t respond to your emails, the more ISPs suspect you of being a spammer (and, let’s be honest, if no one is opening your emails and you keep emailing them, a spammer is what you are). When ISPs don’t like your stats, your deliverability goes into the toilet.

Also, your executive director or board may be proud of the 100,000 contacts on your email list, but the stats that they (and you) should really care about are your click-throughs and action rates. If those stats aren’t good, you need to do a few things, but one of the first tasks is pruning your list.

Once you’ve pruned your list down to the people who actually want and act on the communications you send them, FIVE AWESOME THINGS HAPPEN:

  1. Your click-through and action rate stats will improve
  2. Your deliverability will improve
  3. Your test results will be more accurate
  4. Your action rates will be more predictable
  5. You’ll stop feeling guilty about (and scared of) all of the zombies on your list

⇒ Finally…

Don’t forget about the value of compelling content, inspiring images, action asks that display a believable theory of change and reporting back progress…this is the foundation that will keep zombies at bay.

Ready to get started? Here’s a handy list hygiene tool that will help you keep your list zombie-free.

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