Pavlov meets email: have you trained subscribers to ignore you?

Latest posts | By Mark Brownlow | 16 Comments | Licence this content

a dogA lot of email marketing “best practices” aim to get subscribers to salivate when you ring the bell.

The bell, in this case, is made up of those recognition elements that tell the casual inbox browser that this email is from YOU.

They alert the reader to the promised treasures within your message.

So we use a consistent, recognizable sender name.

We feature brand names in subject lines.

We put our logo up top left, so it stands out in preview panes.

We use brand colors and work with a common design template. We paste up samples on our sign-up pages. Etc. etc.

Recognition leads to attention to interest to response.


I’m all for this, but it does make one huge assumption: that people are interested in what you deliver.

The bad news is, many are not (check your response rates for proof).

When conditioning goes wrong

Here’s a disturbing theory…

For those who are no longer terribly interested in your messages, the ringing bell has the opposite of the desired effect: it tells them they can safely ignore your message. You have trained them not to pay immediate attention.

All the effort you put into conditioning readers to recognize your communications backfires when they’ve decided your emails are not worth their time.

But why should you care?

If they don’t like your emails anyway, it surely doesn’t matter if they ignore them?

Well, conditioning becomes very important when trying to win back or reactivate subscribers. Conditioning means most of these well-intentioned efforts are doomed to failure.

The problem with reactivation campaigns

Here are three scenarios where you want to reach those unenthusiastic recipients:

1. You’ve identified genuinely inactive subscribers: they don’t open or click and you’re pretty sure the steady stream of emails from you is not causing them to respond elsewhere either.

You’ve also identified why they might have gone inactive and taken action to ensure future emails would keep them in the fold.

2. Your emails never got too much organizational love, but now you’ve revamped your content and offers.

3. You had a few lazy weeks/months when you coasted a little and let standards slip. But now the email specialist is back from sick leave and you can return to your usual high standard.

We want to give those unenthusiasts a reason to take a new look at your emails: a “reactivation campaign”. Not a new concept by any means.

Most advice on such reactivation efforts focuses on sending a standout offer or a clever subject line. If our theory is correct, they shouldn’t work very well.


Because the emails carrying this offer or subject line still ring the bell that tells people “here comes another one of those emails we get little value from”.

So, do typical reactivation campaigns work?

Here’s what noted email expert Loren McDonald says:

Many marketers tell me their reactivation programs bring only 1% to 2% of their inactives back from the dead. Some are more successful, others less so. (My query on Twitter generated responses of 0.91%, 1.82% and 3.2% reactivation rates.)

One lesson, suggests Loren, is that we should work harder to stop people going inactive in the first place.

But what can we do when it’s too late? As I’ve asked elsewhere:

You’ve trained people not to pay attention, so how do you prove that you deserve that attention with your special reactivation offer or improved email program?

Untraining the trained

If recognition and familiarity actually work against us, should we then try the opposite of what we normally do?

Should we try some of the things we’d never (or rarely) consider doing if we were mailing active subscribers?

And that’s the point. If we’re mailing people who are not responding to normal emails, then:

1. There is little risk from trying something markedly different: the worst that can happen is they continue not to respond.

2. If “best practice” (like a branded subject line) is supporting the habits these inactive readers have formed with your emails, then they are hurting your results, not helping. They are best practice for active subscribers, but not necessarily for inactive ones.

So what counts as doing things differently?

Well, this is still all theory, but what do you think of one or more of these:

  • Send a plain text email or drop your logo down out of the preview pane
  • Change frequency dramatically, reducing it considerably or increasing it considerably
  • Change the friendly from name
  • Take branding out of the subject line
  • Scrap your usual template and go for a single big image
  • Send your email(s) at a different time of day/week/month

If you reaction to any of these is “but doing this is not a best practice so won’t work as well”, remember that you are not mailing active subscribers. It cannot actually work any worse.

For example, altering your friendly from line is generally considered a bad practice.

Here’s what I said just last month:

The from line should normally be the name most familiar to the recipient.

So my newsletter, for example, comes from “Email Marketing Reports”.

After all, a lot of people have real or mental filters in place to sort email by sender, and you’re going to break those filters.

But that’s a feature, not a bug, when it comes to inactive subscribers, no?

These people might be using the from name to identify the email they’ve decided isn’t worth their time. Might a from line that is new get at least some people to give the email a second look?

Now there are four provisos I’d throw in with this theory:

1. Different practices does not mean bad practices. Plain text email is not per se a bad practice. Using a deceptive from and subject line is. We shouldn’t do anything plain silly, unethical or illegal (obviously).

2. It’s a second look you’re going for, so people are alerted to the (new) value of your emails. But you cannot abandon recognition elements entirely.

People still need to know it’s from you so they can look out for your future, normal emails. And if they don’t know it’s from you, you run the risk of spam complaints from people who think you mailed them without their permission.

3. This is all largely theory. I’ve only tested the idea of removing subject line branding (I’ll reveal the results in another post). I wouldn’t try any of the suggestions without running a test first.

4. Any success you have reactivating subscribers is largely a waste of time if you haven’t addressed the reason they went inactive. Otherwise they’ll simply go inactive again.

So, what do you think? Does this counterintuitive approach make sense?

Have you tried any of these reactivation techniques yourself? Let me know in the comments…

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Permalink | August 16th, 2011 | 16 Comments »
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16 comments on “Pavlov meets email: have you trained subscribers to ignore you?”

  1. Tim Watson says:

    Hi Mark, good post, I agree with the ideas. I’ve tested the theory and will be releasing a case study with full results shortly.

  2. Mark Brownlow says:

    Excellent Tim: do let me know when you publish so I can update the post with a link etc.

  3. You know the story of the marketer that cried wolf? In the end it turned out to be pavlovs dog and it bit him in the revenue. :)

    I’ve always advocated looking at both communication and sales as a value exchange. The value that the recipient is giving to you by opening your email is time and you are getting attention in return.

    The second pavlov reaction might be even more hard to swallow for “new style” marketers. Namely that subscribers are nurtured into getting love and they are giving you the attention / engagement, but are not converting or generating additional sales.

    The sweet spot of creating email marketing value is where recipient, marketer and company interests overlap.

  4. Mark Brownlow says:

    Jordie: that reminds me of something my young son once said (I think he was 9 or 10 at the time):

    Him: Do you get any money for sending out your newsletter?
    Me: Not really.
    Him: Why do you do it then?

  5. Scott Cohen says:

    Mark: Solid post. I asked a similar question over on my blog about whether we’ve essentially trained our subscribers to “wait for the freebies.” It all comes down to value and creating anticipation, which would (hopefully) outweigh the Pavlovian response.

  6. Mark Brownlow says:

    Have to agree with you there Scott. I’m on one list where I know I never have to pay full-price ever again, as they send a discount every week. Worse, it’s a service where there is barely any chance that anyone would switch providers, even at full price. So they’re just throwing away money.

  7. Lovely Mark, lots to think about.

    I am often asked by clients to assist in “reactivation” campaigns and find a gap in the definition issue polarizing between;

    a) We’ve been collecting email addresses but have never sent to them (often not even a confirmation).

    b) We’re trying to invigorate and promote interaction from that segment of our email database that is largely inactive.

    IMO these 2 objectives are not often differentiated in terms of planning and value propositions – but would benefit from being so.

    a) is well addressed with launching an email “product” – and well suited if you have a few creatives ready and planned in for those who engage (don’t launch a product if you do not intend to follow through with it).

    b) is much better addressed with a “re-branding” which helps to overcome any negative “training” aspects.

    It is also worthy of note that high volume senders are also likely to have had their From names and From email address prefixes “server footprinted” by incoming mail servers at most ISP’s who deploy “intelligent” inbox technologies – so a large percentage of inactive addresses will be challenging inbox placement at peak volume times.

    I agree, do not abandon recognition elements, but try to augment and enhance what is good. Try to be a better version of what you are – not completely different, just “improved”.

  8. Mark Brownlow says:

    That’s a very good point Robin about the distinction between inactives and never-been-emailed. They are not the same and really do need different approaches.

    I see the key “failure” with many reactivation programs is to imagine that simply sending a bigger one-off discount will:

    1. Reactivate the subscriber

    2. Keep them active

    Like you, I believe there’s more to it than that. Particularly, “reactivation” has to fix the problem (people not perceiving value in your email) not just the symptom (absence of response).

  9. This approach basically assumes that people are more likely to open an email where they cannot recognize the sender, than an email that they know is from you.

    My question is, how many emails from anonymous senders do you open: one percent? one tenth of a percent? none?

  10. Mark says:

    Pete, your comment was mislabeled as spam and I’ve only just found it: sorry.

    In normal circumstances, as you rightly say, people are more likely to open an email where they recognize the sender.

    But we’re talking about people who no longer open the email *because* they recognize the email as one they no longer find much value in.

    So you need to give them a reason for a second look. I’m not saying use an unrecognizable sender name (see the provisos), but perhaps try a different one.

  11. Kestrel @KestrelBird says:

    Mark, great post. I think you make some excellent points here on not only reconsidering what you sending but also who your sending it to. I think automated messages that are triggered on a person’s email performance behavior may be a great vehicle for some of your suggestions.

    EX: If we know a contact is unengaged by 50 un-opened messages, then why not send a triggered/targeted campaign around message 30 to try and re-engage them prior to them becoming too far gone, using the techniques you speak to in your post.

  12. Mark Brownlow says:

    That’s another good point Kestrel.

    If an analysis can pinpoint the “time on list” or similar when people turn off completely , then you can time your “reactivation” campaign to catch them before it’s likely too late.

  13. Gail O says:

    About half of my customers sign up for newsletters. I usually get a few sales using the coupon code in the newsletter. I send one out about every 2 months.

    Is it unethical to send those who don’t specifically sign up a sales promotion email?

  14. Mark Brownlow says:

    Gail – one man’s unethical practice is another man’s best practice. A lot depends on how you presented the sign-up opportunity, your local laws and the relationship you have with those customers.

    If people explicitly turned down the opportunity to sign-up and you send them a marketing email anyway, you’re going to get at least some very negative reaction. It’s not something I’d advise doing.

    You might find this article helpful, which outlines the issues around permission (or lack of it) to send email.

  15. We have found that using subject header lines that ask a question seem to have a positive effect on subscribers that had become non-responsive.

  16. Robert says:

    If they dont respond by email, and they are past buyers, you can always send direct mail.

    You might want to segment by total spend and chase the ones who are more likely to spend again.

    We are experimenting with Audio CDs and DVDs that educate on a topic related to our product.