Email List Churn: How to Reduce Both Passive & Active Opt-Outs

July 14, 2020 | 8 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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We here at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting think it’s cheaper to keep a customer than find a new one and that the same holds true for email subscribers—which also happen to be many of your best customers. That’s why it’s important for all businesses to minimize their email list churn, which can be a major drag on growing your email marketing audience and your business.

Before we talk about how to mitigate churn, let’s better understand the different kinds of churn and what causes them.

The Two Kinds of Email List Churn

Churn happens when subscribers leave your list by either passively or actively opting out.

  1. Passive opt-outs are when subscribers stop opening and clicking your emails, which could be because they’re ignoring your emails, they’ve diverted your emails to a folder that they don’t check, or they’ve abandoned their email account. These subscribers haven’t unsubscribed, but they’ve become inactive. So, in addition to not engaging or generating revenue for you, they pose a risk to your deliverability if you continue to email this group regularly and it becomes too large.

  2. Active opt-outs are when subscribers (1) click the unsubscribe link in your email, (2) use the native unsubscribe functionality provided by their inbox provider that’s powered by the list-unsubscribe code in your emails, or (3) report your emails as spam. These subscribers have taken an action to withdraw their permission, so that you can’t send them future marketing messages.

Passive and active opt-outs are caused by a wide range of factors and events, which we’ll talk about next.

The Drivers of Email List Churn

The simple explanation for the vast majority of email list churn is that the subscriber no longer finds your emails “relevant.” But the reasons that consumers might find your emails irrelevant to them varies wildly, and while some of those reasons are fixable by businesses, others are not.

Let’s first look at those reasons that companies can’t control. For example, subscribers churn because they:

  • Changed jobs, changed industries, or changed roles within a company

  • Moved to a place where your company doesn’t have a presence

  • Lost interest in your brand’s offerings due to change of hobbies or activities, aging out of your products or services, financial issues, etc.

  • Traded up to more expensive brand or down to a less expensive brand because of a change in financial situation

  • Prefer to engage with your brand via other channels such as SMS, push notifications, or social media

  • Abandoned their email account

In situations like those, it’s incredibly difficult for a company to retain that subscriber, because in most cases they’ve likely lost them as a customer. It’s best to focus your efforts on your subscribers who are still interested in your brand.

Now let’s look at the reasons for list churn that are at least a little within your control. For example, subscribers churn because they:

  • Didn’t knowingly sign up for your marketing emails

  • Signed up to get the signup incentive but don’t intend to stay subscribed beyond that

  • Can’t easily read or interact with your emails, especially on mobile devices

  • Can’t read or interact with your emails because of visual, physical, or other impairments that you haven’t addressed through inclusive design or email accessibility

  • Don’t find the content of your emails valuable

  • Find your email content monotonous, predictable, or boring

  • Purchased a product that has a long lifecycle and aren’t seeing the value of ongoing communication when they won’t buy again for years

  • Receive emails from your company much more often than they’d like

  • Find your website or mobile app difficult to use

  • Had a bad customer experience with your brand, either online or offline

  • Are protesting your brand on moral grounds because of a PR incident

Admittedly, some of these reasons are easier than others for email marketers to address. For instance, while messaging can help smooth over a PR incident, its effect is somewhat limited. It can also be hard for email marketers to spur fixes to the company’s website, mobile app, or in-store operations that may be causing dissatisfaction and driving list churn.

However, email marketers have a high ability to impact the email marketing issues that drive churn. So, let’s focus on strategies for dealing with those. 

Strategies for Mitigating Email List Churn

While some strategies address only passive or active opt-outs, many affect both, so we’ll talk about them collectively.

1. Set clear expectations during your signup process

Surprises or unclear messages can catch subscribers off guard.” you’re seeing elevated churn from new subscribers, examine your signup page, signup confirmation page, and welcome series to see how well those are setting expectations.

“Provide the consumer with a value prop as to WHY they should sign up for your email program, making clear what’s in it for them,” says Kaiti Gary, Director of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting, “and also say WHAT they can expect, in terms of the types of email communications and their frequency.”

2. Use double opt-in, where appropriate.

Double opt-in (DOI) processes involve sending an email to anyone who signs up that asks them to click a link in the email to confirm that they indeed would like to receive your marketing emails. While generally unnecessary when collecting opt-ins during online checkouts, DOI can be valuable in clarifying signups collected on social media sites, co-registration forms, and other subscriber acquisition sources that aren’t close to your fulfillment and customer service operations and tend to attract low-value subscribers who are prone to unsubscribing. 

DOI has the added benefit of protecting open forms from malicious and exploitive click bots and typo spam traps, as well as safeguarding against poorly transcribed emails addresses collected verbally or hand-written forms at events or in stores.

3. Capture subscriber preferences.

Your signup process should be focused on getting consent in a clear, frictionless way, so don’t muddy that process with anything but the most essential details. However, after you get that opt-in, use your subscription confirmation page and welcome series to gather key preferences that you can use for some initial segmentation and personalization.

“Preference centers can be a good starting point to inform content personalization strategies, but they are just that—a starting point,” says Chris Wilson, Strategic Director of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “What subscribers do is often a greater predictor of future behavior and interests. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”

4. Ensure that you’re creating functional subscriber experiences.

If your emails aren’t easy to read and easy to interact with, subscribers won’t stick around. We see this issue most frequently with the mobile version of brands’ emails, which sometimes use font sizes that are well below our recommended 14pt and cluster links, making them difficult to click accurately. However, email clients like the desktop versions of Outlook can also create usability challenges for email marketers. Be aware of those limitations.

5. Reduce email frequency to inactive and fatigued subscribers.

When a subscriber isn’t in the market for your product or services, you’ll see that they stop opening and clicking. Rather than continuing to send these subscribers every email you deploy, you’d do well to reduce their frequency. That boosts your engagement metrics, which helps your deliverability, and it also reduces churn because you’re lessening the chance that your email will annoy your subscribers into opting out.

“Not all subscribers have the same appetite for emails,” says JT Capps, Strategic Director of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Become a better listener and use your subscribers’ engagement signals to tailor email frequency to unique audience segments.”

Reducing the frequency that you email inactive subscribers is part of an overall strategy of finding the best email frequency for your audience.

6. Snooze or suspend your marketing campaigns when subscribers are likely to react negatively

Subscribers will punish brands by opting out if they’ve had a negative customer experience or might be upset at a controversy. You can reduce the chances of this by pausing your marketing emails during such times. You can pause your campaigns:

  • At the individual level, due to a negative customer experience, for example

  • By segment, whether it’s a segment that’s defined by geography, membership in your loyalty program, or some other factor

  • Across your entire email audience in response to a widespread issue

7. Use reengagement campaigns.

Reengagement campaigns are triggered emails that are sent to people who haven’t opened or clicked in a while with the goal of getting them to engage again. These campaigns are best used to determine why they’ve disengaged and what would make them engage again, says Maninder Gill, Senior Account Manager at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting.

“Send a reengagement campaign to catch people before they fall off and stop engaging permanently,” she says, adding that these campaigns can be created using simple filters in Oracle Responsys. “Send an automated email asking them to click an option to let you know if they want content about different topics, products, or services, or if they want emails less frequently or perhaps want to snooze their subscription for a little while.”

8. Give subscribers options other than opting out completely.

If your unsubscribe page only gives your subscribers the option to opt out, then that’s all they will do. However, if you give them more options as part of a preference center, then they will be less likely to unsubscribe.

What options could you give subscribers besides opting out? Here are a few that are fairly common:

  • Opt-down. Some subscribers are happy to stay subscribed if they can receive fewer emails, so give them that option, whether it’s a hard limit on the number of emails per week or month or they’re selecting to only receive certain kinds of email campaigns that you send.

  • Snooze. Sometimes subscribers just need a break. You can prevent some unsubscribes by giving them the ability to pause their subscription for a period of time (often one to three months) or until the end of an event or season. For instance, some retailers give their subscribers the ability to snooze their subscription until after Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to respect those who have lost a parent, or until after the holiday season to respect those who are done gift shopping. 

  • Change email address. Some subscribers start down the path of unsubscribing simply because they need to change their email address. If they unsubscribe and then resubscribe with a different address, it creates a new subscriber record and you lose all the information you’ve collected about them. Letting them change their email address connects their information to that new address, allowing you to continue to segment and personalize content for them.

  • Stay subscribed. This one seems counter-intuitive, but done well you can reduce opt-outs by a significant amount, says Gill. “Make it completely clear to subscribers what they will be missing out on when they unsubscribe,” she says. “Remind them of the benefits of being a subscriber, whether it’s offers, news, exclusives, or other content.” 

Regardless of what additional choices you give subscribers, they should be able to unsubscribe with no more than one click in the email and one click on the unsubscribe or preference page. More than that and you risk frustrating subscribers into using the report spam button as an unsubscribe mechanism, which both loses you a subscriber and potentially hurts your deliverability.

Reducing churn is another form of growing your list, except it’s much cheaper. Use these eight tactics to keep subscribers on your list longer and increase your subscriber lifetime value.


Need help with your analytics and performance reporting? Oracle CX Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including List Growth & Demand Generation Services and Performance Reporting Services teams that can help you build your audience and improve your performance visibility.

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For more information about marketing best practices, please visit Oracle CX Marketing.




Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.

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