Mailbox Providers Retiring Inactive Accounts: The Risks & How to Respond

June 13, 2023 | 5 minute read
Daniel Deneweth
Head of Email Deliverability Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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Increasingly, Google, Yahoo, and other mailbox providers are retiring inactive accounts, with the goal of both reducing their storage costs and freeing up desirable account names. While that makes business sense for them, it introduces some risks for email marketers, as well as for consumers.

The issue has gained greater urgency with the announcement by Google that they’ll be retiring accounts that haven’t been active in 2 years. That said, Google’s policy is much less worrisome than that of Yahoo, which has been retiring inactive accounts after just 12 months since 2013.

What Happens When an Account Is Retired?

When mailbox providers retire an inactive account, it is deleted. That means any emails sent to the associated email address will hard bounce. Then, after as little as 30 days, account names can be made available again to new account creators.

Given that, we see three major concerns for marketers:

1. Loss of Subscribers

The concern is that as mailbox providers deactivate inactive accounts, brands will lose some subscribers. While being inactive with your Yahoo email account is very different from being inactive with an email subscription, these two things will look exactly the same to marketers looking at their email analytics.

How to respond: 

Let’s start by acknowledging that no brand should be routinely emailing a subscriber after they’ve been inactive for 2 years. Exceptions may be carefully made for sending reengagement campaigns or mandated emails, such as privacy policy updates. However, many brands continue to frequently message subscribers who haven’t opened or clicked an email in a year or more. 

While we highly recommend that brands use reengagement and re-permissioning emails to manage inactive subscribers, these won’t work on customers or prospects who aren’t checking their email accounts. For these inactives, you’ll only be able to reactivate them via a cross-channel reengagement program that uses one channel to prompt them to reengage with another channel.

For example, if a customer is opted in to receive promotional SMS messages as well as promotional emails, you could send an SMS encouraging them to check out the latest email campaign sent to them, in addition to giving them an opportunity to change their email address. And if you have their mailing address, you could send a postcard with similar messaging.

How to manage both long-term inactives and never-actives.

2. Rise in Hard Bounces

The concern is that as email accounts are deactivated, brands will experience higher hard bounce rates, threatening their deliverability. While brands have been coping with the extra hard bounces from Yahoo’s account retirement policy for more than a decade, Google’s retirement policy is new and will therefore increase hard bounces.

How to respond: 

Google’s new retirement policy will only increase bounces for marketers who are sending emails to subscribers who have been inactive for more than 2 years. No reputable sender should be doing that because of the risk of hitting recycled spam traps and inadvertently violating international spam laws, including CASL and GDPR.

If your brand currently emails subscribers who haven’t opened or clicked any of your promotional emails in more than 2 years, consider account retirements as yet another reason to stop this risky behavior. 

Understand all seven factors that impact email deliverability.

3. Increase in Spam Complaints

The concern is that brands may end up emailing people who didn’t opt in, especially if an email address turns over quickly, and that those people will hit the “report spam” button.

Fortunately, mailbox providers are taking steps to minimize the likelihood of this occurring. Those steps include:

  • Alerting the account owner via their recovery contact information before retiring an account
  • Deleting all content, contacts, and other information associated with a retired account
  • Prioritizing the retirement of accounts that don’t have email accounts associated with them
  • Unsubscribing retired accounts from all commercial email, including newsletters and promotional email subscriptions  

How to respond: 

We recommend not relying on mailbox providers to protect your sender reputation. As an additional safeguard, we recommend maintaining a minimum email frequency of once a month. Because retired accounts don’t have the potential to be used by someone new for at least 30 days, sending at least one campaign a month to your subscribers will ensure you get a hard bounce from any retired accounts.

In response, all reputable email service providers will automatically suppress email to addresses that hard bounce, guaranteeing you won’t email a potential new owner who would complain. Don’t try to override your ESP’s management of hard bounces, as the manual management of bounces inevitably leads to poor decisions and expensive deliverability remediations to fix the damage done.

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Of course, consumers also face risks from these account retirement policies, with the chief concern being identify theft. For example, if a retired email account is connected to a financial, retail, travel, social media, or another account, the new owner could initiate a password reset and gain access to the account. (Brands sending promotional messages to an email account after it has changed hands would, unfortunately, give an unscrupulous new account holder a list of targets to go after.)

An even worse scenario would be if the retired email account was the recovery email address for someone’s primary email account. That would allow the new account owner to reset the password of that email account and then gain access to that inbox and any accounts tied to it.

Compared to those risks, marketers’ risks are extremely low and quite manageable. Thankfully, you can protect both your brand and your customers by:

  1. Not messaging email subscribers after more than 2 years of inactivity—at most
  2. Considering creating a cross-channel reengagement program
  3. Maintaining a minimum email frequency of once a month to all subscribers
  4. Suppressing emails to all addresses that hard bounce

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 Need help maximizing your email deliverability? Oracle Digital Experience Agency has hundreds of marketing and communication experts ready to help Oracle customers create stronger connections with their customers and employees, even if they’re not using an Oracle platform as the foundation of that experience. Our award-winning specialists can handle everything from email deliverability and strategy to creative and content planning. For example, our full-service email marketing clients generate 24% higher open rates, 30% higher click rates, and 9% lower unsubscribe rates than Oracle Responsys customers who aren’t.

For help overcoming your challenges or seizing your opportunities, talk to your Oracle account manager, visit us online, or email us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com.

Want to better understand your email marketing risks and opportunities, take advantage of our free Email Marketing Assessment. Our experts will check your deliverability, review your email creative, audit your signup process, do a partial competitive analysis, and more. If interested in this free assessment, reach out to us at OracleAgency_US@Oracle.com. 

Daniel Deneweth

Head of Email Deliverability Services, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Daniel Deneweth heads up a team of Email Deliverability Services team at Oracle Digital Experience Agency. He shows clients how to maximize the ROI from email through improved inbox placement. Prior to Oracle, Daniel held a variety of roles at the deliverability firm Return Path. His tenure included managing the Sender Score Certified program, where he collaborated with ISPs and helped senders implement email best practices. Daniel brings this insight and in-depth deliverability knowledge to help clients maximize their inbox placement rates, and accelerate the ROI of their email channel.


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