How email marketers can chart the subscriber lifecycle

checking email

Email marketing campaigns are rewarded by subscriber engagement, with brands constantly analysing how engagement can be improved.

However, it is more difficult to evaluate the health of the overall subscriber relationship.

To help email marketers navigate their subscribers’ journeys and make more informed decisions, it’s important to look at how new subscribers interact throughout the first year of the relationship.

Guy Hanson, senior director of professional services at Return Path, explains that by identifying the four key stages of a customer lifecycle, and the inflexion points between those stages, marketers can better evaluate the long-term success of their campaigns, and identify improvement areas. These four stages are:


A new subscriber relationship starts with the acquisition of an email address. However, modern consumers are generally pretty savvy, with our recent Lifecycle Benchmark report revealing that only 47 percent of email subscribers use an active email address for commercial signups.

The majority use secondary or defunct accounts, most likely because other companies they have engaged with have not been transparent or clearly articulated the value of receiving their emails, which has subsequently eroded trust.

Unsurprisingly, inactive email addresses are less valuable than active addresses as they show very little engagement. Aside from the fact that recipients are less likely to see their emails, thus reducing campaign effectiveness, sending marketing emails to less active email addresses also has a negative impact on overall deliverability.

When Mailbox Providers (MBPs) spot a program that is generating little to no engagement, they are more likely to filter messages or block future emails altogether.

Maintaining good list hygiene by verifying the email address before adding it to a mailing list vastly improves the quality of email signups. This can easily be done with an email validation service, reducing invalid sign-ups and bounce rates, and improving sender reputation, email engagement and, ultimately, future campaign success.

Increasing the percentage of primary email addresses should also be a priority. Success against this objective is a function of trust between brand and subscribers, and also establishing a clear value proposition.


The second lifecycle stage is onboarding. New subscribers may have been acquired, but they have not been won over yet. It is easy to scare off new subscribers by flooding them with marketing emails. Indeed, spam complaints are vastly higher for new emails, with a brand’s first email averaging a complaint rate of 4 percent compared with an email average of 0.17 percent.

Complaint rates also remain higher over the first year but can be reduced by providing greater transparency around frequency and content of the emails they receive. In fact, this is a crucial element of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced in 2018. According to these rules, marketers must ensure they are clear not only about how the subscriber’s data will be used, but also the types of communication they will receive from the sender.

Aside from GDPR, making the subscriber an active part of the process enables brands to cultivate a more positive relationship with their customers and provides valuable data to create more bespoke (and successful) campaigns for them in future.


Engagement is the third lifecycle stage. The easiest way to measure subscriber positivity is by looking at the engagement generated when emails are sent. Higher engagement, indicated by subscribers opening, replying and forwarding emails, demonstrates brand loyalty, as well as a maintained interest in the brand.

The benchmark report shows new subscribers generate much higher average read rates for marketing emails. This is likely because new subscribers are curious about the content of the emails and are assessing whether they offer any value.

First emails received have an average read rate of 39 percent – with only 47 percent active email addresses, this is very high indeed. Average read rates drop to 35 percent in the first month, and then 32 percent over the rest of the year; still much higher than the long-term average read rate of 22 percent. The window to keeping subscribers engaged closes rapidly over the course of the year, so generating early engagement is key.

The best technique for achieving this is to identify the individual preferences of subscribers, in terms of content and frequency of emails, as well as noting the types of emails they engage with in the most positive fashion.

Senders also need to work hard to continually restate the value their subscribers get from being members of the program. Doing so means they can build much more targeted, relevant email campaigns that resonate with recipients, and keeping the emails out of the MBPs’ spam filters too.


Most MBPs now offer easy unsubscribe options for the emails that fail to generate engagement, and is some cases after as little as 30 days. This means a strong focus on retention needs to happen much sooner, and is even more crucial for long-term success.

Retention is a function of a brand’s performance over the lifecycle of the email marketing campaign. Care must be taken in the acquisition, onboarding and engagement stages to keep recipients active by considering their preferences and cultivating a positive subscriber relationship.

Keeping subscribers interested and engaged with an email program is an ongoing process. Customer relationships are dynamic, so it’s important to keep an eye on engagement at different stages of the subscriber lifecycle.

Research published by Invesp shows it is five times more expensive to attract new customers than retain existing customers, so investing in the retention of current subscribers makes more financial sense in the long run.  If a brand has 100,000 subscribers then a one percent improvement means an extra 1,000 people potentially spendingmoney on their business – so it is definitely an issue worth addressing.