From My Inbox: A Tale of Two Re-engagement Emails

It’s always interesting to see the re-engagement emails that land in my inbox. Here are two that I received late last year — we’ll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, and along the way you’ll get some ideas to test with your own messages to bring dormant subscribers back to life.

Yes, I realize that I’ve chosen one B2B email (ANA SmartBrief) and one B2C email (Thrillist). The point of this article isn’t to pit one against the other; it’s to talk about the strengths of each — and perhaps what they might learn from each other. And even more importantly — it’s about what you, I and all of us can learn from both of them.

Let’s look at the two email messages side by side.

Full disclosure: The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is a client of mine. But this particular newsletter is created by SmartBrief and sent to the ANA list — while it includes the ANA brand it isn’t one of the emails that I’ve been helping them with.

Subject Line

You can’t re-engage someone if they don’t open your re-engagement email. That’s why the subject line is critical.

The SmartBrief subject line is “Important: Your Subscription Status”

The Thrillist subject line is “Still Want To Receive Streamail?”

The SmartBrief approach is very traditional in the B2B world. It’s serious. It makes it looks like a business issue. There’s urgency.

Thrillist’s subject line is much more casual, more in line with a B2C communication style. It’s conversational in tone. There’s no urgency, just a question.

Here I would not suggest that Thrillist test a subject line like the one the ANA SmartBrief team used. It’s not their brand voice. But I would recommend that the ANA SmartBrief team test a subject line that’s more casual and similar to what Thrillist is using.

Why? Because the urgency of the subject line doesn’t really match the situation at hand. It’s too urgent. I wondered if it might make members concerned that there’s a problem with their ANA membership. And based on the language in the next-to-last paragraph of the letter, I’d say that my concern is spot on.

“…SmartBrief is a completely free news service and does not affect your association membership in any way.”


In this instance, I think that the Thrillist folks could learn from the SmartBrief team. The former repurposes the subject line as a headline — “Still Want To Receive Streamail?” SmartBrief uses uses the headline to introduce the reason for the email — “It’s been a while.”

Thrillist could just steal SmartBrief’s headline. But I would recommend that they try to get the same point across in a way that’s more in line with their brand voice. They could also shift some of the copy from their first sentence up to the headline — “We noticed you’ve missed…”

And that large ‘Streamail’ image at the top of the Thrillist email? I thought it looked like a video (see the carrot in the middle) and kept trying to click it. Maybe that’s just me… but maybe it’s not.

Add that to the fact that the large image forces readers to scroll to see the headline — and that’s reason enough to test putting a non-repetitive headline above the large image or decreasing the image size. Oh, and lose the carrot in the middle — I get that this is an email about streaming, but… it’s a visual cue that isn’t being delivered on.

Personal Appeal

The SmartBrief email does a nice job of a personal appeal. Not only does my first name appear in the salutation, but the email comes from a real person. This is a good B2B practice – and it’s something that Thrillist should definitely test in its B2C world. They could have some real fun with this.


Thrillist does a good job of stating the issue in a casual way — “We noticed that you’ve missed the last few editions of Streamail…” The SmartBrief email is a little too formal and even too much information (TMI) — “…you haven’t opened your newsletter in 30 days…” It feels a little like big brother is watching me.

Also — and this is important — open rates aren’t absolute. I could have been opening all of their emails, but reading them with images disabled, and an open would not have been triggered. Most ESPs will now trigger an open if there’s a click, but if I had opened with images disabled and never clicked, there would be no record of the open. So that statement could be technically right but realistically wrong.

Threatening the Subscriber

SmartBrief let me know that I was “at risk of being automatically removed” from their mailing list. Here’s the thing: if I haven’t felt the need to open and read it, would I really miss it if it stopped? Probably not.

Think about this as a relationship, where you, the subscriber, have ghosted SmartBrief. You’ve ignored their daily texts for an entire month. Then SmartBrief texts that if you don’t respond now they might delete your number from their phone. What’s your response? Probably relief. And silence.

Finally, it’s kind of an empty threat. I had a client who sent an email like this a year or two before they worked with me and had indeed stopped mailing to a large portion of their list. And they were regretting it. One of my jobs was to develop a plan to try to re-engage these people without causing deliverability issues. Not an easy task, but one that would have been more effective and simpler if they hadn’t stopped mailing them.

Much better to decrease the frequency with which you send to these people, even if you decrease it dramatically to quarterly or less, than to stop mailing them altogether.


One thing that SmartBrief does a good job of is providing some troubleshooting help — “If you haven’t been receiving your newsletters…” That’s a nice customer service, but if they are sending this email from the same domain and/or IP address that the previous emails were sent from, it’s likely that this email will meet the same fate as the others.

Thrillist doesn’t do this, and for the reason above it probably doesn’t make sense for them to test it.

Calls to Action

Thrillist offers two options at the top of the email: a red button that says “Stream On” to stay on the list or a “click here” text link. the button almost gets lost, there’s so much other stuff going on in the email (we’ll talk about that in a minute). Bigger would be better — or there are many other ways they might make them more prominent.

Or maybe not. I have a feeling that anything you click on in this email (well, except for the unsubscribe links) will be a sign that you are re-engaged and keep you on the list at the same frequency.

SmartBrief’s button is larger, with an “Update My Profile” call-to-action, and it’s clean and easy to see. But it’s so far down in the email – it would be worth moving it up to see if that boosts response.

SmartBrief does not have a prominent unsubscribe link like Thrillist does. But this seems a little inconsistent with their threat to remove me from the list — perhaps there was a more prominent unsubscribe link and people were using it too much? It is a best practice to make it easy for those who want to unsubscribe from your list to accomplish this.

Additional Content

This may be the most interesting difference between the two re-engagement emails.

Thrillist utilizes a tactic that I often use with my clients — showing people what they’ve been missing. With my clients we usually chose the most popular recent articles from past newsletters to feature here. Automation makes this easy; it’s possible but more time consuming to do it manually.

SmartBrief uses a tactic I haven’t tried, but which I might test — they offer people other email newsletter which they might like. I’m a big fan of cross-promoting newsletter titles in other newsletters; I’m less certain that it will work at this point in the customer journey, but maybe. It’s worth a test.

That said, I’d suggest that SmartBrief try the ‘most popular content you may have missed’ tactic.


The SmartBrief email doesn’t include any pictures — there are images in it (like the logo at the top) but there aren’t any pictures. The Thrillist email has four pictures, plus the Thrillist logo.

This is directly related to the additional content. For Thrillist the images were a good way to make this content pop; a list of article titles wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

But for SmartBrief? Unless they include past articles that have related pictures, it really doesn’t make sense to include more images. The lack of images also matches the business-like format of this entire email.


What do you think? Who rocked the re-engagement email better, SmartBrief or Thrillist? You realize that we’re missing the most important tool to optimize any email message or campaign: metrics.

But we can still look at what other organizations are doing and not doing and get some ideas to test with our own programs, where we do have access to metrics.

So take an idea or three from this post and do some testing with your own re-engagement campaign. Let me know how it goes!

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