January 22, 2013
Case Study

Email Marketing: CNET win-back campaign sees 8% subscriber re-engagement

SUMMARY: While some marketers might find it difficult to remove inactive email addresses, it's a necessary step for list hygiene. Maintaining a clean email list of quality subscribers allows for relevant content, and will outperform a bloated list.

In this MarketingSherpa case study, read how CNET, a news and information source for the tech-savvy, started a win-back campaign as part of an overall list cleanse to ensure high levels of deliverability for its email newsletters and marketing sends.
by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter


"Win-back is sort of an ongoing strategy for us. … The way I think of win-back is that it's an ongoing effort, not just something you do in tandem with a list cleanse," said Diana Primeau, Director of Member Services, CNET.

"As painful as it is, we do it," she said about removing the names, because, "what if they are not engaging with us, and they haven’t engaged with us within whatever that period of time we determine? We’ve lost them, and so there is no point in continuing with some of the emails. It just affects the health of your list."

When Primeau took her position three years ago, list hygiene, among the implementation of other best practices, "became a regular part of [CNET's] due diligence, for keeping the business healthy."


"Throughout the year, we reach out to our inactive user base to re-engage them with a compelling offer of some kind," said Primeau. "Then, when we are ready for the list cleanse, we let them know if they do not engage, we will remove them."

CNET has 13 different editorial newsletters, ranging from daily to once a week. Because people subscribe to specific topics, "they are very relevant to the user, subject-wise," said Primeau.

The company also has three deal-based newsletters, one of which goes out once a day, and the other two send twice a week. All subscribers must be registered on the website to receive the newsletter, which allows Primeau to gain more information and value out of each subscriber.

In this campaign, CNET sent out three emails. The first was a highly valuable and compelling sweepstakes offer to win back its inactive users.

Then began a list cleanse in tandem with the win-back, informing those who remained inactive that if they did not engage, they would be removed from the list.

"Knocking people off of an email list who don’t resubscribe is a difficult step, but an extremely necessary one for overall list health," Primeau added.

Step #1. Segment the list for testing

Primeau said CNET usually segments names by encouraging self-segmenting, where subscribers go to the subscription center and choose their preferences, as well as by behavioral segmenting, where they are segmented based on the criteria of activity or inactivity.

For this campaign, CNET’s criteria was behavioral segmenting into active and inactive names.

"We know this pool of people has been inactive, say 60 to 120 days. This pool of people has been active 120 to X amount of days. And we look at the size of those pools before we actually start the campaign," said Primeau.

Throughout the year, while sending its regular communications, CNET will segment its list this way for testing, according to Primeau.

"[Inactive names] wouldn’t necessarily get any special treatment," said Primeau. "They might get special subject lines depending on how they tested out. … It’s a very passive way of doing it, but really focusing on those inactives to see if we can re-engage people."

This campaign identified inactive users as people who had not opened an email in 120 days for the sweepstakes offer. For the first list-cleansing email, inactive users were identified who had not opened an email in 180 days. The next list-cleansing email was sent to people who did not engage with the first.

Step #2. Test email subject lines and messaging

Primeau said testing for the emails that comprised the win-back and list-cleansing campaigns covered subject lines as well as some of the messaging, adding that CNET's testing model is "a hybrid between the two of these … reaching a sweet spot."


CNET did subject line testing for both the win-back and the list-cleansing emails, but didn’t always go with the subject line that had the greatest open percentage.

"With this campaign, we did subject line testing, but we also did, of the people who opened, which subject line also gives us better engagement," said Primeau.

The team always looked at this element, she explained, because although the open rate might be lower, sometimes choosing subject lines from emails with higher clickthrough rates proved to be slightly more relevant, and saw greater engagement.

"Like us on Facebook" campaign

Primeau gives the example of a previous campaign when CNET put engagement over a higher open rate out of two subject lines tested. The send intended to reach out to CNET email subscribers to join its social networks.

At the time, CNET "had not done much to reach out to our newsletter customers to engage with us socially, other than have social icons in our footer," she said.

  • Subject line #1: "Let's be friends"

    Highest open rate with an increase over the other subject line of 7.59%

  • Subject line #2: "Join our social network"

    Highest clickthrough rate with an increase over the first subject line of 36.41%

"It is all about transparency, and the relevance [of the subject line] is sort of cute and makes people curious," she said. Even if a subscriber opened the email based on the subject line, once they found the content wasn’t relevant to them, they wouldn’t click through to the site.

"By providing relevant content and subject line, we received higher engagement overall," she added.

Engagement tactics

Primeau said her team is interested in where people do, and don't, engage in the newsletters, as well as areas they can apply engagement tactics. She listed some engagement tactics her team tries to bring into each campaign:
  • Always provide relevant content, which means content that is "relevant to the users, not something that we perceive as relevant. We need to step into the users’ shoes," she said.

  • Join CNET’s social networks

  • Ability to join and subscribe from Facebook, Yahoo! and Google

  • Behavioral targeting

  • Modern design and adaptive design of newsletters, so no matter what device a user views on they will have a great experience

  • Review content and process to make sure it is relevant and aligned with the site

  • Sweepstakes

CNET’s top goal is to drive user engagement and clicks back to the site. That way, more can be learned about users by tracking their site activity, and email subscribers are also exposed to CNET’s partners and advertisers.

"We take our customers and we actually look [to] see what kind of site activity we are getting from them post win-back, what type of newsletter activity we are getting post win-back," she said.

Step #3. Send out win-back sweepstakes email

"Sweeps is just one vehicle," said Primeau, to provide the value and relevancy to CNET's consumers. "The idea is we want to see is if we can provide value to our users in some way to get them engaged."

A sweepstake was chosen for the win-back campaign because "it is driving engagement by providing value. The sweeps we did for this particular win-back was huge and super relevant to our users," she added, referencing this send’s offer of a chance to attend CES (the Consumer Electronics Show).

Primeau said CNET might reach out to users for a win-back in a few other ways:
  • Invite a user to join a live video stream of a hot industry topic.

  • Recommend a user to subscribe to a top editorial newsletter. For example, CNET’s How-To is a newsletter that gives users technology tips and help.

For this win-back email, the subject line read, "We miss you – please come back!" and was sent to all inactive subscribers, identified as anyone who had not opened or clicked on an email in the last 180 days.

Next to a graphic that said, "All-Access Sweeps 2012," and highlighted in blue at the top, the email said, "There’s no easy way to say this, so we’re just saying it."

The email copy then went on to say, "We miss your smiling face and we loved it when you would click ‘open’ on our emails.

"We want to give you a chance to win a trip to the world’s most dazzling show for tech innovations."

The email then goes on to a bulleted format, detailing what entering the sweepstakes allows subscribers to possibly win:
  • Two tickets to the 2012 International CES in Las Vegas

  • Round trip airfare for two (U.S. and Canada, excluding Quebec)

  • Three nights at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino

CNET’s readers would find this prize very valuable. The email concluded with a strong plea of, "Please come back – we miss you," and a link to enter the sweepstakes below the plea.

With this send, the team was able to re-engage 8.33% of its user base.

Step #4. Send final emails to notify of list cleansing

For the actual list cleansing, two emails were sent two weeks apart. The first send went to all inactives, identified as anyone who had not opened or clicked on an email in the past 180 days.

The second (with the same email copy) was sent two weeks later to all the users from the first send who had not re-engaged.

It was the "final act … the final piece of it," said Primeau, adding that, "We knock them off, and we start building the list back up again."

List-cleansing emails

The list-cleansing emails included the following copy, "We loved it when you would click ‘open’ on our emails, and we want you back.
"Stay connected and get more exciting tech news, reviews, deals, and downloads than ever before."

Below the copy sat a large button reading, "Visit CNET." Under the button, two boxes urged the subscriber to "Get unbiased tech reviews" and "Don’t miss breaking news," which led to CNET Reviews and CNET News, respectively.

The very bottom of the email featured a call to change CNET newsletter preferences and to manage subscription services.


Primeau said the thing to work on now is awareness with what she coins CNET’s "passionate user base."

"We could do a better job of building awareness on the site. … Awareness is a big thing for us. We are in the process of doing a campaign right now where we looked at how many people are signed up for marketing email but aren’t signed up for any of our editorial newsletters. I’m kind of curious about that," said Primeau.

Internal battles

Primeau said there are often internal battles when it comes to list cleansing, and CNET was no different – for some, the objective is simply to build the biggest list possible.
There were clashes of opinion "all the time" on the topic, and not just in her section of the business, according to Primeau. You never know where or with whom you are going to run into problems, but she advises pointing those who are unsure of cleansing to the deliverability numbers.

Primeau tells people, "You guys are probably affecting your deliverability because you are not cleansing your lists, and you know you are getting more complaints … spam traps, the whole nine yards."

Win-back email:
  • Subject: "We miss you - please come back!"

  • Re-engaged 8.33% of CNET’s user base

  • Inactives were identified as anyone who had not opened or clicked on an email in the last 120 days

First list-cleansing email:
  • Subject: "Want to keep getting emails from CNET?"

    • 9.24% open rate

    • 3.67% clickthrough

  • Re-engaged 6.35% of the inactive user base, in addition to those re-engaged from the win-back email

Second list-cleansing email:
  • Subject: "Want to keep getting emails from CNET?"

    • 5.36% open rate

    • 2.37% clickthrough

  • Re-engaged an additional 2.22% of the inactive user base

Diana Primeau will be speaking at the 2013 MarketingSherpa Email Summit in Las Vegas, February 19-22, in a session entitled, "Win-back Campaigns and List Cleansing: Last-chance strategies to re-engage inactives before the purge."

Creative Samples

  1. Incentive email

  2. List cleanse email



Related Resources

Email List Hygiene: Why the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development deleted 47% of its house list

Marketing Optimization: How to determine the proper sample size

Email List Reactivation Incentives: Gift cards vs. whitepaper vs. nothing

In the Year 2013: Email marketing technologies and tactics of the near future

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