Ashley Wicklund

Determining Audience Engagement Using Activity Filters

Blog Post created by Ashley Wicklund on Mar 7, 2019


Marketers are all trying to achieve the same goal: a highly engaged audience that likes interacting with your company or brand. But how to accomplish that and find those engaged audience members is easier said than done. Understanding who is engaging, when they're engaging, and how that engagement is changing over time opens all sorts of doors for marketing campaigns. Not only does it allow the marketers running campaigns to become highly targeted, but operationally it also allows for a cleaner database (if you can separate the good from the bad, you've got a pretty good starting place when auditing your database). This step-by-step guide will help you start to see a clearer picture of how engaged, or healthy, your database is to help focus your efforts on the areas that truly need improvement.



Filtering your database by activity thresholds makes it easy to find your engaged audience on sends, create audiences for suppression, analyze your audience’s engagement over time and even clean your database. This post covers the benefits of implementing activity filters as well as an easy step-by-step implementation guide.

Why are activity filters helpful?

Sending emails to unengaged people opens you up to all sorts of risks, including but not limited to:

  • Hitting spam traps. Emails that have been inactive for many years often become spam traps for ESPs to check if companies are being irresponsible with their email database.
  • Hurting your sender reputation. The more bounces and traps you hit, the lower your sender score will be. This makes it harder to send emails even to the good addresses in your database, as you’re more likely to be blocked by the receiver.
  • Clouding up email engagement visibility. By sending only to your engaged audience, you’ll get a clearer picture of what is resonating with your audience and where there’s room for improvement.
  • Paying a premium for disinterested names: Marketo charges for the number of records you have in your database. Neglecting to clean out the people who truly aren’t interested in you can quickly add up, and using activity filters makes it easy to identify who those people are.

Activity filters are quick and easy way to protect yourself from bad emails in your database and start strengthening your sender reputation so that the emails you do send are delivered to inboxed more often.


Note: if you’re not sure how to track your reputation, please consider exploring this post by Kiersti Esparza about monitoring your sender reputation. You can track spam complaints by implementing a program such as this one, created by Mike Reynolds. This cheatsheet explains email deliverability in more depth.


Step 1: Create a Smart List in your Database titled “Any Activity All Time.” I recommend filing these in a folder titled, “Activity Within __” for easy accessibility. See here:

Step 2: Add all relevant standard Marketo activity-type filters that denote explicit actions from the lead/contact. Remember to select “Use ANY filters.” Here are the values I recommend including at a minimum:

  • Visited Web Page
  • Opened Email
  • Clicked Link in Email
  • Filled Out Form
  • Program Status was Changed
    • Success=True
    • Program not contains Operational programs
      • Pro tip: if you haven't already, standardizing your Marketo naming conventions makes selecting the programs you wish to exclude super easy. For example, instead of hand-selecting ever program I wish to exclude, I'll use "not contains OP-" and all of my operational programs will be excluded.

Step 3: Add any custom activity filters. Now is the time to decide if you would like activity between a record and the sales team to qualify them for this activity filter. Remember that you only want to include actions taken by the lead/contact, not actions taken by your sales team. I’ve chosen to include this activity because my team has determined that replying to a sales email is still a qualifying activity, even if it wasn’t Marketo-trackable. To achieve this, we have built logic on the “Person Status” field, so we use this to include leads/contacts that have engaged with our sales team. If your sales team uses a sales engagement platform, it’s a good idea to set up a way of tracking activities within the tool.
Don’t forget to include any other custom activity filters in your instance. For example, my company has migrated their Marketo instance so we have a series of “migrated” activity filters. They’ll follow the same logic as Step 2 above.


Applicable to some instances (Check if your CRM has standard filters like these):

  • Opened Sales Email
  • Clicked Link in Sales Email
  • Filled out Lead Gen Form

Step 4: Clone this Smart list and add time constraints for your desired timeframes. Here are the timeframes I recommend, and why:

  • Any Activity All Time (you just built this)
    • Creates a picture of how much of your database has actually engaged with you. Anyone not in this list can be audited for deletion (this is where you'll find duplicates, invalid emails, chronic bouncers, marketing suspended, black lists and so on).
  • Activity Within Last 1 Month
    • It's easier to diagnose drop-off within a short window, so keeping track of engagement on a monthly basis helps your team identify whether a change they recently made impacted it.
  • Activity Within Last 3 Months
    • This is the unofficial email best-practice. Email marketers have probably heard thought leaders discuss this threshold before. If your audience is frequently disengaging for 3 months or more, you'll likely want to do a quick audit of your segmentations and content strategy to check for misalignment.
  • Activity Within Last 6 Months
    • I've always thought of this as the "Hail Mary" moment. This is the point at which I send people to a campaign that tries to "win them back," so to speak. We want them to re-engage and fill something out so we can hopefully re-segment them and get more relevant content to them.
  • Activity Within Last 1 Year
    • The point of no return, as far as I'm concerned. This is the point at which I send people through an opt-in campaign to capture anyone who maybe just lost sight of us, but still wants to interact with us via email. Anyone else can be marked for deletion.


Here’s what your smart lists should look like with time frame added:


And this is what your folder will look like when you’re finished:


Step 5: Add to your program templates for ease of use.

This filter can be added to every email send program and nurture campaign template so that team members don’t need to remember to add it each time.


Step 6: Implementation.

Now that you’ve built these smart lists, you get to decide when and where to implement them. As a general rule of thumb, my recommendation is to use the “Activity Within Last 6 Months” smart list for everything except win-back campaigns (longer is fine) and operational sends (no activity filter needed). However, this is ultimately up to your discretion and you should do what makes the most sense for your audience. For longer sales cycles, I recommend using longer “Activity Within __” smart lists so that you aren’t excluding people nearing the end of their cycle. Likewise, shorter sales cycles allow for you to focus on smaller timelines.


At the end of the day, your email engagement, inboxing and sender reputation will tell you if you’ve been strict enough with your timeframes. If you don’t see your inboxing %, sender reputation and email engagement start to creep up over time, it may make sense to try using shorter “Activity Within __” smart lists on your sends.


Wrapping Up

Monitoring how often your database engages with your marketing materials is a powerful way to identify whitespace in your communications/promotion strategy. It also makes it easy to spot clutter/junk in your database.

Limiting promotions to unengaged people will increase your sender reputation and email engagement. The emails you do send may even start to hit inbox more often, helping you reach your target audience more effectively.

Questions/comments/concerns? Comment below or reach out to me directly!


Ashley Wicklund