How to clean up your email list

List bloat! The bane of online marketers everywhere! (Or so it’s said.) For the uninitiated, we’re talking about inactive subscribers on your email list.

These may be truly inactive subscribers (abandoned email accounts or people who filter out your email) or de facto inactive people who tend to never open – or respond to – your emails.

These inactive individuals create what’s called “list bloat” (well, at least that’s what we call it), and from time to time a little spring cleaning may be in order.

Beth asks:

“I know for CERTAIN that I have bloat on my list, and I’m not sure what to do about it. So my question is, ‘How can I get rid of the non-buyers who are clogging up my list and inflating my numbers?'”

So let’s talk about that, shall we?

Here’s why people tend to want to clean up their email list in the first place.

Inactive subscribers on your email list aren’t necessarily the bane of your business’ existence – but they can have minor financial implications and not-so-minor psychological ones.

On the financial side, email list providers charge you based on the number of names on your list. Once you cross a threshold, you go into the higher pricing tier. If your list is on the smaller side, this may mean paying an extra $10 a month. If your list is larger, the jump can be hundreds of dollars. So, getting rid of the proverbial dead weight can keep your list pricing down.

On the psychological side, list bloat can mess with your head. If you’re sitting around worrying about inactive subscribers on a regular basis, you’re not exactly preserving those neurons of yours for more strategic thinking.

  • If you’re running reports, you may see metrics like open rates and click-through rates seem like they’re going down as your list grows, which can be a bit unsettling. Getting inactives out of your email system can make those rates jump back up to where they “should” be since your data is now a little more accurate.
  • Not every business needs to care about this, though. If what you’re really tracking is end-of-the-day sales, that’s the metric you’re watching more than open and click-through. (Which isn’t a bad idea. Getting your click-through rate up by 15% is generally not as useful as getting your sales up by 5%. Just saying. You can’t pay the mortgage with click-throughs.)

So what do we do about all this?

If you’re looking to clean up your list and get rid of inactive subscribers, there are plenty of ways to do it.

Here are four off the top my head, and my preferred method at the very end. (SCANNERS: NOT number 4. The very end. After number 4.)

1. Deliver more content than usual (for you) over a specific period of time.

There are a percentage of people on your list at any given time who want to unsubscribe, but haven’t done it yet. If you’re not emailing all that often, your messages are probably getting archived or deleted by these people along with all the other emails they archive or delete en masse when they open their inbox.

For these people, it’s not worth the effort to unsubscribe because they don’t see your messages that often. If you happened to, say, double the frequency of your emails for a while, you would likely cross that magic threshold where it does become worth it for them to open your email, scroll down to the bottom, and unsubscribe.

One way to accomplish this is to run a series of informational emails, since that’s a valid enough excuse to mail more frequently. If you’re normally publishing once a week, you could run a 5-part series on the topic of your choice, and maybe mail twice a week or once every three days.

You’ll get a good number of unsubscribes that way from people who don’t want to be on your list, and you’ll probably make the people who do like you like you a little bit more, since they’re getting more from you than they’re used to.

2. Run a good, solid launch.

Very little primes people to unsubscribe like a good launch. Promotional emails are bold enough to snap people who are ready to unsubscribe out of their ennui, even if your emails are more of the soft-sell variety.

Keep that in mind, because it’s easy to think that people are unsubscribing because you’re trying to sell them something, and it can shake your confidence if you interpret it that way.

One portion of your unsubscribes will be those people from the prior point – people who were planning to unsubscribe anyway. The other portion will be people who really don’t want to look at you as a seller of things, and you don’t really lose anything when those people leave.

Note! Remember that there will be a lot of lifelong non-buyers who will stay on your list because they like what you’re giving them in your non-promotional emails. These are good people and we like them.

Some marketers will tell you that non-buyers on your list are dead weight. Ignore the advice they give you. Non-buyers are often your biggest fans and most effective advocates in spreading the word about you.

3. Cull-by-numbers.

This is another option. Some email list providers will allow you to run a report showing people who aren’t opening your emails so you can delete them from your list.

If your provider doesn’t do this you have the option of doing it manually – just look at the reports for the last half-dozen emails you’ve sent and you can delete people who haven’t opened any of those emails.

This is good in theory, but maybe not so good in practice. Email tracking is a notoriously imprecise science. Some people who open your emails regularly may never appear to do so, especially if they’re receiving it in text-only format.

Many email services use an invisible pixel to track opens – so if the image loads, then the system registers that email as opened. That’s a big “if”. So if you take this route, you may end up deleting people who are actually opening your emails religiously. Ah, technology. You’re a playful beast.

4. Ask people to confirm they still want to be on your mailing list.

You don’t get more straightforward than this approach. You send an email that says something along the lines of “Hey, please click this link if you want to stay on the list.” Usually there’s some copy there for a reason why you’re asking them to do so.

Some people do this and then delete everyone who doesn’t click the link. Again, good in theory. Not so good for those not checking email or who accidentally archive/delete your message. Personally, if I were doing this I’d just send it to the segment of people who fit the third point, above.

Actually, if I was trying to clean up MY list …

I’d do more of items number 1 and 2. That way I’d know that anyone who got off the list did so of their own accord, and everyone who stayed did so honestly.

Plus, item number two makes you money.

And it’s generally a good business practice to put more of your mental space into making money than you spend trying to find a small portion of your list to cull.

(Hope that helps, Beth.)