Not too long ago, I went on a list cleaning campaign.
My open rate was dropping below where I wanted it to be, even though traffic and sales were climbing. Since low open rates drive me crazy in a way that can’t possibly be healthy, it was time to cut inactive subscribers off of the list.
Because I am a glutton for punishment, I decided to do it the hard way.
The easy way, incidentally, is to send 3 emails saying “Do you still want to be on my list?” to people who haven’t opened your emails in forever. Then you nuke everyone who doesn’t a) open these emails and b) click the “yes” link inside. Easy peasy.
Why did some people open the emails but not click either “yes, stay” or “no, unsubscribe”?
Why are some very loyal, repeat customers not opening emails for months on end?
Why are people who I know regularly read my emails not showing as opens?
Given that I ultimately deleted 16,282 names, that’s a lot of wondering.
However, I learned a few things in the process – which was the point.
I’ll share them with you now.
#1 – Surprise! Many subscribers only open when you’re actively selling something.
Given the number of people who tell me they’re afraid to send promotional emails, this was an interesting discovery. (If that’s you, this should be at least somewhat freeing for you.)
I stumbled across this when I realized that dozens of people who were on my “no opens for 3 months” list were customers who had bought just about every product I ever released. To see them showing up as “inactive” was just too weird to ignore.
So I looked farther back and realized that in the three months preceding my list cleaning, I’d only sent content-based emails. No promotion. When I looked back over a full year I saw the pattern.
These subscribers consistently ignored my content-based emails… but every single time I promoted, they opened, clicked, and bought.
The upshot: There are a lot of subscribers who aren’t interested in free content. (Most likely because they’re drowning in it.) This is true even if they like you.
But when you’re selling something, that’s noteworthy to these subscribers. It’s got a specialness to it that’s worth paying attention to. These subscribers don’t want your content. They want to see what products you create next.
I realized shortly thereafter that I did this, too. There are at least 4 lists that I’m on in which I completely ignore day-to-day content and only care about new things for sale.
I like these people. I visit their blogs often. They get my general attention. But I only give them inbox attention when there’s an opportunity to buy something interesting.
Keep that in mind for your list. You’ll probably have a whack of subscribers who are just there for new product updates.
#2 – Email tracking isn’t as accurate as it claims to be – but sometimes it’s waaaaay off.
At least two or three times over the last few years, I’ve received a list cleaning email from someone that came as a total surprise to me – primarily because I’m a regular opener/reader of what they send out.
So out of the blue I get a message saying, “Hey, I noticed you haven’t opened for months. Do you want to stay on the list?” – and I’m thinking “Dude, I just opened your email on Tuesday, and I’ve been opening your other emails the day you send them. Leave me alone.”
Granted, the “leave me alone” tends to come from the phrasing of the email, which is different from the sanitized version above.
I don’t know who’s passing around the template that says “Am I boring you? Obviously we’re not clicking, and maybe we should part ways if you don’t like what I’m sending out…”, but it seems to be popular. I get them more often than I’d like. (The “Am I boring you?” phrasing above is verbatim, by the way.)
Never presuppose you know what’s going on with your subscriber. You might be wrong.
If you’re running a list cleaning campaign, in your first email explicitly state that there may be some kind of technical glitch that makes them appear as non-openers. Say that your system says they’re not opening, and give them a chance to click a “keep me on the list” link to separate them from your current list of potential inactives.
(Then your subscribers will think the robots are stupid, and you are the smart one. Yay!)
The upshot: Take “open rates” as a rough ballpark estimate rather than a real, accurate number. I would have deleted hundreds and hundreds of content-reading, email-opening, product-buying subscribers if I believed what the robots were telling me.
#3 – Your ego is probably going to fight you on deleting those subscribers.
I will admit it. Removing those subscribers from my list was harder on my ego than I expected. Rationality won the day, but only after a round or two in the ring.
List cleaning is generally presented as containing nothing but upsides. Your open rate stats look higher, you aren’t paying for inactive subscribers anymore, your deliverability goes up… whoo! Party time, right?
As you build your list, you build your ego, too. You become proud of what you’ve accomplished, and how high those numbers are growing. That number becomes more of a reflection of your success than you realize.
Every one of those 16,282 subscribers, when they arrived on my list, gave my ego a little ping of “Yay! Someone wants to hear from Naomi!” That felt good.
The flip side of that was facing the fact that these 16,282 subscribers *do not* want to hear from Naomi. Not anymore. That felt… not so good.
In the grand scheme of things, the actual number of people “on your list” doesn’t matter. Only active subscribers matter. Deleting inactive subscribers and correcting your numbers does not take anything away from how many people are active. Nothing’s changed.
But it can feel like it does. And for your purposes, it might be helpful to know that even 10 years into the business, that still happens.
#4 – A lot of psychic drag gets released when you remove inactive subscribers.
Someone once said that “Clutter is nothing more than delayed decisions.” Having been through what – four rounds of Marie Kondo at last count? – I can confirm that’s true.
In your house, clutter creates psychic drag. Your brain gets a non-stop parade of things you should probably get to, decisions you should make, organization that you should sort out “once and for all.”
This psychic drag makes you less inclined to make those decisions. Add the guilt and shame that clutter starts triggering, and you’re left in a downward spiral.
How do you get out? Well, Marie Kondo would tell you to let go of (and get rid of) possessions that don’t spark joy, or that aren’t a good fit for your current life. Then all that psychic energy is freed up, and you can start making your home (and life) truly awesome.
I did that, and it worked. It turns out it works for your business, too.
Every one of those 16,282 subscribers was like a little piece of clutter nagging at me. Is it worth cleaning the list, or should I not prioritize that? Do I need to change my opt-in? Should I run a big reactivation campaign?
Cleaning your list is like moving on. It’s surprising how much mental distraction – at a core, deep level – can be wrapped up in those inactive names. Like clutter, it can distract you from the other things in your house that might be much more pleasant / motivating to pay attention to.
Once I pulled the trigger and deleted all the inactives from my list, I felt an immediate sense of relief. All I was left with were people who opened my emails.
The upshot: Every unmade decision on your plate weighs on you and depletes your creative energy. Deleting your inactives is a decision. Once you make that decision, those mental robots get freed up to move your business forward.
#5 – A surprising number of “inactives” aren’t very inactive at all.
As I said earlier, I was puzzled by how many loyal, repeat customers and long-time fans were showing up as inactives.
My initial email broke the ice by saying “My system might be wrong about that’”, and many subscribers replied to let me know the reasons they were appearing inactive.
Here are the top three reasons (which covered about 80% of replies).
- “Every day, I put all of the emails I get from mailing lists into a “To Read Soon” folder… but I’m not great at actually going into it to catch up. I have like 500 messages in there from all the lists I’m on.”
- “Oh, I don’t use that email address anymore. I’m actually signed up with a different one now and don’t check the old account.”
- “Yeah, I’m actually subscribed to your list three times with different email addresses that all forward to the same account. So I always delete the first two and read the third one. I should get around to unsubscribing the other ones, but it's just easier to archive them.”
The upshot: Don’t take inactive subscribers personally – even if you recognize their names. You may think they’re ignoring your emails, but they may actually be paying attention to every single one. (Plus? It’s staggering how many people are on your list with three or more email addresses.)
#6 – Traffic, sales, and number-of-opens both went up after I removed inactive subscribers from my list.
When you run a list cleaning campaign, your emails are designed to capture the attention of people who may have been tuning you out for a long time.
My first email in the campaign had the subject line “Would you like to stay on this list?” Even the most hardened of non-openers would have to think about opening that one. It’s says that today is decision time.
Some of those people opened and clicked “No, unsubscribe me.” They knew that a few more of these emails were likely to arrive, and they wanted to get it over with. Perfect! Now the loop is closed for everyone.
Some of those people opened and clicked “Yes, keep me on the list.” After months of tuning my messages out, they finally gave this one attention.
Attention begets more attention.
Yes, my open rate percentage went up because the inactives were cleared out. But the actual number of people opening my emails moving forward went up as well – because a healthy percentage of inactives decided to start reading again.
Traffic had a bump up as well, as these newly-reactivated subscribers began visiting the blog more often. And because they were on the website more, clicks to my Store page went up. New sales from old subscribers started coming in.
The upshot: You stand a good chance of boosting traffic and sales simply by cleaning your list and reactivating existing subscribers’ attention. (It’s like getting paid for cleaning up!)
Cleaning your email list and deleting inactive subscribers can be the next awesome thing you do for your business.
Personally, I wish I had been doing this from the start – maybe once or twice a year. And yes, while everyone will tout the very tangible benefits of things like deliverability and not paying for inactive subscribers, the real benefit happens on a much more personal level.
There's something about clearing away the clutter and seeing what you really have to work with that makes doing the work significantly easier. (And, to a degree, more satisfying.)
Plus, you stand a good chance of making more money when you do it.
Should you happen to be considering giving it a go, download my easy list cleaning email template below. It will make the process painless for just about any kind of business you run.
Get My Easy List Cleaning Template!
No complicated sequences or high-pressure tactics - just a simple, gentle way to clear inactives off your list and keep current subscribers happy.