Industry Standard For List-Cleaning

Dear Email Diva,

I work for a nonprofit education organization that sends opt-in newsletters to lists varying in number from 5,000 to 800,000. I've been pushing for a removal of non-responders for some time now, to help our open rates. I've been getting a lot of resistance to the idea, for a variety of reasons -- subscribers might not be downloading the images, so we don't really know who's reading (even if they haven't clicked in years), we don't want to lose ad revenue because we cut our subscription list, we don't want to make a mistake and potentially irritate subscribers, and the newest reason: "we can't consider this until you tell us what the industry standard for this practice is." I've found several email marketing services that strongly recommend cleaning lists, but haven't come across the mother lode called industry standard. You're the Diva, what's your advice? Clean 'em out or leave the deadwood be?

The List Janitor



Dear List Janitor,

I am not certain there is an industry standard, but will provide the Email Diva approach. If others have techniques to share, please write and I will print your pearls of wisdom in future columns.

First let me say that I agree in part with your colleagues. As you point out, image blocking as well as list age will cause your opens to decline, so focusing on this metric may lead you in the wrong direction and will limit your reach. Positive brand impressions are made even when no data is generated. We are so focused on measurement that we sometimes forget this important concept: email is both a direct response and an advertising medium.

You may annoy subscribers by making their subscription decision for them. Expressed preferences are always more reliable than implied preferences; let your readers tell you whether they wish to continue receiving your newsletters. (One of my clients examined its subscribers and found a group that clicked on the 13th email, even though they hadn't clicked on any of the previous 12.)

First get an understanding of the number of subscribers that fall into the delinquent category. Divide subscribers for each list into deciles according to recency of response. Then select those in the lowest deciles (haven't ever clicked/haven't clicked within X months) and create a renewal campaign.

The campaign should be a series of emails encouraging readers to resubscribe by promoting the newsletter's value. Remind the reader of the best content you've published. Provide a glimpse into your upcoming offerings. Sell.

Test an offer. The best offer will be closely tied to your value proposition rather than one of general interest, e.g., a white paper rather than a T-shirt. You want people to renew based on the content you provide; if you bribe them, they'll continue to be non-responders.

Use subject lines that clearly indicate the request to resubscribe, e.g., "Melinda: do you want to stay on our list?" Test until you find the best one(s).

Test to optimize the length of time between each request, and be sure that the first and last don't fall within a typical vacation timeframe (usually two weeks). Continue the requests until the value of new re-subscribes is outweighed by the cost of sending the email.

Make the renewal as simple as possible, preferably, "click here to resubscribe." If you want to collect additional demographic information, make it an optional second step. Ask those who unsubscribe to give a reason, via check boxes as well as free-form text, and use that intelligence to improve your offerings.

Good Luck!

The Email Diva

Send your questions or submit your email for critique to Melinda Krueger, the Email Diva, at All submissions may be published; please indicate if you would like your name or company name withheld.

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