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How to Do an Email List Cleanup

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


An author friend on YouTube asked how often you should do a cleanup on your email subscriber list. Let’s talk about what an email list cleanup is, why you might want to do it, and how and when to do it.

Why Should You Do an Email List Cleanup?

I can say with a pretty high degree of confidence that the majority of subscribers on your email list are dormant duds. All you need to do is look at your email list’s open rate.

Email marketing service Mailchimp’s benchmark stats for October 2019 show that across 45-plus industries, average open rates are 21.33% of delivered emails. Go ahead, look at your email marketing service provider’s reports for your email campaigns. Your open rate is probably close to that. Mine is. Open rates have been declining for many years.

Note that for very small lists, you might see that your open rates are higher. That is not an indication that you are doing better than the majority of email marketers. Rather, this is due to the problem of small sample statistics, which can skew this number higher.

What these open rate stats mean is that up to 80 percent of your email list subscribers could be dormant duds.

If your email marketing service charges you based on emails sent, continuing to send to these non-performing subscribers could be wasting your money, in addition to giving you the false impression that you are reaching a lot of people.

How Do You Do an Email List Cleanup?

Doing an email list cleanup usually involves sending an email to all, or just dormant, subscribers, asking them if they wish to stay on your list. When I’ve done cleanups, I send a couple of emails before removing subscribers who don’t open the first cleanup email. They may have missed the first one. The “in case you missed it” gives them another opportunity to stay with you.

What I’ve usually done is create a new cleaned-up list that just includes those who actively opt in to the new list. This accomplishes two things. You’ll know that these people really want to be on your list. You’ll also have a record that they voluntarily opted in to be on your list, which will help keep you compliant with both CAN-SPAM and GDPR email regulations.

On a related note about email regulations, make sure that you are sending emails from a respected email marketing provider such as MailChimp, ConstantContact, AWeber, ConvertKit, Hubspot, Vertical Response, and others. Do your research to make sure those you are considering are compliant with CAN-SPAM and GDPR data protection regulations.

Here’s a big email list cleanup don’t. Don’t send an email that says, “If I don’t hear from you, I’ll presume you want to stay on my list.” I saw a lot of small business people doing that in 2018 when the European Union’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) went into effect. They were either too lazy or too scared of losing email subscribers to do a necessary cleanup to be compliant.

Once the cleanup is done, only use the new list from there forward. What I’ve also seen small businesses do is keep an old list going, again because they’re afraid or too lazy to do a cleanup. But they also send to the new list, too. In this case, some subscribers may receive two emails for every campaign. Not only could this be costly if you’re charged per email sent, but it’s also annoying for your subscribers and could lead to more unsubscribes.

When Should You Do an Email List Cleanup?

For small lists of up to a few thousand subscribers, as many authors have, I wouldn’t suggest doing an email list cleanup more than, say, every three years or so at a minimum. This allows you to get a longitudinal look at your list’s performance over time before making decisions about it. It also gives your subscribers some time to get used to receiving content from you.

Large marketers may do more frequent cleanups, A/B split testing, and more sophisticated marketing analysis. They have large samples, sometimes in the tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers—not to mention the financial resources—to make it worth their while. But for most small businesses and authors, this is not viable because, again, of the small sampling statistical problem which will not provide valuable insight.

The other situation when a cleanup should be done is when changing email marketing providers, e.g., going from Mailchimp to ConstantContact. Many email marketing providers allow you to upload an existing list if you confirm that all subscribers have legitimately opted in. If the list isn’t compliant, you’ll be on the hook for that, not the email provider. When you change providers, you can send an email to all existing subscribers on the original list, telling them they’ll need to opt in to the new list that you’re creating.

In light of tightening regulations such as GDPR in the European Union which applies even if you’re in the United States and sending to EU subscribers, I’m more inclined to suggest that you send invites to subscribers to opt in to the new list with the new provider instead of uploading an existing list. Then you have trackable consent.

The other change which would precipitate an email list cleanup would be when your business dramatically changes, making your new emails irrelevant to your existing subscribers.

How I Lost Almost 90% of My Email List With Cleanups

I started email marketing in 2005. My list was in the 500 subscriber range, consisting mainly of potential advertising and marketing clients for my promotional products and newspaper advertising business that served the contracting market. I was using Vertical Response for my email provider. Their services were great for what I needed at that time. I was regularly getting open rates in the 30% range and higher.

Then in 2012, the newspaper advertising business I had been pursuing for 15+ years ended after the newspaper’s owners died and the business closed. I still had the promotional products side of the business that many of my newspaper clients used. So my emails were still relevant for many of my subscribers. But more change was coming.

Around 2010, I was starting to get very active in the social media and blogging scene and shifted my focus to talking about online marketing and self-publishing topics. My new social media and blogger friends were very impressed with AWeber email services because of the service’s great integrations. With my change in focus, I decided it was time to clean up my email list and move my email marketing to AWeber.

With that shift to AWeber, I sent emails to all my existing subscribers, asking them to opt in to my new list on the new platform. I was clear about what I would be talking about in future emails so that subscribers could decide if they wanted these emails. I knew that there would be a big drop since the new emails might be irrelevant for many of my existing subscribers, as well as the inevitable falloff that would occur due to the open rate situation. But it was painful even though I understood these realities. My list shrunk to between 100 to 125 if I remember right. That’s a 75 percent subscriber volume loss.

This new online marketing-focused audience wasn’t as high-performing as the newspaper advertisers. In this new market, I was entering a very competitive space. My open rates were dropping due to competition for this topic, as well as email marketing open rates dropping overall.

With a lower reach and effectiveness for my emails, and since AWeber had a monthly fee (now they have a free program for small marketers), around 2016, I decided to shift my email provider to MailChimp’s free program. As you can guess, I lost another chunk of my list.

Then in 2018, to comply with new GDPR regulations, I did another cleanup effort, which shrunk my list to about 10 percent of its original size.

The lesson to be learned here is that you should be strategic with your email list cleanup efforts, realizing that the vanity metrics of a large but largely underperforming email list will suffer. While my current list size is not where I’d like it to be, I’m not afraid to cut out the non-performing parts of my marketing. Are you?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2021 Heidi Thorne