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When Parting Isn't Such Sweet Sorrow

  |  December 20, 2006   |  Comments

Step-by-step instructions for trimming the deadwood from your e-mail lists.

As 2006 winds down, you should review your deliverability statistics to see where you improved over the year and where any weak spots remain. It's also a good time to take a hard look at your mailing list and remove all the invalid, inactive, and nonperforming addresses that are holding you back from reaching your goals.

Sounds counterproductive, right? You'd think good e-mail marketers should concentrate on list-building to reach the broadest audience, not culling names whose only crime is not responding to e-mail.

If you've been in e-mail marketing since the '90s, you'll remember those heady days when marketers built lists by grabbing every e-mail address they could find, typically third-party lists of dubious permission quality or addresses from untargeted coregistration campaigns.

We all know how that ended up.

You know a more targeted, higher-quality list will produce better campaign results. Did you know it also boosts e-mail deliverability?

ISPs flag senders who routinely generate high rates of undeliverable e-mail, especially when their mailings repeatedly hit invalid or closed account addresses. Also, although the per e-mail cost to send to a bad or obsolete address is tiny, it adds up over time, so you just waste resources.

Statistics from a presentation earlier this month at the E-mail Insider Summit underscored how going smaller and more focused actually helped some major e-mail marketers perform better. A cosmetics retailer cut its list from 5.2 million names to 2.1 million. Post opt-in costs fell 59 percent, total sales rose 30 percent, and total revenue per e-mail rose 222 percent.

Target Invalid, Inactive, and Non-Performing Addresses

The best way to cull a list without sacrificing a solid-gold record is to segment out those who aren't doing anything for you at all. To do this, first identify a key metric related to campaign success. Use it to create list segments.

Your mailing list software, whether a program hosted by your e-mail service provider or one installed on your own server, should automatically remove any invalid or hard-bouncing addresses each time you send. If you're still plagued with bounce notices, check the settings or test them to ensure the auto-removal feature still works.

The next step: Segment your list on that metric and move all those who don't perform to another list. Common ones include age of sign-up, lack of response, and low sales revenue.

For example, isolate all addresses that didn't record a click or open in the last 6 or 12 months. Move them to a separate mailing list, but don't discard them.

Once you've refined your list, check your delivery reports and campaign statistics after your next send. You should see an improvement in both categories.

Don't Just Remove, Reengage

People stop responding to e-mail for many reasons:

  • They subscribed just to get a freebie and don't care about the mailings.

  • They don't like what they're getting or they get too much e-mail.

  • They don't need the information anymore.

  • It wasn't what they expected.

You may still be able to mine some coal from that slag heap. Before you toss those nonperforming addresses, try to reengage those subscribers with a special mailing inviting them to resubscribe, unsubscribe, update their profiles or create new ones; offering a unique incentive; or asking them to fill out a survey.

Segment out non-responders again -- these you can discard.

Refine Your E-Mail Invitation

Switching to double opt-in from single opt-in or opt-out list-building will help stop invalid addresses from roosting in your database. A periodic round of list hygiene also will help.

List inactivity isn't so easy. You can expect to lose almost 20 percent of new opt-ins just two months after they sign up, according to our own research. However, a two-step refinement of your opt-in and new-member welcome program can help get recipients into the game sooner and reduce the inevitable drop-off:

  1. Clarify what you'll send, when, and how often. Give recipients several options to tailor a program that appeals most to them. Choose your words carefully to sign up new recipients. "Sign up for our newsletter!" doesn't have the automatic appeal it once did. "Register for weekly e-mail-only specials" is more informative. Add a subscriber preference page, or update the one you have to give recipients a chance to specify the kinds of mailings they want and frequency at which they'd like to receive them.

  2. Woo new recipients with immediate acknowledgement of their subscriptions. Don't wait until your next publishing cycle to contact new opt-ins. Send an information-packed confirmation e-mail immediately. Create and send a new-member welcome pack with links to your site, the current mailing, and special offers. Follow up with a mini-survey after the first mailing or an invitation to create a preference page.

The Last Word

It may hurt in the short tern to see your mailing list shrink by a third, a half, or even more as you trim the deadwood. But the boost you should see in both deliverability and productivity will take away the sting.

My best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2007! And as always, keep on deliverin'.

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.


Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

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