CBS SportsLine Slashes E-Mail Lists in the Name of Quality

E-mail marketers and media companies focused on newsletter distribution tend to assume that bigger is better when it comes to list size. But in today’s cluttered marketing environment, where engagement metrics like open rates and response rates pose a growing challenge to sheer reach, that’s not necessarily the case.

In a bid to boost list quality and brand equity, a small number of companies are taking steps to proactively unsubscribe low-engagement recipients from their e-mail lists. Last week CBS SportsLine began to actively unsubscribe readers who don’t take steps to continue receiving its mailings.

Patrick Herde, director of product management and marketing at CBS SportsLine, said the company has so far slashed the ranks of only one of its five newsletters, but intends to eventually cull the whole lot.

“We’re pretty much changing our philosophy with respect to e-mail communications with our customers,” he said. “We came to the conclusion that these broadcast e-mails are a detractor from our brand… In the old world, having a big list was probably a value. Now we’re more interested in active recipients.”

Despite the premium CPMs the company commanded for its wide-distribution newsletters, “We were offering declining value to our sponsors,” Herde said. To fight that decline, on April 23, CBS SportsLine notified opt-in subscribers of its program guide newsletter, called “This Week on CBS SportsLine.com,” that they would stop receiving the mailing unless they took an active step to re-subscribe by April 30. It was a one-time mailing, and those who didn’t reply to it by the deadline were removed.

Herde declined to specify exactly how many addresses were unsubscribed from the newsletter, but he did say the total number of recipients on the list shrank from seven to six figures. “It was a pretty significant fraction,” he said.

SportsLine will take a more delicate approach to culling the remaining four lists, however, offering three messages instead of one. They’ll consist of an initial notification, a follow-up e-mail with a deadline to re-subscribe, and a final reminder.

Reducing the size of its lists is only the first step in CBS SportsLine’s drive to improve engagement with newsletter content and marketing offers. The next step is a redesign “that will bring users back to the SportsLine Web site as well as expose them to sponsors in the best way possible,” said Herde, who added the move is about maintaining the CBS SportsLine brand as much as tending the quality of its lists.

“How much of a brand detractor is it to send e-mail to people who either aren’t interested or don’t care?” he said. “Maybe they’re just hitting delete when they see our ‘From’ line. I can improve our relationship with those customers by coming back to them with an offer they care about.”

Another firm, marketing agency Future Now, recently “wiped out” its database of 40,000 e-mail addresses. Bryan Eisenberg, Future Now’s founder and a ClickZ columnist, said the move was driven by a desire to emphasize audience engagement over volume.

Marketers and media companies that want to clean their lists need not e-mail the whole database, according to Jared Blank, VP of client solutions at direct marketing agency Epsilon. Blank recommends list owners target their re-subscribe requests to users who haven’t opened the last several messages sent. “It wouldn’t be your whole list,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe such aggressive purging practices have become widespread.

On top of improving quality, the move has the additional benefit of reducing delivery costs, savings that can be put toward future list growth, said Herde. “Now that I’ve cleaned up the subscription list and I’m going to put out a much better content product, I can reallocate those dollars and focus on growing that list again… even winning back our old subscribers.”

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