Cull your email subscriptions: they’re not a high score

You’ve probably seen them before. Hyped, triumphant blog posts about how to secure your first hundred, two thousand, or fifty thousand subscribers in a day, or ten days, or six months. The advice itself isn’t bad - but it rests on the unquestioned assumption that email marketing is all about having a big list, rather than a list of engaged recipients.

It’s not.

Email marketing needs a goal beyond ‘send lots of emails to lots of people’ - it should serve some other need of your business, not just itself. It should be about the depth of relationships with people on your lists, rather than the width of your list itself.

I’d prefer to have 100 engaged recipients, who actually want to receive my emails, rather than 10,000 recipients who couldn’t care less, leaving me relying on a numbers game rather than a well-thought out strategy.

Sales can be seen as a numbers game, in which quantity is the desired outcome. Marketing isn’t sales, though, and the idea that more subscribers mean more sales doesn’t hold up. Marketing is a measured, long-term approach, requiring more nuanced thought to achieve its goals. What matters isn’t the raw number of potential readers, but the conversion rate: the fraction of those potential readers who do what you want them to do after reading your content, like click something, watch something or buy something.

Some numbers matter. Some numbers don’t.

In email marketing, the instinctive drive for more subscribers at the lowest possible effort is often actively harmful. Most of the reasons against renting or buying a mailing list are equally valid here - unsurprising, since renting a list is the quintessential “most subscribers, least effort” approach to campaigning.

For one thing, list bloat (the fraction of your subscribers who don’t even see your emails, let alone read them or convert) costs you money. Email marketing is generally priced on an addresses-per-message basis - the more addresses to which you’re sending a single email, the more expensive that message is to send. Now think about the number of emails you send out: that cost increases exponentially with every extra message.

We’re saying “addresses” rather than “people” and “messages” rather than “email” for a reason. It’s easy to make assumptions here - that every email address on your list is genuine, or actively read by a real human being. If you offer free smoothies for everyone who signed up to your email marketing campaign, quite a lot of those signups are likely to be from dud addresses that were only created for email marketing giveaways. People who do this will read exactly one of your messages - the one where you tell them how to claim their smoothie - and that’s the last time they’ll ever engage with you.

Likewise, it’s easy to think about ‘email’ as an abstract thing, rather than focusing on individual messages and how successful they are and how much they’re costing you. These are the numbers you need to focus on, not the glorified high score of subscriber totals.

How to cull cleverly

A bloated list has practical as well as financial impact. Those subscribers who see your emails but never open them affect your status with email and internet service providers, increasing the odds that your messages will arrive in the junk folders automatically. Not only are you still paying to send those messages, but they’re not reaching the subscribers who do want to read them. Only your most avid readers and committed customers are likely to dredge their spam folder for the sake of your newsletter; for everyone else, the messages just sit there

A gentle cull of your mailing list now and then brings down your costs and improves your metrics for readership and conversion - you may have fewer subscribers, but you have a greater percentage who are engaging with your email, which is the point of signing them up in the first place. It does have to be gentle, though. Email tracking is a notoriously fickle mistress: those ‘unread’ messages might have been opened as plain text or with image loading disabled, and some of your ‘read’ messages might have been auto-marked by people who skim subject lines for special offers, staying subscribed for the deals but not engaging the rest of the time.

The cull process itself is best pulled off as a two-hander: the strong right hook of re-engagement, and the swift left jab of encouraging inactive subscribers to unsubscribe themselves. Identify the people who probably haven’t been reading your emails, move them to a separate list, and invite them to re-engage. Offer them a lead magnet - an incentive to come back. Tailor some content toward people who were interested in you and have simply been distracted. And, at the close of the message, ask them to re-subscribe or they’ll be removed from the list. Basically, you’ve invited your list to cull itself.

This works because marketing isn’t about numbers for numbers’ sake: it’s about deep relationships and sending relevant, specific content to your audience. Your email marketing should be targeting people who are seriously interested in what you have to offer - people who want to use your services and get value from your communications.

Tweet me your email marketing questions and get it answered on the next episode of On The Winbox.