List maintenance

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes

Your email marketing efforts are off to a great start. You’ve built a sizable list that’s growing every day and people are responding to your messages. Then you notice something disheartening: every time you send an email, a bunch of people unsubscribe. We know—break-ups are a tough pill to swallow, but here’s a secret: many of those unsubscribes are actually a good thing. And even stranger, there are good reasons for you to regularly remove people from your list! That’s what we’ll discuss in this lesson.

List maintenance is a crucial, must-have facet of successful email marketing—albeit a somewhat counterintuitive one at first. It’s hard to imagine actively removing subscribers from your list but it’s not only something to consider—it’s something you’ll need to do to maximize your email marketing efforts.

In this lesson, we’ll go over why people unsubscribe from email lists—and some measures you can take to keep good customers from doing so. We’ll also get into email list hygiene: When and why you should, from time to time, trim your own list by removing subscribers.

Unsubscribing

Here’s a harsh but unavoidable truth: People are going to unsubscribe from your email list. Every time you send an email, odds are at least a few people will click the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom.

Various studies have tried to pin down the average unsubscribe rate, and land between 0.19 percent and 0.52 percent across different eCommerce niches and geographical locations. For our example purposes, we’ll go with the results of a study that found an average unsubscribe rate for eCommerce sites of 0.23 percent. That means for every email you send, one or two out of every 500 people who receive it will unsubscribe. That’s not too bad… but adds up. If you have an email list of 5,000 subscribers, you can expect to lose 11 or 12 of them with every email you send. After 10 emails in a month, you’re now down roughly 110 to 120 subscribers. After a year, you’ll have lost at least 1,000 subscribers, possibly inching closer to 1,500. That means you could’ve just lost nearly one-third of your list in a year, all via the “death by 1,000 papercuts” method.

At the average unsubscribe rate, you’ll lose nearly one-third of your list in a year.

Now… it’s not all downside. As we’ll get into later in this lesson in the trimming your list section, losing people from your list can, in some cases, be a good thing. But it’s important to lose the right people. You don’t want repeat customers or potential repeat customers to unsubscribe.

Knowing why they’re unsubscribing helps you take steps to stop those good subscribers from leaving your list.

Why people unsubscribe from marketing emails

There have been lots of studies into customers’ motivations for unsubscribing from marketing emails. Here are the results of four major studies, from which clear patterns start to emerge.

Study #1. Via GetApp on “why do people unsubscribe from email newsletters?”

  1. Too many emails, 46.4 percent.
  2. Looks like spam, 17.2 percent.
  3. Irrelevant content, 15.8 percent.
  4. I didn’t know I was subscribing, 9.1 percent.
  5. Not tailored to my preferences, 7.2 percent.
  6. Too much or too little content, 4.3 percent.

Study #2. Via Marketing Sherpa on “why consumers unsubscribe from brands’ email.”

  1. I get too many emails in general, 26 percent.
  2. The emails are not relevant to me, 21 percent.
  3. I receive too many emails from the company, 19 percent.
  4. The emails are always trying to sell me something, 19 percent.
  5. The content of the emails is boring, repetitive, and not interesting to me, 17 percent.
  6. I don’t have time to read the emails, 16 percent.
  7. I receive the same ads and promotions in the email that I get in print form, 13 percent.
  8. The email is too focused on the company’s needs and not enough on my needs, 11 percent.
  9. The email seems like it is intended to meet other people’s needs, not people like me, 10 percent.
  10. The emails look too cluttered and sloppy, 10 percent.
  11. I don’t trust their email to provide the information I need to make purchasing decisions, 10 percent.
  12. I get emails that don’t look good on my smartphone, 7 percent.

Study #3. Via CMB (PDF) on “reasons for unsubscribing to a business or nonprofit’s email list.”

  1. Too many emails, 69 percent.
  2. The content is no longer relevant to me, 56 percent.
  3. The content wasn’t what I expected, 51 percent.
  4. I am no longer a customer, 48 percent.
  5. I had a bad experience with the business, 42 percent.
  6. I need to cut back on the emails I receive, 34 percent.
  7. I heard negative comments about the business, 19 percent.

Study #4. Via Litmus on “reasons people unsubscribe from permission emails.”

  1. Too many emails, 54 percent.
  2. Found the content boring or repetitive, 49 percent.
  3. I get too many emails, 47 percent.
  4. Irrelevant content, 25 percent.
  5. Prefer to seek out information on my own, 24 percent.
  6. Signed up for a one-time offer, 22 percent.
  7. Circumstances changed (moved, married, changed jobs, etc.), 13 percent.
  8. Switched to another company that provided better information, eight percent.
  9. Found an alternative way to get the same information (blogs, Facebook, etc.), six percent.

Let’s recap those results all together to see if we can identify some trends:

Reason for unsubscribing

GetApp (rank)

Marketing Sherpa (rank)

CMB (rank)

Litmus (rank)

Too many emails

1

3, 6

1

1

Irrelevant emails/not focused on my needs

3, 5

2, 4, 8, 9

2

4, 7

Bad content

6

5, 7, 11

2, 3

2, 8, 9

Bad design

2

10, 12

n/a

n/a

I didn't know I was subscribing

4

n/a

n/a

n/a

There’s not much you can do about people who say they get too many emails in general and wanted to cut down on all of their subscriptions—that’s more or less out of your hands. You also can’t really worry about people who unsubscribe because their circumstances change or they’re no longer a customer; those fall under the realm of “good unsubscribes” because they’re not relevant marketing targets for you anymore.

But for many of the other reasons that recur across those studies, there are steps you can take to curb their negative impact—steps that can help keep your good customers from leaving your list. Here are some of the remedies we recommend.

How to decrease your unsubscribe rate

“I get too many emails from the company”

This is clearly the top reason people unsubscribe—it was the first place result in three of the four studies and came in third in the other.

Examine your email marketing frequency. In our lesson on email frequency, we go in depth on how to find the sweet spot of the correct number of emails for you. But if your unsubscribe rate is higher than you want (or higher than around 0.5 percent, which is the upper bound from the studies we discussed earlier), the first triage step is to cut back on your email frequency. Drop from three emails a week to two, for example, and see if that makes a difference in churn.

Consider an opt-down option. There’s a good chance your subscribers do still want to hear from you—just not as often as they are now. One study found more than 90 percent of people say that when they subscribe to a list, they do want to hear from that company at least once in a while. So that’s where the opt-down comes in.

Give your subscribers a chance to reduce the number of emails they get. Maybe some want every email, but some only want a weekly or bi-weekly digest. Yes, it’s giving you less of a chance to market to those people—but if they unsubscribe, you lose the opportunity to market to them completely. A study found 41 percent of people will consider opting down if they get that option when they go to unsubscribe. (PDF) That means opting down is a tremendous opportunity to save a significant number of your wavering subscribers.

Offer an opt-down option.

“The emails are irrelevant/not focused on my needs”

One of the best aspects of email marketing is personalization. You can’t personalize social media posts, or print ads, or TV commercials, or billboards. You can personalize emails, and when you don’t, it drives people away.

Personalization and segmentation. We cover personalization and segmentation in depth in a later lesson, but here’s a quick rundown.

Personalization is sending a subscriber a unique email tailored specifically to something about them and them alone, such as their purchase history, recommended products based on past behavior, or specifically-requested content. Here’s a sample campaign in Jilt to send future Wonder Woman-related products to any customers that purchased another Wonder Woman item. It’s important to note that personalization can still be automated at scale so you don’t have to email customers individually to send personalized emails.

Personalization in an email on Jilt.

Segmentation is sending emails to groups of similar subscribers based on broad similarities like location, gender, or age. Segmentation is a form of personalization, but one that happens at scale. Here’s another campaign from that store in Jilt with a cart abandonment sequence specifically targeted at people ordering at least $200 worth of merchandise.

Jilt segmentation.

By using personalization and segmentation on most, if not all, of your marketing emails, suddenly they become a lot more relevant to a lot more people. The majority of people say they like emails that contain offers and products that are relevant to them—and it shows in the results. (PDF) Personalized emails have higher open rates, click through rates, and, notably, six times higher transaction rates. And that makes sense—with personalization and segmentation, now you’re not sending advertisements for toddler clothes to people who aren’t parents of toddlers, or advertising ski vacation packages in Vail, Colorado, to people who already live in Vail, Colorado. (And who wish so many tourists would stop coming to Vail, Colorado.)

Here’s an email Verizon sent after I purchased an iPhone 7 (a few years ago, not recently, I’m quite hip to the modern technology). The email recommended cross-sell products tailored to the phone I just bought—making this marketing message far more effective than one that might just generally promote all accessories for all different types of phones.

A cross-sell email.

One other note here: One of the studies on unsubscribing had the interesting result of “The email is too focused on the company’s needs and not enough on my needs.” This is definitely something to keep in the back of your mind when crafting your marketing emails. Going back to the previous lesson on why people subscribe to email lists, remember they need to feel like they’re getting value not just to subscribe, but to stay subscribed. If you promised interesting content as part of the value proposition of your list but all you’re delivering are sales promos, you’re not delivering what you promised—or what some of your subscribers are expecting.

Customers don’t just need a compelling reason to subscribe to a brand’s email list, they also need a compelling reason to stay subscribed.

“The content is boring, repetitive, and not interesting”

The ideal scenario for email marketers is to have customers get excited when they see an email from you hit their inbox. Think about your own email routine—there are probably no more than a few companies whose messages give you that feeling, right? What is it about their emails that differs from the others?

The answer is good content. And that doesn’t only mean content that informs and entertains without selling. That includes sales content, like product announcements, new discounts, or a spotlight on new or interesting features of a product you bought and use.

Have a legitimate reason to send each email. Your reason for sending every marketing email should go beyond, “We send something to our list on Thursdays and today is a Thursday.” When you make sure there’s a clear, discernible point behind each of your emails, suddenly the content doesn’t feel boring or repetitive.

New product announcements or new features are definitely legitimate reasons. A new sale is a legitimate reason. Your weekly newsletter full of original content (or links to new content on your blog or elsewhere) is as well. Beyond those, things like holidays (even non-traditional holidays like “National Cheesecake Day”) and current events are also good triggers for a timely, relevant email.

Check out how Godiva uses holidays, both big and small, real and possibly made up, as catalysts to send marketing emails.

Holiday marketing in the inbox.

Change things up. It’s tempting to stick with the email template that’s been working for a while. But giving your emails a different look can suddenly make your subscribers look at them (and your business) differently and with fresh eyes. You should also rotate in a plain text email or any other type of email that deviates from your normal send every now and then.

“The emails look like spam/look bad/don’t look good on my phone”

It’s going to be awfully hard to sell stuff from an email with broken images, typos, or a weird layout that doesn’t look right on a phone screen. A professional appearance goes a long way toward helping your emails convert—and isn’t too hard to pull off, even without a designer.

Don’t look like spam. A lot of the spamminess of an email comes from the subject line, which we cover in our lesson on inbox presence. In brief, be careful using words and phrases like “F*R*E*E” or “You’re a winner!” Be judicious and disciplined with emojis. And make sure your email really does deliver what the subject line promises.

Check out these emails from a company whose name we’ve redacted. Although it’s a legitimate company, their subject lines look like spam. (Maybe even more like spam than the emails from actual spammers.) Haphazard emojis. Spam words like “BLOWOUT” and “W00W!!!” Sales that look too good to be true, like 80 and 90 percent off. Deceptive subjects like “Fwd: Style for Your Office.” Even the use of one of those spam-friendly plain text fonts for the word “𝔼𝕏𝕋ℝ𝔸𝕍𝔸𝔾𝔸ℕℤ𝔸.” 

An inbox presence that looks like spam.

Make sure to use a modern, responsive design. At this point, a modern design that works responsively on all screen sizes and devices isn’t just a nice thing to have—it’s a requirement. Some subscribers will look at your emails on their phones. Some on their iPads. Some on their laptop or desktop computers. Some on all of those. Any good modern template will look great regardless of medium.

“I didn’t know/realize I was subscribing”

It’s entirely possible to wind up on a company’s email list (often legally, too) without realizing you subscribed. Maybe you were automatically subscribed when you bought something. Maybe they bought your email from another list (we wouldn’t recommend doing this, by the way). Maybe someone else accidentally (or intentionally) entered your email address into a form on their site. Maybe you entered a contest two years ago and they finally decided to leap into email marketing now.

Regardless of the reason, you, by and large, don’t want accidental or unwanted subscribers on your list. They could develop angry or resentful feelings toward your company, hurting their prospects of ever becoming a customer. They could mark your emails as spam rather than just unsubscribing, which can hurt your deliverability rates. And, frankly, if they don’t want your emails, they don’t belong on your list.

Use the welcome email. Your welcome email isn’t just a good chance to make a sale (as we’ll discuss in our lesson on automations)—it’s also an opportunity to lay out your mission statement. Part of that can be a reminder to the person how they ended up on your list and what kind of emails they’ll be getting from you in the future.

Single opt-in versus double opt-in. With a double opt-in, a person isn’t automatically subscribed to your list just by entering their email on your site and clicking the submit button. They also have to click another button in a subsequent confirmation email to complete the subscription process.

A double opt-in email.

Approximately one out of five people won’t do that second step—meaning a double opt-in will certainly decelerate your subscriber numbers. That’s a major reason why a large number of sites just use single opt-in.

There’s an argument that while double opt-in brings in fewer subscribers, those subscribers really want to be there. And while that may be true in some industries, with eCommerce companies, a double opt-in is often overkill. Your subscribers are there because they chose to put their email address in a form on your site or because they bought something from your store. Asking “are you sure?” is just an extra and unnecessary amount of friction.

Read more in this editorial from Jilt’s CEO, Max Rice, on why eCommerce brands should use single opt-in.

Trim your list regularly. We’ll go into this in more detail below, but trimming inactive subscribers is crucial for a healthy email list. You don’t want people on your list who don’t want to be there—ignoring your emails, letting them go to the spam folder, leaving them unopened. If someone accidentally wound up on your list but hasn’t taken the time to unsubscribe themselves, you should handle it for them once you see the signs they’re clearly disinterested.

Trimming your list

It’s hard to delete your own subscribers. You worked so hard—and spent so much time, money, and effort—to get them. And now some article on the internet is telling you that sometimes you need to delete them from your list? No one wants to do that! It’s hard to get into the mentality to do so. But you need to, because it’s a non-negotiable step in maintaining a healthy, thriving email list—and the upside undeniably outweighs the downside.

When you should trim your list

Email list hygiene is an ongoing process, but not one you need to do every day. Instead, monitor your stats and look for a confluence of these red flags—that will indicate when it’s time to prune.

  1. A decrease in your email open rates and click through rates.
  2. A rise in your bounce rate and unsubscribe rate.
  3. A rise in the number of spam complaints.
  4. A rise in deliverability issues.

Before you trim inactive subscribers, however, you should run a win-back campaign to try to resuscitate the relationships. We cover win-back emails in our automations lesson but, in brief, a win-back series attempts to reactivate customers who have stopped engaging with your brand. If that still doesn’t work, then it’s time to get rid of them.

A win-back email example.

One more note here: Sometimes, uninterested people will unsubscribe from your list before you have a chance to trim them. That’s a case where unsubscribes aren’t always a bad thing. It’s better that they unsubscribe than report you as spam, which affects your deliverability.

Plus, a wave of unsubscribes can be valuable feedback for you—if one email you send leads to a noticeable jump in people dropping off your list, it’s important to examine that email to try to figure out why it had that effect.

Why you should trim your list

Once you trim your email list, you should begin to see improvements in some key metrics and areas.

Better deliverability

An email list filled with inactive and/or unhappy subscribers can be extraordinarily detrimental to your deliverability. When subscribers aren’t opening your emails or clicking through to your site, email clients interpret that as “this company is sending spam.” Now, couple that with annoyed subscribers who mark your email as junk. Those are two major strikes against you, and if they happen with enough subscribers and for a long enough time, your emails can start winding up in spam folders.

Those aren’t the only potential pitfalls of a disengaged list. Bounces and spam traps can also work against your score. Your emails bounce when a subscriber’s account is either out of storage space or canceled—and a significant number of bounces is another sign to the email clients that you’re sending junk.

Spam traps are another deliverability killer. Sometimes ISPs and email providers will use people’s old, deleted email addresses as spam traps. They put those emails out on the web for spammers to scrape, and if you send an email to one of those addresses, they suspect you’re sending emails that are unsolicited and unwanted. You don’t want spam trap emails to end up on your lists (which is one of the reasons not to purchase your email lists).

If you’re wondering how you’re performing on all of those factors, you can check your Sender Score to see where you stand. Your sender score has a direct impact on your deliverability rate, as you can see in the chart—and really, any score under 91 percent is extremely detrimental to your email marketing efforts.

Score

1-10

11-20

21-30

31-40

41-50

51-60

61-70

71-80

81-90

91+

Deliverability rate

1%

3%

8%

8%

9%

15%

24%

42%

68%

91%

The best thing for your deliverability is a clean, engaged list of people who are opening your emails, clicking through, not marking you as spam, and not having your emails bounce.

A more engaged, active list—leading to better statistics

Now that your list isn’t bloated with inactive subscribers, lapsed customers, and dead email addresses, you can better gauge the effectiveness of your email marketing.

For example, if one email to your cleaned, engaged list gets a significantly higher open rate than another email, it’s a strong indication that the subject line from the first email was better. It’s much more difficult to get an accurate picture when your email list is filled with people who would never open anything—or when a good number of people have your emails going directly to spam so you don’t know who’s even seeing your emails.

You can’t accurately gauge the effectiveness of your emails with a largely disengaged list.

With an active list, metrics become more relevant and give you a really solid look at what is and isn’t resonating with your best customers. You can use that information to tweak your emails and create the content that’s most effective.

Better ROI

A trimmed list increases the return-on-investment for your email marketing. While it costs a fraction of a penny to send a marketing email to one person, the size of your list is often the determinant of how much you’ll pay your email marketing platform; why pay for 15,000 subscribers if only 8,000 are ever going to open your emails? If you work to keep your list clean and hygienic, it can lower your overall costs, improving your ROI.

You can also get a better ROI thanks to those improved statistics we just discussed. By using your findings to craft increasingly effective emails, and sending those emails to a smaller but better group of customers, you should see a healthy improvement in your revenue per subscriber.

Summary and implementation

Summary

Email lists are always in flux. Based on average unsubscribe rates, you can expect to drop a handful of subscribers after every email you send. Those numbers can add up over time as you send more emails. But not every subscriber lost is a bad thing—in fact, sometimes you’ll want to unsubscribe people from your list before they even have a chance.

However, that’s not to say unsubscribes are a good thing. You don’t want to lose your best and most active customers or lose subscribers on the verge of becoming customers. And to avoid that, you need to know people’s motivations for unsubscribing and how to combat them.

  • Too many emails. Examine your email frequency to see if it’s too high. And consider an opt-down option for subscribers who still want to hear from you, just not as often.
  • Irrelevant emails. Use personalization and segmentation to make sure your emails have a special relevance and significance to each recipient. Also, deliver what you promised—if your signup form indicated you’d be sending interesting content, make sure that you’re actually doing that.
  • Boring content. Make sure you have a good, clear reason to send every marketing email. Switch up the look and feel of your emails from time to time to help your subscribers see them through fresh eyes.
  • Bad design. Avoid using words and designs that make your emails look like spam. Use a modern, responsive design template to ensure your emails look good across all devices, screen sizes, operating systems, and email clients.
  • I didn’t know I was subscribing. Use your welcome email to remind people how they got on your list and what to expect, and trim your list regularly.

You need to trim your own list regularly, getting rid of inactive subscribers who can be detrimental to your email marketing success.

The signs that it’s time for an email list clean-up are a decrease in “good” statistics, like open rate and click-through rate, and an increase in “bad” statistics, like bounce and unsubscribe rate. You should also be on the lookout for a rise in the number of spam complaints against you, and increased deliverability issues.

Before you trim your list, try a win-back campaign to re-engage lapsed subscribers. If, after that campaign, they still aren’t active with your brand, it’s time to cut them.

The benefits of trimming inactive and lapsed subscribers off your list are significant.

  • Better deliverability. By increasing engagement rates and decreasing spam complaints and bounces, you’re showing the email providers that you’re sending valuable, consensual emails—not spam.
  • A more engaged list. Without the bloat on your list, your statistics become much more accurate, allowing you to truly gauge what is and isn’t working with your best customers.
  • Better ROI. The cost of sending emails to a large list can add up. By sending to a smaller, better list you’re reducing your costs and also, hopefully, seeing revenue increase.

Implementations

Here are the action steps you can take to use the info from this lesson to maintain a healthy email list full of active subscribers.

Step 1: Take the steps to lower your unsubscribe rate

  • Reassess your email frequency. Are you sending too many emails? An unsubscribe rate around 0.5 percent or above is a good sign you are.
  • Are you using personalization and segmentation in your emails to keep them relevant to your subscribers?
  • Check out your email marketing calendar. Do you have a clear, solid reason to send each email?
  • Do your subject lines make your emails look like spam?
  • Are you using a responsive template that looks good across different platforms (and have you tested it yourself to make sure that’s the case)? 
  • Consider switching to a double opt-in to avoid having people wind up on your list without realizing it. 

Step 2: Monitor your stats to see if it’s time for a list cleaning

  • What are your average open rates and click-through rates? Are they lower than they were a few months ago? As we discuss in our analytics lesson, the eCommerce average open rate is 16.75 percent and average click-through rate is 2.32 percent—are your numbers way below those baselines?
  • What is your average bounce rate and unsubscribe rate? Are they higher than they were a few months ago. Again, in our analytics lesson, the average bounce rate for eCommerce email marketing is around 0.3 percent and the average unsubscribe rate is 0.23 percent—how do your numbers compare?
  • Check your Sender Score. If it’s anywhere below 91 percent, your deliverability rates will be way lower than you want.

Step 3: Clean your list

  • Use a win-back campaign to try to re-engage lapsed subscribers. Win-back campaigns can and should be automated so they’re always running in the background when subscribers hit a certain point (like, say, not making a purchase in six months).
  • Trim inactive subscribers, duplicate subscribers, and email addresses that regularly or always bounce. 

Step 4: Measure the results and plan for ongoing monitoring

  • Watch your open rates, click-through rates, bounce rates, and unsubscribe rates over the coming weeks. Have you seen notable improvement? If not, maybe you need to do even more aggressive trimming.
  • Check your sender score to see if it’s improving.
  • Make a plan to check your stats periodically, say once a month, to see when the good metrics are creeping down and the bad metrics are creeping up.

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