How to Clean Up Your Mailing List (& Why You Shouldn’t)

by Nate Hoffelder

After a decade of running The Digital Reader, Nate is a veteran web publisher with experience in design, maintenance, recovery, and troubleshooting. What little he doesn't know, he can learn.

June 15, 2020

Welcome to the latest installment in my blog post series on newsletters.

In previous blog posts we have discussed:

If you have been following along at home, you should now have a growing mailing list and should be sending out newsletters on a regular basis, and now is the time to raise the question of maintenance.

To put it another way, how and when should you delete email addresses from your mailing list?

This is a perennially hot topic in marketing circles, and there are as many different opinions as there are grains of sand on a beach.

Some say you should run all the email addresses in your mailing list through a validation service, and remove any addresses that raise red flags. Others say you should cull any email addresses that don’t open your newsletters. And of course everyone agrees you should bring your mailing list in compliance with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

I think you should clean up your mailing list as rarely as possible. In fact, the only time I would recommend removing email addresses en masse from your mailing list is to keep from getting charged more by your mailing list provider. For example, some will charge you more per month if you have more than 1,000; 5,000; or 10,000 subscribers.

There are many different views on this topic, so I am going to use this post to give you both sides of an argument.

Use an email validation service

If you read more than a few articles about mailing lists you will likely come across the recommendation that you should use an email validation service such as QEV to confirm that each email address is good.

This type of service will confirm that an email address:

  • has not been blacklisted,
  • still exists at its email server, and
  • belongs to a real person.

Pro: The benefit of using a service like QEV is that it keeps you from adding too many invalid or blacklisted emails to your mailing list. Companies that host mailing lists will disable your account if you add too many questionable email addresses in your mailing list. (This happened to a client of mine.)

Con: Email validation companies will charge you if you want to verify more than a handful of email addresses, and that validation is only useful in a few specific circumstances. I tested one of these services when I was moving my mailing list in 2018, and I found that the vast majority of the email addresses on my mailing list were good. It turns out that Mailchimp, the company I was using to host my mailing list at the time, had already cleaned my list by removing any email addresses that came back as invalid. This happened each time I sent out a newsletter; I didn’t have to lift a finger.

Conclusion: The only time an email validation service is useful is before you add an email address to your mailing list.

Delete the email addresses that don’t open your newsletters

One SOP for mailing lists is that, once or twice a year, you should check the stats for your mailing list and remove any email address that never opened one of your newsletters.

Most mailing list companies track the open rate for your newsletters, and they can tell you which email addresses opened which newsletters, when the newsletters were opened, etc. You can use that data to decide whether to cull emails from your mailing list.

Pro: Culling email addresses will remove the subscribers who aren’t opening your emails – or so it would seem.

Con: I do not trust the stats collected by mailing list services; thanks to tracking blockers and other privacy tools, you can’t actually tell who opened an email and who did not. I stopped culling email addresses based on open rates after the fifth deleted subscriber told me that they didn’t understand why they stopped getting my emails. They said they read all my emails, and I believe them.

Conclusion: Rather than culling email addresses when they don’t open your newsletters, why not try to get them to engage with your emails? In the industry this is known as a “re-engagement email campaign”, and it involves targeting the those who don’t open your newsletters with emails specifically designed to get a response.

You might ask if they still want to receive your newsletters, but I feel that is passive-aggressive nagging. Instead I think you should give them a positive reason to respond. You can track who does and doesn’t click the link.

  • Offer a free download, or
  • ask them a question about a topic that will interest them, or
  • maybe tell them about a sale on one of your books.

Cull your mailing list to comply with the GDPR

This EU regulation went into effect last year, which would lead some to assume that everyone is in compliance.

I, on the other hand, know from personal experience that it is easy to miss when rules change, or not realize the new rules apply to you, so this recommendation is worth repeating just in case.

The GDPR has many rules on how you can use someone’s information. When it comes to mailing lists, the GDPR requires you to have someone’s permission to use their email address to send them your newsletters.

The reason this matters is that it was a common practice to offer someone a free download in exchange for their email, and then add them to your mailing list without actually informing them. (Many companies still do this, but the practice violates the GDPR.)

You need to go through your mailing list and make sure that everyone agreed to get emails from you. If you have to go through one email at a time, do it.

When I brought my mailing list into compliance with the GDPR, I identified 24 subscribers that I needed to ask permission to continue sending them emails. Only 9 granted that permission, which was fine.

Pro: The new rules are not just legally required, they are also more ethical. You shouldn’t add people to your mailing list without telling them.

Con: I can’t think of one.

Cull your mailing list because subscribers cost money

This is the one situation where I think that cleaning up a mailing list is a good idea.

A large mailing list with tens of thousands of email addresses can cost you hundreds of dollars each month. If those subscribers are interested in your newsletters, that’s great, but do you really want to keep paying for the subscribers who don’t care about what you have to say?

I hold out hope that an unresponsive subscriber will open the next email, so I am loath to remove them from my mailing list. But I also know that I am paying a company for each email address on my mailing list, and I don’t want to pay any more than I have to.

Pro: This will keep your costs from mushrooming.

Con: You will be losing subscribers, but if you run a re-engagement campaign first, you can keep your losses to a minimum.

Have you culled your mailing list? What is your policy on removing subscribers?

Hi, I'm Nate.

I build and fix websites for authors, and I am also a tech VA. I can build you a website that looks great and turns visitors into fans, and I can also fix your tech when it breaks. Let me fight with tech support so you don’t have to.

My blog has everything you need to know about websites and online services. Don’t see what you need. or want personalized help? Reach out.

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