July 24, 2020
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Taking Care Of Your Email List

The email list is one of the most important parts of a media company. It’s one of the few permissioned push strategies that exist in audience development. If used correctly, it can be one of the best growth channels for your publication.

For example, research shows that subscribers to an email are far more likely to become paid subscribers than anonymous users.


By knowing who the user is, you can send them content that they are more likely to find interesting. Additionally, they are more engaged with your content and will likely hit your paywall if you’re using a metered paywall.

That said, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that abuse their email list. Whether they realize it or not, they’re taking this incredible audience—the most loyal audience—and taking advantage of it.

First, there’s the overt abuse, which comes in the form of over-sending. I have heard stories of operators that send daily sponsored message emails. I’ve heard some marketers refer to their email list as an ATM machine. “If we send another email, we’ll sell more.” That works until it doesn’t.

Second, there’s a lack of awareness around caring for the list’s long-term health. As email lists grow, some people start to become inactive. To ensure the list still works and can deliver maximum value, it’s important prune.

Let’s talk through each…

Over-sending, especially sponsor notes

This section will be short because, honestly, this shouldn’t be that complicated.

There is a social contract that exists between publisher and reader when someone signs up for the newsletter. You give me access to your inbox in exchange for content, trusting that I will send you what you were promised. That’s our agreement.

If I were to suddenly start sending additional email to you, though, the relationship might start to change. Most of us are forgiving if it’s occasional, but when it becomes persistent, we start to get frustrated. And that’s when we start to unsubscribe.

How do you determine how much is too much to send?

Honestly, there’s no crystal clear answer. The extreme answer is you should never send more than what you promised the reader they’d receive. So, if it’s two newsletters, that’s all they should receive.

I don’t agree with that, of course. We have a business to build and there are times when it’s imperative we promote one of our products via our best channel.

But what about sponsor emails? An advertiser comes to you and says they want to send a dedicated email to your email list. Do you do it? How can you, in a quantifiable fashion, understand whether it was worth the money?

One way to do this builds on last week’s piece, where I suggest we try to determine the value of a newsletter subscriber. Let’s say the combined ad, subscription and commerce revenue—or whatever your blend is—for a newsletter subscriber is $25 and your list is 100,000 people. That means you have approximately $2.5 million in value.

Now, the advertiser comes along and says they want to spend $5,000 to send an email blast to that list and you get a 25% open rate. That would imply a $200 CPM. That’s high, but we’ll roll with it.

$5,000 divided by $25 per newsletter means break even is at 200 people unsubscribing. If 400 people unsubscribe, you earned $5,000 in cash, but lost $10,000 in value.

Now, I’m not obtuse enough to believe that unrealized value can pay the bills versus cash, but we need to be smart about this. To recoup those people, we may need to spend on new user acquisition. The math starts to get increasingly complicated, but it’s worth looking at it.

Let’s say it costs you $5 to get a newsletter subscriber where you’ll then earn about $25 in value. To replace the 200 subscribers, though, you’ll have to spend $1,000. Suddenly, you’ve lost $1,000 from the $5,000 in cash plus an additional $5,000 in newsletter subscribers.

Again, does this mean we never do this? No, of course not. Each business is unique and there might be scenarios where it makes sense. However, because the email list is such an efficient channel, it becomes addictive. Cha-ching, money printer goes brrrrrr (okay, bad joke).

A better way to offer this sort of exclusive email blast is to tie it to a piece of content the user might enjoy. A good example is a sponsored webinar or report. It’s less offensive to send a marketing campaign about content that also includes sponsor information than just a sponsor message. Honestly, the user will likely appreciate it if the content is good.

Just to be clear… It’s not just dedicated sponsor email blasts. You can still abuse your email list by promoting your own products or pushing a subscription too hard on people. You have to find a balance and be cautious about losing long-term value.

An out of shape email list

Even if you don’t abuse the list like I described above, it’s likely that you’re not caring about the quality of it as much as you should be, which can have a material impact on your business.

If you recall building your own email list, the first 1,000 subscribers are always some of the most exciting. The open rates on sends are incredibly high. But as you grow, something starts to happen. The opens do begin to drop, even just a little. That’s to be expected. As time goes on, people may no longer be as interested.

In absolute numbers, it doesn’t actually matter. If you had 40% of 1,000 people opening and only 20% of 2,000 people are opening, it’s still 400 people. But there are lesser known problems that many operators might not know about that occur when your engagement drops.

Two, in particular, jump out and they’re related.

The first is a poor sender reputation. Internet service providers assign a score to each sender to determine how reputable we are. That score takes time to build and it can slowly deteriorate as time goes on.

A variety of factors play into your score:

  • The number of emails you send
  • The number of times your content is marked as spam
  • The open rates and CTRs
  • Responses
  • Hard bounces
  • Having domainkey identified mail (DKIM) authentication

Each of these can play into your score. Other than the DKIM authentication, which you setup in your DNS records, ever factor needs to be monitored regularly.

The second is the domain blacklist, which keep track of bad actor domain names. The web administrator can use these blocking lists to help prevent spam from getting through to their user emails.

When an email is sent, the domain is run through one of these blacklists and then one of three decisions is made. It can either be accepted, which means it is sent to the user’s inbox; it can be tagged as potentially spam and hit the spam box in a user’s inbox; or it can be outright rejected.

A poor sender reputation and being on a domain blacklist can have a serious impact on your deliverability. Take it from me… Having your emails go from 99-100% deliverability to 75-80% is terrifying. It can take days to weeks to fix it.

The best way to prevent that from happening is by being proactive with how you clean your list. In other words, as time goes on, it might make sense to start unsubscribing people from your email list. Remember, your reputation score is very much tied to engagement. Therefore, if that’s dropping, your deliverability will begin to follow.

Here are a few tips on cleaning up your list…

Generic emails

I’m not sure why, but some people signup for newsletters with info@domain.com, contact@, support@, etc. The problem is that these are not directly tied to people. Therefore, if that person leaves—or there is more than one person on the list—you might find your content getting flagged as spam.

A simple thing to do is look in your database for these people, send one email and ask them to signup with an individual email address. Then remove them from the email list. This shouldn’t be a high percentage of your people, but it can still hurt your reputation.

Get aggressive with segments

Not everyone loves every type of content, especially when you’re sending marketing messages. Therefore, it’s important to get aggressive with your segments. You can then start filtering people into those segments based on either the type of content they read, how they signed up for the site or other 1st party data.

Let’s say you are a site about stocks and bonds where some people only want content about one of those two buckets. You decide to host a webinar about bonds. You’re stuck sending an email to everyone—even the people that only care about stocks—because your database isn’t segmented.

If you knew which people liked what, you could be more specific with your messaging and reduce the number of marketing messages each person receives. That, in turn, helps reduce the likelihood that people will ignore your message.

Renurture and delete

Even after getting rid of the generic emails and aggressively segmenting, some people just no longer care about engaging with your content. When this happens, it’s time to get rid of them.

With more advanced ESPs, there’s a way to setup rules that automatically run, catching people that fall into the inactivity buckets and pushing them through a drip campaign to try and renurture them. Let me walk through what might look like…

Let’s say you have a newsletter sent daily. In my opinion, once a user hits the 45-60 day mark of not opening a single newsletter, it makes sense to start the deletion process.

Step one is to automatically send them an email asking if they’re still interested in receiving your emails. If they open the email, ask them to re-opt in by clicking a button. This ensures the user is specifically asking to still receive the email. You could base it on opening the newsletter, but I’d rather be stricter here and get the user to engage with the email.

Step two is to try this once more. Perhaps they missed the first email. Again, make them click a button that says they want to unsubscribe.

Step three is to automatically unsubscribe them (but don’t delete them). At this point, you can decide to send them a note that lets them know you’ve removed them with a button that says “resubscribe,” but honestly, at this point, they likely are either not seeing the email or just don’t care.

Reacquire them

Before I close, let’s remember that poor deliverability can mean that people that might want to receive your email are not actually seeing it because the ISPs are getting in the way. So, in your process of cleaning up your list and improving your reputation score, you may remove people that did actually want to receive a newsletter from you.

Once you improve your sender reputation and find your deliverability back up to 99.9-100%, you should try to reacquire the people you unsubscribed.

Since we didn’t delete them, we can use paid marketing to target those specific email addresses. You can either deliver a standard marketing message or you can say something like “resubscribe to [brand name] newsletter today.” That’ll remind them that they haven’t received a newsletter from you in a while and, in turn, get them back on the list.

Most might not actually sign up again, but for those that realized they missed it, this is a good way to get people back that you originally lost.

Care for your list

Here’s how we boil this down…

Our inboxes are already overwhelmed with crap. I know I dread going through mine every day. As publishers, we receive permission from someone to deliver content to them. The simplest thing we can do is try and respect that social contract.

I’m not saying don’t promote your products and, obviously, you need to generate revenue. But if you treat your list poorly this year, in a couple years, it will come back to bite you. It starts to get harder and harder to generate a return from your email efforts.

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