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Two adult hands rest on an open laptop, with an e-mail inbox on screen, Image is in a school setting.

Everyone wants to have a massive email list.

And there’s no doubt that being able to say that you have over 100,000 subscribers gives you extra credibility.

However, the reality is that the number of subscribers is a vanity metric – quality is much more important than quantity.

Sure, your aim should be to build an email list that is both big and engaged, but you should never sacrifice engagement just to inflate the subscriber count.

So prune your email list now.

Why email list size doesn’t matter as much as you think

You might be wondering, what does “pruning your email list” mean?

It means identifying inactive subscribers and unsubscribing them yourself.

This might seem counter-intuitive. You have worked so hard to grow your email list to its current size. Why on Earth would you want to remove subscribers?

Think about it. Say you have an email list with 100,000 subscribers. How valuable is it if literally none of them open your emails? Obviously, if that’s the case, then an email list is not an asset, it’s a liability. You are paying a lot of money every month to maintain it, but you aren’t making any money from it. You are in the red.

Of course, you will never find yourself in this situation, there is no such thing as an email list with 100,000 subscribers where not a single one of them is opening the emails.

However, this thought experiment illustrates that it’s not the list size that matters, it’s the engagement.

Once again, when it comes to email marketing, the quality of your subscribers is much more important than quantity.

Why inactive subscribers are a liability

Now, what exactly makes a 100,000 subscriber email list with literally zero engagement a liability?

Obviously, it’s inactive subscribers, who are bad for business for these three reasons:

They damage deliverability

Everyone hates spam.

That’s why email service providers like Gmail go to great lengths to protect their users from it. How do they do it? They flag suspicious emails and direct them to the “Spam” folder.

Now, from the email service provider’s perspective, people not opening your emails is suspicious.

And as your email list grows, the number of inactive subscribers increases, and the number of your emails that remain unopened goes up!

Once you set off the email service provider’s alarm, your emails start getting flagged as spam, which means that even active subscribers might start missing them due to them going straight into their “Spam” folders.

You want to avoid this as much as possible.

They distort engagement statistics

Let’s try another thought experiment.

Say, you have an email list of 100,000 subscribers.

However, 50,000 of those subscribers are inactive subscribers, which means that only half of your email list regularly open your emails.

So, basically, you have a list of 50,000 subscribers, but you are paying for 100,000 subscribers.

Now, you are probably aware that it’s important to rely on data when making business decisions, but is the data you see when you open your email list dashboard accurate?

Those 50,000 inactive subscribers are distorting your engagement statistics such as open rates and click-through rates as well as your email list conversion rate.

So how can you make good business decisions when you are working with flawed data?

They cost money

Major email marketing software companies charge you a monthly fee based on the number of subscribers that you have.

As your email list grows, the price of maintaining it goes up, and if you keep at it, eventually you will reach a point where it costs hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars every month.

And that’s okay. If you have a big email list you are probably making a lot of money from it so the math works out.

However, if you let inactive subscribers accumulate you might get to a point where you are spending hundreds of dollars every month just to keep them on your email list, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

Who exactly are the inactive subscribers?

Now, you might be wondering, who exactly counts as an inactive subscriber?

It depends on who you ask, but for us, anyone who hasn’t opened any of your emails for three months is an inactive subscriber.

At that point, it’s very unlikely that they will start opening your emails again by themselves, and there’s not much of a chance of re-engaging them either (it’s worth a try, though—cue in a win-back flow).

When should you prune your email list?

Okay, so how do you know when it’s time to prune your email list?

Well, common advice is to observe your engagement statistics, especially open rates, since a significant decline in engagement is a sign that it’s time to remove inactive subscribers.

However, that’s a wrong way to go about it, and that a much better approach is to simply remove inactive subscribers every three months.

That way, you don’t let them accumulate and prevent the problems that are associated with inactive subscribers.

And sure, you could do it every six months, or even once a year, but why would you want to spend six months or a year paying for inactive subscribers?

How Noah Kagan cut his email marketing bill by 47%

When Noah Kagan, the founder of App Sumo and Sumo, saw his $719 email marketing bill, it made him sick.

 How To Increase Your Conversion Rate By Pruning Your Email List

So he decided to do something about it.

He tried switching to a different email marketing software provider, he tried using a double opt-in, he even tried manually unsubscribing people who reply with canned responses (this turned out to be too time-consuming). But nothing really helped.

“None of the strategies moved the needle as much as we wanted,” shares Noah.

You know what did help? Removing inactive subscribers from his list. Sure, he went from 105,000 subscribers to 72,000. But it was worth it.

Predictably, his deliverability improved, his open rate and click-through rate doubled, and his email marketing bill went down by 47%, from $719/month to $375/month. Talk about saving money!

“Your ego will be hurt going from 105,000 email subscribers down to 72,000 (like we did). But at the end of the day, worry about results not vanity” advises Noah.

Keep in mind that the longer you wait, the more inactive subscribers you will accumulate, and the harder it will be to pull the trigger and unsubscribe them.

So don’t let yourself get to the point where you have to remove over 30,000 people from your email list.

Prune your email list every 3 months.

It will hurt much less.

Keep your list engaged!

It’s completely normal that over time some of your subscribers become inactive.

Also, don’t expect everyone on your list to open all your emails either, that’s just not going to happen.In fact, Noah Kagan’s rule of thumb is that if your email list is under 100,000 subscribers, you should have a 20%+ average open rate, and if it’s over 100,000 subscribers, you should have a 10-20% open rate.

 How To Increase Your Conversion Rate By Pruning Your Email List

However, you should do your best to keep your email list engaged, otherwise, you are just wasting time, energy, and money that you are spending to acquire subscribers.

The most important thing that you need to understand about the engagement is that you can’t expect people to keep opening your emails for no reason.

Everyone is already overwhelmed by the amount of email they get. What does that mean for you? It means that you need to earn a place in your subscribers’ inboxes with every single email that you send.

Provide value

You need to focus on delivering value to your subscribers.

No one wants to be bombarded with never-ending sales pitches. So don’t do it.

Instead, figure out what your subscribers are struggling with, and then offer them helpful information in your emails.

In fact, online marketing expert Derek Halpern advises to ask your subscribers what they are struggling with in your welcome email:

 How To Increase Your Conversion Rate By Pruning Your Email List

“Why do I ask this question?

Well, when people tell me what they’re struggling with, it helps me figure out what content I can create for them” explains Derek

Collect the responses you get, analyze them, and use that information to provide more value to your subscribers.

A great example of an eCommerce company that does it right is Beardbrand. They offer their subscribers useful grooming tips.

 How To Increase Your Conversion Rate By Pruning Your Email List

Beardbrand also shares content that might be interesting to beard enthusiasts.

For example, they have recently sent out an email with a subject line “Lookin’ DAMN good at 71”, in which they shared a video of a 71-year-old man getting a makeover.

 How To Increase Your Conversion Rate By Pruning Your Email List

Of course, Beardbrand sends promotional emails too, but all the value they add buys them a lot of goodwill and makes their subscribers more receptive to their sales pitches.

Figure out how you can do the same. Add value. And more value. And then some more value. Only then ask for a sale.

Craft compelling subject lines

David Ogilvy, one of the best copywriters who ever lived, once famously said:

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Now, when it comes to email marketing, you might not be writing headlines, but you are writing subject lines, which are pretty much the same thing.

Fail to catch your subscribers’ attention with your subject line and they aren’t going to open your email. Simple as that.

In her article “How to Get an 80% Open Rate on Your Emails” Bushra Azhar shares two tips for writing compelling subject lines:

  • Use uncommon word combinations. She advises thinking of a regular phrase that describes the subject of your email (e.g. “How to get rid of weeds in your garden”). Then, ask yourself what do people feel when they get this result and what else evokes a similar feeling. Also, think about pop-culture references that might evoke that feeling as well. “Using those answers, play with your original words to say something unusual. With the gardening example, that could be something like “Alien Weeds Assaulting Your Garden? Go Terminator on Them!” Or “Make Weeds Beg for Mercy with This Method.”
  • Disrupt readers’ mental patterns. Subject lines that get the recipient to do a double-take also get them to open the email. Be creative. Just don’t forget to exercise common sense. A subject line that offends your subscribers will not do you any good. 

 How To Increase Your Conversion Rate By Pruning Your Email List

Don’t forget that your subject line will be just one among many in your subscribers’ cluttered inboxes.
So make sure that it stands out.

Format your emails properly

Your emails don’t have to be fancy.

But they do have to be readable.

So make sure that you split the text into proper paragraphs and use bullet points and bolded subheadlines to make your emails easy to skim.

Look, you can write a Pulitzer prize worthy piece, but if it’s a wall of text, no one is going to read it.

So don’t send your subscribers walls of text.

Conclusion

Pruning your email list is not an easy task.

The hardest thing about it is overcoming the voice in your head that tells you that you have lost your mind.

After all, everyone is trying to increase the number of their email subscribers, so what kind of lunatic do you have to be to intentionally reduce it?

But you need to remind yourself that it’s the right thing to do. It will improve your deliverability, it will make your engagement statistics more accurate, and it will save you a lot of money.

So don’t let your vanity get in the way. Remove those inactive subscribers. It will sting as you do it, but it will pay off in the long run.

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