How (& Why) To Clean Your Email List (Without Pissing People Off)

Let's pretend that you owned an apartment complex. You have 100 apartments filled with tenants, and of those 100 tenants, 30 of them are not paying rent. As a matter of fact, those 30 people have been living in your apartments for more than a year and have not once paid rent.

Would you allow this to happen? If you want to be a successful and profitable landlord, most definitely not.

I'm guessing there are people on your email list who are a lot like those apartment tenants: taking up space, potentially costing you money, but giving you nothing in return. Each month they just sit there on your list. They don't open your emails, they don't engage with you at all - most likely, they just delete your email as soon as it hits their inbox. So why, OH WHY, don't they just unsubscribe?!!

Who knows, but it's time you take action and evict them. The beauty is, they probably won't even notice they've been evicted!

Your email list is important. You want to fill that sucker up with quality contacts who will become loyal subscribers and serious fans, people who anxiously await your next email, click the links inside, and even respond to you from time to time. You're building a community.

To build this awesome & engaged community, you need to keep your email list clean, which means getting rid of squatters simply taking up space. There is a right way & a wrong way to do this, so I'm going to show you How (& Why) To Clean Your Email List (Without Pissing People Off).

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

If you have only just begun to build your email list, this is something you probably won't need to do just yet, but as your list grows, it will become important and necessary to keep your list clean. Before we dive in, let's start with a little bit of basic vocabulary so we're all on the same page.

EMAIL VOCABULARY

Open Rate: This is the percentage of email subscribers who opened your newsletter. You want to get this number as high as possible, but the open rate will vary based on a lot of factors, including your industry. A solid average open rate is anywhere between 25% - 45% or higher. This means that 25% - 45% of your entire email list should be opening all of your newsletters.

Click Rate: Of the 25% - 45% of your list who opened your newsletter, this is the percentage of people who clicked on at least one link in your newsletter. This rate will be significantly lower than your open rate, and again will vary based on a lot of factors. Look for a number around 5% - 8% here.

Stale Subscribers: These are the squatters I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They've been on your list a while, yet rarely, if ever, open your emails. They're simply taking up space. Sometimes this happens when you create an opt-in offer or content upgrade that a reader wants, so they subscribe but never engage. Other times, (and I truly hate to see this but it happens a lot) bloggers will list their email list subscription as an entry for a giveaway. Readers subscribe to get those extra entry points, then never engage.

Clean List: This is a healthy, active, and engaged email list. A clean list should consistently notice a steady rise in open rates and click rates, and have solid engagement.

Ready to have a clean list? Let's move on...

WHY YOU SHOULD CLEAN YOUR EMAIL LIST

One word: ENGAGEMENT

Let's look at a couple different scenarios:

Blogger A has an email list of 5,000 subscribers that she has been building through giveaways, linky parties, and the like for about two years. She is super proud because she is seeing a steady increase in her subscriber count, adding about 100 or more new subscribers each week! For some reason, however, her open rate is dismal, sitting somewhere in the 15% range. Her click rate? Don't even ask.

Blogger B has an email list of around 1,500 subscribers that she has been building through valuable content upgrades and awesome blog content for about two years. She wishes her list was larger, but she is proud of her open rate, which is currently around 35% and continues to rise each month. She has built friendships with several of her readers because they regularly reply to her emails and even share them with their friends.

I have two questions for you:

#1 - Which scenario sounds more like your current situation?

#2 - Which scenario sounds like the better scenario?

(I hope everyone said that Blogger B is doing a better job with their email list.)

I preach this: ENGAGEMENT IS BETTER THAN NUMBERS. And it's true! It's better to have a smaller email list with higher open rates than a huge list with really low open rates.

In addition to improved engagement, if you are currently paying for your email service, cleaning your list could save you some money. MailChimp allows you to use their free service for a list up to 2,000 subscribers, then you pay for anything above that. Don't pay for people to just take up space! They are the squatters living for free in your apartment!

HOW TO CLEAN YOUR EMAIL LIST

I think it might be helpful to start by showing you the WRONG way to clean your email list. Remember the title of this post? "How to Clean Your Email List WITHOUT Pissing People Off"? We want to be nice, not an a**hole, like this guy:

There is a right way and a wrong way to clean your email list - getting rid of subscribers who simply take up space. Creating a clean list improves engagement and might save you money. Learn how to do it properly without making people reach for their pitchforks.
There is a right way and a wrong way to clean your email list - getting rid of subscribers who simply take up space. Creating a clean list improves engagement and might save you money. Learn how to do it properly without making people reach for their pitchforks.

Ok first of all, this actually happened. My friend Kirsten (yea, I know it's confusing because I'm Kirsten and she's Kirsten, I get it) messaged me on Facebook one day and told me to look at the chaos on a certain Facebook post. Someone shared this screenshot in there and it went viral, for obvious reasons.

The dude who sent this proudly owned up to it in the comments of that Facebook thread, too, which blew my mind. I'd be hiding under my desk if I sent something like this...

...but then again, I'm not an a**hole, so I wouldn't send something like this. I actually love my email subscribers and prefer to treat them with the utmost respect, even if they never open my emails. (I clean them off my list, but I do it nicely.)

So, how do you actually clean your list without pissing people off? I'll gladly show you. First, a few points to ponder:

  • People unsubscribe, or don't open your emails, for a variety of reasons. Don't take it personally. Maybe they just don't have time to read your emails and would rather connect on social media. No biggie.
  • Your email list is meant to be a community of your VIPs, so always treat them this way - with respect and kindness.
  • Think of how you would like to be treated and then go above & beyond that for your own community
  • Kirsten & I did an entire webinar on this very topic of engagement last week, so click HERE to check out the replay for more nuggets of awesome-ness

LET'S GET TO IT!

STEP 1: DOWNLOAD YOUR ENTIRE LIST

Before you ever make any drastic changes to your email list, always start by downloading your entire list as-is, just in case something goes horribly wrong. You always need a back-up. Let me show you how to do this in MailChimp.

First, navigate to your email list in MailChimp, and click the "Export List" button. Choose the option for a CSV file.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

You will receive an email from MailChimp letting you know your list is ready to be downloaded. Simply click the link in the email to download a zip file with your CSV file in it.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

After downloading, locate the file on your computer and extract the file. Save this as a backup.

STEP 2: DOWNLOAD YOUR LIST OF CAMPAIGNS

Next you'll need to download your list of campaigns. Navigate to your list of campaigns and click the button to the right that says "Download Sent Campaigns".

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

STEP 3: FILTER & ASSESS

Now, I upload my CSV file into Google Drive, because Google Drive is my life and I won't pay for Microsoft Office when I can use Google Drive for literally everything.

Sorry. Tangent. Moving on...

To do this, drag and drop your CSV file into Google Drive. You will then need to tell Google Drive to open it as a Google Sheet. Simply right-click on your file, choose "Open with", and select Google Sheets from the list.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

I open my file in Google Sheets so I can manipulate it a bit and glean some cool stuff out of all this data. This is a great way to get a bird's eye view of your email list as a whole. If you're like me, you have several years of data available in one list, so it's pretty cool to look at different aspects of this list.

HOW TO FILTER IN GOOGLE SHEETS:

Just in case you aren't familiar with filtering data in Google Sheets, or in Excel for that matter, allow me to quickly demonstrate:

Highlight your entire spreadsheet by clicking the upper right corner just below the "fx" symbol. Navigate to Data and select "Filter" from the list:

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

You'll then see little boxes inside each of the column headings. By clicking on any of these boxes, you will see a drop-down menu with every item in that column listed as an option.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

You can sort by specific criteria, or find all the blank entries.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:

Using this data, you can filter and assess things like:

  • Your highest performing subject lines
  • Your campaigns with the highest click rates
  • Which days of the week translated to higher open rates
  • Which emails generated the highest number of unsubscribes

This information can then be applied to your future email campaigns helping you constantly improve.

For example, if you want to see which of your campaigns had high open rates, head to the column called "Open Rate", filter by condition, and find open rates greater than whatever percentage you want to view.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

Be sure to go back and clear each filter before moving onto the next filter so you get accurate results each time.

STEP 4: SEGMENT YOUR LIST

Now you're ready to do some cleaning. The actual criteria you set for your own list may be different from what I use, simply because I've been building my list for more than four years. You will need to decided what time frame works best for you and use that.

Navigate to your list and click "Segments", then "Create new segment". Be sure to choose ALL when setting the conditions subscribers need to match, rather than ANY.

You'll set 2 conditions: (1) Date added is before a specified date. Choose the date to find the people who have been on your list the longest. (2) Campaign activity did not open all of the last 20 campaigns. Then click to preview the segment.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

Save this segment and give it a name, like "To Be Cleaned".

The number in your "To Be Cleaned" segment might be a tad bit frightening. When I cleaned my email list in December, my segment was almost 900 people. But keep in mind that these 900 people were not engaging with ANY of my emails. They were simply taking up valuable real estate, costing me money, and not getting me to my goal of an active and healthy community.

STEP 5: THE CHOICE IS YOURS

At this point, you have a choice, and there is not a wrong answer here (unless you choose to act like the a**hole I talked about a few minutes ago - that is ALWAYS wrong). You can do one of two things with this segment you created:

#1 - Send them a one-off email asking if they want to continue receiving your emails.

#2 - Unsubscribe them and move on.

Personally, I went with option #2, simply because I didn't have time to mess around with people. And, even if you write the nicest one-off email of your life, some people will still get offended. It's just the way we're wired. I didn't want to deal with hurt feelings.

If you choose to send a one-off email, I suggest wording it as a thank-you email to your long-time subscribers, and possibly even providing them with some sort of freebie, like a printable PDF or small discount to your store, etc. But be sure the message is completely clear - you want them to be more engaged with your emails or they will be removed.

You can even make it glaringly obvious by adding a colorful button right smack dab in the middle of the email that allows them to quickly unsubscribe with one click.

HOW TO ADD A ONE-CLICK UNSUBSCRIBE BUTTON:

In the design tab of your campaign, drag in the button design tool.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

Change the color to something that stands out, change the wording to something that makes it easy to know exactly what the button is for (like ONE CLICK UNSUBSCRIBE), and change the link to the Unsubscribe merge tag, *|UNSUB|*.

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

That's hard to miss.

HOW TO MOVE SEGMENT TO UNSUBSCRIBE LIST:

If you don't want to do all of that (like me), you just need to add this new segment to your unsubscribe list, like this:

Open the "To Be Cleaned" segment and select all of the checkboxes. (You might have to do this multiple times in order to select all of the people in this segment. You can select up to 100 at a time.) 

Click the "Actions" button just above your list, and click "Unsubscribe".

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!

And voila - your list is super clean and shiny.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR LIST CLEAN

Believe it or not, your email list is a lot easier to keep clean than your kitchen. (I literally JUST put the dishes away and the sink was empty. Can you PLEASE put your dishes in the dishwasher? Oh. My. GOSH Y'all!!! How HARD IS THAT?!?!?!)

SCHEDULE REGULAR CLEANINGS

As your list grows, you'll need to do your part to keep it running efficiently. The actual schedule is up to you, but at the very least, clean your list once each year. If you do an end-of-year blog/business review, make this part of that process. You can analyze the data at the same time and make a plan to improve.

FOCUS ON ORGANIC GROWTH

I understand the appeal of quick growth, and I typically don't get too bothered by it when it comes to social media numbers. But when it comes to your email list, organic growth is best. Don't stress out too much about the actual number of subscribers on your list. Remember, we're going for engagement, not massive lists.

Don't add your email list as an entry for a giveway. This is a sure-fire way to grow your list quickly, but not with loyal subscribers. On a related note, only create content upgrades and/or opt-in offers that provide value to your target audience, not the general public. This will ensure that the people opting into your list are interested in the content you provide, and will most likely share your blog posts with their friends.

MAINTAIN A CONSISTENT EMAIL SCHEDULE

One way that lists become stale is by collecting email addresses that you rarely or never use. I have a friend who shall remain nameless (she knows who she is...and her email list makes me shudder) who has over 4,000 subscribers on her email list. She has NEVER emailed them. Not once. Ever.

If I were to clean her list, she'd have to start from scratch. Think about it: If you sign up for an email list, and several months or years go by before you ever get an email, chances are pretty dang good that you'll forget you subscribed in the first place.

And then what happens? You might mark that email as spam, or you might unsubscribe, or simply delete it. None of those are engaging.

To keep your subscribers engaged, you actually have to email them. Regularly. Like on a schedule. Whether that's weekly, monthly, or every blog post, it's up to you. But create a schedule and stick to it.

A/B TEST SUBJECT LINES

Your subject line is what ultimately decides the fate of your email campaigns. A crappy or general subject line won't entice people to open your emails, much less click on the links or respond to them. Until you get to be as awesome and consistently valuable as the likes of Amy Lynn Andrews whose subject lines are simply "Useletter Issue No. ##", you need to write epic subject lines. A/B testing in MailChimp allows you to test up to three subject lines with each email campaign you send. More on how to do that HERE.

Now get to cleaning!

LIKE IT? PIN IT!

Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!
Instead of trying to grow a massive email list, focus instead on growing an active & engaged email list, and keeping your list clean. Learn how to clean your email list of stale & inactive subscribers without pissing people off!