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263. How to Clean Your Email Marketing List

263. How to Clean Your Email Marketing List

A few weeks ago, on episode 259 we took a deep dive into the process of auditing your email campaigns and automations to see where you could improve your results and ultimately generate more money from your email marketing.

In that episode, I also directed you to episode 167, where I walk you through the nitty-gritty of what each of your email metrics mean and how to use those metrics to figure out what needs to be improved. 

While I absolutely believe there is always room for improvement in our email marketing results, and that constantly testing and iterating is an important part of the process, the truth is, a lot of the time, poor email marketing results come back to having a stale unengaged list. 

That’s what we’re talking about today – when and how to clean your email list.

Prefer to listen to the episode? Click here.

How often should you clean your email list?

I personally am pretty relentless about cleaning my list and do it fairly regularly. There isn’t really a perfect cadence for this as it depends on the source of that list and your sending cadence. To generalize it I say minimum every 6 months. 

If your list is growing quickly, if you’re collecting leads through giveaways or lead generation ads, or if you have a high frequency of sending… you should be cleaning your list more often; quarterly is a good cadence there. 

I would also do a cleaning after any big influx of subscribers. So maybe you don’t typically do giveaways but you team up with some other product-based business owners, or you exhibit at a really big in-person shopping event, or a post of yours goes viral. If any of those lead to a lot of new people signing up to your list, I would clean it about a month or so after and get rid of anyone who hasn’t engaged with you since. 

And if at any point you see an overall dip in the number of subscribers who are engaging, that’s a signal it might be time to clean your list. 

Now before you go and get rid of everyone that hasn’t been engaging you might be wondering whether or not you should try and reengage them before you unsubscribe them?

Should You Try and Reengage Your Subscribers?

The truth, it depends. Generally, the longer it’s been since someone has engaged with you, the less likely you’ll be able to reengage them and the more probable that a reengagement campaign might hurt your overall deliverability. 

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, we know it’s easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer than try and get a new one – but the truth is… a relatively small number of these people are going to reengage so I don’t want you spending too much energy here. Go in with a last-ditch effort campaign and get rid of anyone who doesn’t come back from the dead. 

How to Reengage Your Subscribers?

If you are going to try and reengage them, how can you actually do that? Here are a few different ways you can do that. 

The Typical Breakup Email

I’m sure you’ve received a break-up email series from someone before. The subject line says something like, Was it something I said, are we breaking up, do you still want to be on our email list?

The messaging on these varies anywhere from being sad to downright threatening.

As a consumer, these don’t really get me to take action and as a marketer, they’ve never yielded much in terms of positive results on their own. It probably depends on your general sending habits though. 

If you’re already sending a lot of value-driven and/or personalized email, then going straight to the break up series is probably fine… but if you are sending a lot of sales-driven buy me kind of stuff… I would try to engage them first with some value-driven content. 

Maybe the reason they stopped engaging in the first place is because they were feeling overly sold to. Ultimately, leading with a re-engagement campaign vs. a break-up one isn’t a bad thing, no matter where your sending habits fall so you might a well give one of these a try. 

The Educational Content

If you have something that you can teach to your customers related to your product or industry, this is a great time to lead with that content. Offering your subscribers something of value without asking for anything in return can go a long way to getting them to pay attention. 

How you deliver that content is going to depend on your business. Maybe it’s a blog post, a PDF download, or it could even be an educational workshop. The delivery method doesn’t matter, it’s about helping them get the result they’re looking for with a product like yours, even without your product.  

A One-Question Survey

People love to give their opinion, and a survey is a great way to ensure you can actually get a click, the main goal we’re going for here since open rates are not reliable. 

What exactly that one question is will depend on your business. Maybe you have a new collection coming up and you want their feedback on something, maybe you want to know what type of content they want more of from you, or maybe you just want to know what their biggest struggle with the problem you solve is. 

The question itself doesn’t really matter. The main thing to focus on is you want it to be super simple for them to take action. That’s why it’s called the one-question survey. 

Bonus points if you can collect their answer with a button click through the email so you don’t even need to direct them to another form. 

Tie Your Reengagement to Your Current Marketing Campaign

If you have another big campaign or promotion happening in your business, you can tie your re-engagement into this event. 

To make sure it doesn’t feel like just another marketing email, I would tailor your campaign to the people you’re trying to re-engage. Presenting it as a note from the founder in a text-based email with a non-salesy and potentially personalized subject line will make it feel less salesy. 

The Facebook Ads

Another way you can try to reengage your list is through retargeting ads on Facebook. If your email marketing platform integrates with Meta you can sync your unengaged list with a custom audience, otherwise, you can import it as a CSV. 

Because of the way audience matching works, I would only attempt this if you have a really big list otherwise the audience will be really small and likely not worth the spend. 

Tips for Your Reengagement Campaign

Whatever re-engagement strategy you choose, here are a few things to keep in mind. 

  • Make sure you’re sending a series of emails, a minimum of 3, up to 7 or so. 
  • Keep your subject lines on the more personal side. You don’t necessarily have to use their name, but you don’t want it to feel like a typical marketing email
  • Create text-based emails without any images
    • Both of these together might get you in the updates folder vs. the promotional one
    • While there is nothing wrong with the promo tab, it’s still the inbox – showing up in the updates tab works as a great pattern interrupt. 
  • Your number one goal is to get people to click these emails. Remember, open rates are not reliable so you’ll want to aim for the click.
    • Once someone clicks one of these emails you’ll want to stop sending them this campaign
    • As long as you have your segment set up correctly, they should be automatically removed from the segment you’re sending to. 

How to Identify Your Unengaged Subscribers

Now that you know how to reengage them, let’s talk about how to actually identify who should even get this series. 

The segment you create to identify your unengaged subscribers is going to have 3 main conditions. 

  • How long they’ve been on your list
  • How long since they clicked an email – notice I’m saying clicked not opened
  • And the minimum number of emails they’ve received in that time frame

As a baseline, I always start with a 6-month timeframe. 

  • So they’ve been on the list for at least 6 months
  • They haven’t clicked an email in the last 6 months
  • And they have received at least X number of emails in the last 6 months

That X is going to depend on how many emails you typically send. If you’re only emailing 2x per month, then you can’t say has received at least 20 emails. In this case, you’d want that number to be closer to 10. 

If you do send a lot of emails and you’re pretty consistent with it, one of the things you can do to find your sweet spot is to create a few different segments with a different minimum number of emails. 

Then, look at the number of contacts in those segments. Wherever you see the biggest drop off in the number of subscribers, that’s the segment you’ll want to use. 

For example:

  • 5 emails – 1200 subscribers
  • 6 emails – 800 subscribers
  • 7 emails – 780 subscribers
  • 8 emails – 770 subscribers
  • 9 emails – 200 subscribers

As mentioned, my time frame is typically 180 days. The higher your customers purchasing frequency and the higher your sending frequency, the shorter the time frame you’ll want to do. I wouldn’t do any less than 90 days though. 

How to Reengage Your Subscribers on Autopilot

Now, running these re-engagement campaigns regularly or after any big subscriber influxes is a great place to start, but you can also automate this. 

Once you figure out what your threshold is for considering someone unengaged, you can create the automation to trigger at that point. 

On Klaviyo, they will typically recommend you trigger this flow by a segment and that is the easiest way. The only issue here is that segment-triggered flows will only ever trigger one time, an issue I’ve been complaining to them about for a really long time! So if someone reengages during that campaign, but goes dormant again… they won’t get that automation a second time. 

I do still recommend you set it up this way to start as it’s quick and easy, but that’s why I wouldn’t rely on the automation alone and still recommend that you do this manually every 3-6 months. 

Should You Unsubscribe or Delete Your Unengaged Subscribers?

The last thing we’ll touch on today and a question I get all the time is should you delete or just unsubscribe your unengaged contacts and the answer is unsubscribe.

I never fully delete a contact unless it’s requested by them for privacy reasons which actually have never happened to me. 

There are a few reasons for this.

One, if you delete them you’ll lose all their data. If they were to ever resubscribe or purchase from you in the future, you’d be starting from scratch. 

Two, if you only delete them, it’s possible they will get re-added through one of your integrations, like with your eCommerce platform. 

Three, if you were ever to switch email marketing platforms, when you connect that platform to your eCommerce platform, if they’ve ever purchased from you they’ll get pulled in again. 

When you unsubscribe someone, all of their data remains and you can export them to import them into your new platform. 

The trick is you’ll want to check with your email marketing platform to confirm how they charge you for contacts. Klaviyo does not charge you for unsubscribed contacts. 

Drip handles contacts differently. In addition to subscribed or unsubscribed, they also have an active or inactive state. Someone can be unsubscribed, but still be active. If a contact is active, Drip will continue to collect data on them, but they will counted in your total profiles. Inactive means they won’t be counted and you won’t be charged for them, but it also means Drip will not track any of their activity.

If that’s also the case for your platform, if they’ve purchased from you before I probably wouldn’t make them inactive. 

Ultimately the decision is yours. I know it can feel wasteful sometimes to pay for extra people, but I say just figure out how to make more money from your email list, ya know?!


Well, friends, that’s my process for list cleaning. If you haven’t done this in a while – consider this your sign to sit down and get it done. Remember, don’t get emotionally attached to your email list or get hung up on that vanity metric of your total number of email subscribers. They’re not doing you any good if they’re not engaging with your emails or buying from you. 

Listen to the Episode

Episodes Mentioned:

259. How to Audit Your Email Marketing Program

167. Understanding Your Email Marketing Metrics

Tools Mentioned:

Klaviyo Email (Best for Large Product Assortments)

Drip Email (Best for Advanced Automations)

Omnisend Email (Closest Klaviyo Alternative)

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