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Email list management: Cultivate a thriving mailing list

by Kate Lindemann  |  December 11, 2020

7 min. read
Marketers planting email contacts in a garden.

A mailing list is like a garden: It won’t flourish unless you tend to it. So let’s take a moment to give yours the attention it deserves. We’ll go over the basics of email list management, so you can cultivate a thriving list of contacts that will serve you well for years to come.

What is email list management?

Email list management is the practice of maintaining a healthy list of email marketing contacts. Marketers manage lists by bringing in new subscribers, organizing contacts into segments and removing addresses that bounce. A well-maintained list improves campaign performance and protects the sender’s reputation with email clients.

Email list management may sound like a chore, but with the right systems in place, it only takes occasional maintenance. Keep the following principles in mind to get your list in tip-top shape.

Use the right tools

Dedicated email marketing tools like Mailchimp are relatively inexpensive and will make the task of list management much easier.

One of the biggest benefits these tools provide are features that allow customers to manage their subscriptions themselves. You can still add and delete contacts manually, but most of the work managing your list happens in the background.

Most tools also use tags and filters to make it easy to organize your subscribers into groups and segments for targeted campaigns.

Illustration of a woman digging in a garden growing email contacts.

Plant seeds with new subscribers

One of the great things about email marketing is that as your list grows, you reach more people with the same amount of effort. As you acquire new email contacts, start your email relationship off on the right foot. After all, happy subscribers are engaged subscribers. A little effort upfront means more clicks and opens down the line.

Set expectations

When customers sign up to your email newsletter, be clear about what they can expect. This entices new subscribers to join, and prevents misunderstandings that could cause people to unsubscribe.

Screenshot of an email sign-up form with information about content and cadence.

Use double opt-in

Email marketing is a direct and intimate line of communications. A warm and welcoming email to new subscribers starts that relationship off on a positive note.

A welcome email is also the perfect opportunity to verify each new email address with a double opt-in system. Double opt-in requires new email subscribers to confirm their email address by clicking a link in an email before they’re added to your list.

This allows you to verify that subscribers are using their real email address. Fake subscribers lead to bounces – or the account’s real owner marking your emails as spam. Both are bad for your sender reputation, so verify upfront to save yourself the trouble of weeding them out later.

Divide your list into segments

Email segmentation divides email contacts into categories, making it easy to customize campaigns to different groups. You can segment contacts according to any criteria, including location, customer status, purchase history and more.

Illustration of man in garden grouping email contact 'plants' into segments.

Segmented email campaigns perform better than unsegmented ones – a lot better. Mailchimp did the math and found that segmented campaigns sent via their platform get 23% more opens and 49% more clicks on average. That’s a big jump, but not a surprising one. Of course people are more likely to engage with content that’s customized for them.

The best way to segment your list depends on your business and products. For best practices and inspiration, check out our article on email segmentation.

Fill in missing data

The more information you have about subscribers, the more options you have for personalization and segmentation. If you just have a contacts’ email addresses, your options are pretty limited. Just one additional piece of information – a location or first name – opens up new personalization options.

And of course, if you want to group your subscribers into segments, you’ll need to keep track of who’s in which segment. Most email marketing systems use features like tags and lists to make grouping contacts easy.

Fortunately, much of this work can be automated. For example, you can sync your email marketing tool with your CRM. That way, when you close a deal, contacts move from the ‘lead’ segment to the ‘customer’ segment automatically.

Email sign up form for fashion retailer giving option for gender segmentation.

You can also collect information from subscribers themselves right in your email sign-up forms. Just make sure not to demand more personal details than you actually need. Joining your mailing list should be as frictionless as possible, and filling out a long form is much more work than just entering an email address.

Keep an eye on engagement

An engaged list is a healthy list, so keep an eye on your opens and clicks.

The insights you glean tracking performance metrics over time will help you understand your list better. Do they engage more with industry insights than customer success stories? Do they respond to personalization? Does your click-through rate drop off a cliff when you dial up your cadence?

When you send customers emails they want to receive, it’s good for the health of your list. Happy and engaged contacts are more receptive to future messaging, and less likely to unsubscribe. So pay attention to trends in your email analytics data and see what you can learn about your subscribers.

Illustration of wilted email plant in a pot next to thriving email plant in a pot.

Make it easy to unsubscribe

Getting off your email list should be just as easy as getting on it. This might seem counterintuitive. Why would you want to lose subscribers? But email lists are as much about quality as they are about quantity. Someone trapped on your list won’t convert to a sale. Instead, they’ll grow to dislike your brand more and more with each unwanted email.

To make unsubscribing easy, put a clearly marked unsubscribe link at the bottom of each email. This is a legal requirement in many parts of the world, but even if it weren’t, it’s still a best practice for email list hygiene to let unhappy subscribers go.

If you want to make one last effort, consider an unsubscribe form that gives people the option to get emails less frequently instead of leaving your list altogether.

Email unsubscribe form with option to adjust cadence.

Prune your list

Cleaning up your list periodically will keep your sender reputation intact, so you don’t land in the spam folder. Set aside some time each year for some list pruning.

Remove hard bounces

Most email analytics distinguish between hard bounces and soft bounces. Soft bounces are the result of a temporary problem, like the recipient’s inbox being over capacity. Hard bounces mean the email address no longer exists – or was fake to begin with. It’s important to remove hard bounces from your contact list. Too many bounces, and email clients will start labeling your messages as spam.

Illustration of gardener pruning emails off a bush, illustrating email list management.

Fix typos

Before you delete an email address that’s bouncing, double-check that the problem isn’t a typo. If possible, cross reference any fixes with your customer database to make sure you’ve got the correct address. You don’t want to add a different person with a similar name to your list by ‘fixing’ a typo in an email address.

Remove duplicates

Next, remove or merge duplicate entries to keep your subscriber count accurate and your information up-to-date.

Remove role accounts

Addresses like support@company.com are often low-quality subscribers. If they haven’t engaged with an email in the past year, there’s a good chance whoever’s receiving your emails now isn’t the same person who originally signed up for them. Go ahead and cut them loose.

Reactivate or remove inactive subscribers

Most email lists have some subscribers who never open or read any emails. These contacts may not have clicked the ‘unsubscribe’ button yet, but they might as well have.

Screenshot of Gmail's report spam button.

Inactive subscribers aren’t bringing you any returns, and they could actually do some harm. Less tech-savvy people might not know how easy it is to unsubscribe from a mailing list. If they click their email provider’s ‘mark as spam’ button instead, your sender reputation could take a hit.

Make one last effort to reactivate them with a re-engagement email. If they still don’t bite, consider taking them off your list.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor

As with many things in email marketing, email list management requires a bit of work upfront, but can pay dividends over time.

So set aside some time to tidy up your list and plant seeds for healthy growth. That way, when you send out future campaigns, you can be confident they’re resting on the steady foundation of a thriving mailing list.