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Clean-Up Strategies for a High Quality Mailing List

Lori Halley 25 February 2008 3 comments

Cleaning up a mailing list is never quite as easy as it should be. To purge an inactive address from your database can feel like you're letting go of something that could "come in handy" someday — even if it's not useful now, and hasn't been productive for quite some time. Just like spring-cleaning your home, however, a good clean-up on your mailing list will pay off in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, and make it easier to manage.

It's a matter of trading in the quantity of contact addresses for higher quality.

Inflated mailing list numbers may look good in the annual report,  says Alia McKee (Sea Change Strategies, Direct Marketing),  but inactive subscribers are just dead weight. They add nothing of value to the list.  More than that, having too many "deliverable dead" entries on a mailing list can skew your statistics, giving a false sense of how well your organization is communicating to fulfill its mission.

The overall quality of your mailing list be maintained to some extent automatically, if you make it easy for those who are no longer interested in your organization to stop receiving email — offer an unsubscribe option at the foot of every newsletter, for example. 

Any emails that bounce are a straightforward clean-up item. If your emails can't be delivered to an address after several tries, go ahead and purge.

Or if you prefer, just move that address to an inactive list for the time being, in case it turns out that the delivery problem was only temporary. Mark such addresses with their 'last tried' date, and send another email in a few weeks' time. If that email is also returned as undeliverable, then you can certainly feel confident about purging the address.

But what about those emails that don't bounce back? As far as you can tell, your emails are being delivered to the subscriber, but is anyone actually reading them at the other end?

If you're tracking donations, event registrations, volunteer activities, and membership renewals,  as well as email newsletter subscriptions (or whatever other purpose your general mailing list serves), it should be possible to see quite easily who on the list has been active in other ways in your organization. Those addresses are the cream of your mailing list, where the greatest value lies. 

Most of the addressses on your mailing list will fall somewhere in between the bounce and the active member, however.  Without asking, there's no way to know which subscribers might be reading your emails but simply not responding in a way that you can track, or "who have abandoned their mailboxes, who delete your messages without opening them or who are still semi-interested, but haven’t seen any reason to open."

If you've not seen signs of involvement in the past 6 months or a year, those subscribers could be classed as your "deliverable dead" — unproductive entries that only serve to clutter up your mailing list and hide the true facts about your response rates for email campaigns. 

But why not try to bring your list back to life before you go ahead and purge? Taking action to try to revive an inactive subscriber might gain you a valuable contact; and at the very least, it can make you feel more comfortable about dropping the name from your list, if that's what must happen.

Send out an email with an eye-catching subject line, Alia McKee suggests, and offer a time-limited benefit for re-confirming the email address. An invitation to a special event, a discount on event registration or merchandise, even an opinion poll might be enough to get a response. Those who reply can be moved to your active list. You might want to try again in a few weeks to reach those who don't respond, and even a third time with a removal deadline attached. At the end of  your reactivation campaign, she advises, "bury your dead" and move on.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 25 February 2008 at 2:49 PM


  • nancy (aka money coach) said:

    Monday, 24 March 2008 at 7:45 AM

    Part of the problem with being self-employed is you can reinvent the wheel a lot - or never invent it at all.  Cleaning up my address list never even dawned on me.  I would much prefer to have a mailing list of people I know are engaged and interested .... so off I go to press a few delete buttons or send a couple 'are you still interested?' e-mails.  

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 24 March 2008 at 3:11 PM

    Mailing list clean-up is vital if you're paying for stamps and envelopes, of course, but you're right on the mark there, Nancy! - even for email, a mailing list that's padded with 'dead wood' is much less useful than a trim and active list.

  • Jason King said:

    Tuesday, 02 June 2009 at 3:29 PM

    Automate as much as possible. I've been using MailChimp and it automatically removes email addresses that cause hard bounces, and soft bounces if they keep happening.

    Also, the people on your mailing list should be able to automatically unsubscribe themselves, and not require your manual intervention.

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