Collecting emails gets a lot of attention in ecommerce. However, email list management is equally important. Collecting emails is futile if sending emails results in a cascade of unsubscribes, bounces, and SPAM complaints.
Even worse, the impact of poor email list management goes deeper than poor email marketing performance. An unmanaged email list can make email unusable as a marketing channel.
This guide will show you how to protect your email marketing program and generate more revenue by properly managing your email list.
What is email list management?
Email list management is a collection of strategies, tools, and practices used by marketers to ensure their email marketing efforts deliver long-term value for business stakeholders and subscribers. Strong email list management is a must for ecommerce businesses.
What’s best is that properly implemented email list management isn’t an additional process that gets tacked on to your email marketing efforts. It’s integrated into your usual email marketing operations and leverages automation so that your email list gets managed as you do your day-to-day email marketing work.
In short, email list management should be approached as an email marketing optimization, rather than an appended task.
Why is email list management so important?
Ultimately, a poor approach to email list management will make your email marketing channel unsustainable. SPAM filters are more sensitive than ever and subscribers expect relevant email content.
An unmanaged email list will generate an increasing number of SPAM violations and subscribers complaints, which can cause deliverability issues. It’s incredibly costly to recover from these deliverability issues.
This is why proper email list management is so important for ecommerce businesses. It goes without saying that a failing email marketing channel is a catastrophe if your business primarily markets and sells online.
Email list management challenges
You may be wondering if email list management is so important, why doesn’t everybody do it? Or maybe you’ve tried to implement email list management and found it to be too cumbersome.
While good email list management should be seamless, that doesn’t mean that there are no challenges in managing your email list. These are the challenges that tend to trip up email marketers when they try to manage their email list.
Long buying cycles make it difficult to determine when a contact has lost its value
As much as it hurts, some customers do lose interest at some point or defect to another brand. Eventually, it’s better to remove a lapsed subscriber from your email list than to keep sending emails which they never engage with.
However, just because a customer hasn’t made a purchase in a while doesn’t always mean they’ve lapsed. It takes time for a customer to return for another purchase. This can make it tricky to determine which subscribers will eventually return for a purchase and which subscribers are truly lapsed.
This typically causes one of two scenarios: You rarely or never remove emails from your email list or you sunset subscribers who are still active.
Too much of either problem is enough to make email marketers give up on email list management altogether.
Disparate, un-integrated martech systems
If you have several different systems that collect and use customer email addresses, it can be tricky to maintain a single source of email marketing truth.
For instance, if your retail point of sale doesn’t integrate with your email service provider, there’s a good chance that any emails collected during retail transactions don’t get transferred to your email list immediately, missing valuable email marketing opportunities.
If your customer data is scattered across multiple systems and databases, it’s nearly impossible to manage an email list, because there’s no one place you can go when you need to do any list management.
Difficulty letting go of inactive subscribers
Acquiring email addresses isn’t easy. Therefore, even when you do know when subscribers have lapsed, it’s easy to keep them on your email list, hoping they’ll come back for another purchase.
With good email list management, you’ll be able to clearly identify lapsed subscribers, and establish sunsetting policies that enable you to confidently remove email addresses from your email list when they’ve lost their value.
Lack of tooling to segment based on engagement, purchase behavior or website behavior
Email list segmentation is an important part of list management. However, proper email segmentation is based on customer behavior.
Basing your email list segmentation on customer behavior requires some data collection infrastructure, which you likely already have as an ecommerce business. It also requires email marketing software that can leverage behavioral data to create useful email list segments and send emails which are relevant to each email list segment.
This issue is largely solved by upgrading your email marketing software. If you find that your email marketing software offers little optimization and automation for building and using email segmentation, it’s time for a change.
Fear of double opt-in slowing down subscriber growth
Many email marketers are hesitant to implement a double opt-in for email collection. Marketers know that more steps results in fewer people going through all of those steps.
However, a double opt-in is much better than a single opt-in for email collection. It weeds out unmonitored email addresses, SPAM traps, and other addresses that you wouldn’t want to send to anyway. It also ensures any customer who subscribes to your email list is truly interested in getting emails from your brand.
In short, you should embrace the double opt-in because you’ll get slightly more high-value email addresses and fewer low-value and useless emails, even though you may get fewer new subscribers overall.
Email list management benchmarks
If your email list management is working properly, it should increase the health of your email list. But what does a healthy email list look like?
These are some benchmarks of a healthy email marketing list.
Less than 0.25% unsubscribe rate per send
Clearly, sending emails to your list should not cause unsubscribes. While it’s impossible to reduce unsubscribes to zero, you should get lower than a 0.25% unsubscribe rate from each email you send.
A low unsubscribe rate indicates that you’re sending relevant emails and meeting subscriber expectations.
Less than 0.25% bounce rate per send
A high bounce rate indicates that too many of the email addresses on your list are unusable, and should not be on your list. A bounce rate of less than 0.25% per send indicates that your email opt-in and list purging processes are keeping useless emails off your list.
Less than 0.1% complaint rate per send
SPAM complaints can be quite damaging to your email deliverability. Your SPAM complaint rate should be near zero, if you’re sending emails that offer real value for your subscribers and your email opt-in value proposition is true.
Offering value and being honest about the value proposition of subscribing to your email list are fundamentals of email marketing. Therefore your complaint rate per send should be near zero, 0.1% or less.
Google Postmaster Tools
Google Postmaster Tools are very handy for assessing email list health. They give you a nicely aggregated rating for understanding how email service providers view emails from your brand.
Google Postmaster Tools tracks bounces, SPAM complaints, unsubscribes, delete without opening, and other metrics to give your sending domain and IP a reputation rating.
Google email addresses are some of the most common on the internet.If Google Postmaster Tools rates both your domain reputation and IP reputation high, your email list is most likely healthy.
Why not open rate?
It might seem that open rate would be a good metric for evaluating email list health. However, many of your subscribers use Apple mail. Unfortunately, Apple MPP (Mail Privacy Protection) has obfuscated open rate to the point where it's no longer a useful metric.
We’ll explain this in more detail shortly, but the simple reason is that Apple reports opens that didn’t actually happen, which makes it challenging to use open rates as a marketing metric.
Email list management best practices
The first step in managing your email list management is implementing some best practices. Many of these best practices can be implemented using tools included with capable email software.
What's best is that, if you put all of these best practices to work, you’ll get many (maybe even most) of the benefits of good email list management right off the bat.
Programmatic email validation
Programmatic email validation automatically checks incoming emails and emails already on your list and removes invalid, fake, and undeliverable email addresses.
Adding programmatic email validation to your email tech stack will immediately reduce your bounce rate. You also won’t lose any email marketing performance because the removed emails were useless anyway.
Offer an email preference center
Adding an email preference center helps reduce your unsubscribe rate, because people can change their email preferences, rather than unsubscribing altogether. Your email preference center will also help you retain more subscribers and customers by giving people a way to tell you when their interests change.
Offer 1-click opt-out
It may seem counterintuitive, but it should always be simple to unsubscribe from your email list. Under no circumstance should you force people to re-enter their email addresses or navigate some complex UI to unsubscribe.
On one hand, it’s a terrible customer experience. People will perceive it as a shady business practice if they think your business intentionally makes it difficult to unsubscribe. On the other hand, a complex unsubscribe skirts dangerously close to violating email consumer protection laws in certain regions.
If a subscriber really doesn’t want to get your emails, they’re not going to engage with them, so there’s no harm in letting them unsubscribe.
Offer last chance emails to inactives then sunset
One of the best ways to make sure a subscriber is truly inactive before you remove them from your list is to send a last chance email and give them a final chance to engage.
You can include a win back offer, if you’d like. Even if you don’t use a win back offer, being transparent with subscribers delivers a much better customer experience, and customers who are still interested but just aren’t ready to make another purchase yet will often reengage.
If you have an email preference center, you can also point customers to that so they can change their email preferences to match their interests. But, if they ignore your last chance email, it’s time to part ways.
Conduct regular seed list tests
Seed list testing is sending emails to a small cross-section of your email list before you send those emails out to your entire list. The purpose of seed list testing is to make sure your emails display correctly in the various inbox provider apps, devices, and deliver to the inbox, rather than the SPAM folder.
Your seed list should be a representative sample of your email list. So it should have emails from multiple inbox providers and ISPs. There are tools for making sure your emails display correctly on all devices, which we’ll cover in an upcoming section.
Monitor engagement reporting organized by mailbox provider
As we mentioned when we touched on Apple MPP, not all mailbox providers report engagement the same way.
Therefore, it’s important to organize your engagement reporting by mailbox provider. That way, something such as Apple’s open rate reporting doesn’t distort the metrics for your entire list.
Your email marketing software can help with this organization. There are also postmaster tools that can help you monitor engagement for email addresses which are not provided by Google.
Implement a sunsetting policy
Lastly, implement a sunset policy. Your sunset policy determines what you consider to be an inactive subscriber, based on behavioral data.
A sunsetting policy takes the stress out of removing inactive subscribers from your list, because you don’t have to rely on your gut to decide when to sunset subscribers. You just follow the criteria set by your sunsetting policy.
However, creating a sunsetting policy requires some analysis.
Email list sunsetting
Your email list sunsetting policy is one of the most important parts of email list management. Removing inactive subscribers protects your email deliverability and makes your email marketing more cost efficient.
But, in the modern email environment, email list sunsetting is a bit more complex than looking at how long it’s been since a subscriber opened an email. Here’s what’s going on.
Sending to inactive subscribers hurts email deliverability
Data suggests that Gmail penalizes senders who continue to send to subscribers who have been inactive for more than 180 days:
“Among our deliverability clients, we noticed many senders’ IP and domain reputation dropping down a level in the Google Postmaster Tools, and our benchmarking showed an average 4%-5% drop in the Gmail open rate month over month in October,” says Clea Moore, director of deliverability strategy, Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Gmail began to penalize senders more heavily for longer-term inactives—those subscribers who hadn’t opened or clicked in more than 180 days—and there was some intermittent spam folder placement and a reputation drop as a result. We first noticed this in early September, but there was a more pronounced shift for all marketers as of mid-October. It appears that all verticals were impacted, but retail took the biggest hit.”
In short, Google reduces your email reputation and increases the chances of placing your emails in the SPAM folder when you send emails to subscribers who have not opened an email from your brand in over 180 days.
Therefore, a 180 day email open threshold should be part of your email list sunsetting policy. Unfortunately, there’s a confounding factor here.
Apple MPP inflates open rates
The Apple mail client MPP caches opens, which results in opens being reported when the user hasn’t actually opened the email. These false opens can account for up to 70% of reported email opens.
This inflates your open rates and, in turn, the number of subscribers on your list which show as active. It’s also why you should separately track engagement metrics from different inbox providers.
How to properly sunset subscribers
There are two ways to sunset email subscribers: one based on open rates and one based on multiple engagement metrics.
The old method: Using open rates
The old method simply refers to how sunsetting was done before Apple MPP. This is how it looked:
Has not clicked or opened in 180 days = suppress further emails to this subscriber
Using this method, you’ll end up sending to inactive subscribers, because you’ll be fooled by pre-cached opens.
This compromises your sunsetting policy and could result in deliverability issues.
A better method: Use multiple dimensions of engagement
The solution to the pre-cached opens conundrum is to track engagement from multiple angles using click-based suppression. With this method, your email sunsetting criteria looks something like this:
Has not clicked in 180 days, no purchases in 24 months, no pageviews in 12 months = Suppress emails to this subscriber
You can adjust the specific numbers based on the average purchase latency among your customer base. But the idea is to use additional, click-based engagement data to make sure you’re not being fooled by pre-cached opens.
How to measure the effectiveness of email list management
If you’re moving from a position of very little or no email list management at all to managing your email list, your email marketing performance will almost certainly improve. However, you should always check the impact of changes to your email marketing against the data.
Fortunately, good email list management will generate some very clear signals of success.
Consistent last-click revenue production meeting business goals
Ultimately, email list management will boost your bottom line. Removing unusable emails from your list, getting fewer unsubscribes, and getting all the other benefits of email list management simply make your email marketing more efficient.
Good email list management ensures that every email you send goes to an active, interested subscriber, and that generates more last-click revenue.
Postmaster Tools Feedback
In addition to Google Postmaster Tools, Microsoft SNDS and Verizon also give you domain and IP address reputation. The Microsoft and Verizon tools help you monitor your sender reputation for addresses other than Google email addresses.
Keep an eye on your reputation in all of these tools. Well executed email list management should improve your sender reputation as reported by all three major postmaster tools.
Here’s a quick tip for email marketing in general: always send marketing emails from a monitored inbox and prompt your subscribers to respond to your emails. It’s a great way to get direct feedback from your customers, and it’s a great customer experience.
The bottom line is that happy subscribers reply to your emails, and your subscribers will be even happier if your brand is responsive.
List management tools
Implementing strategies and best practices is always easier with tools. These tools will make your life with email list management much easier.
We’ve touched on these a few times now, so this will be brief. Email postmaster tools aggregate many dimensions of email list health to give you a quick, easy way to assess the health of your list.
These three postmaster tools will cover many, if not most, of the email addresses on your list.
Google Postmaster Tools
Google Postmaster Tools rates your sender reputation for @gmail.com addresses. A high reputation means that your emails to Google inboxes are more likely to deliver to the inbox folder and that you’re not sending to inactive subscribers.
Microsoft SNDS tells you how deliverable your emails are for @outlook.com, @hotmail.com, @msn.com, and @live.com email addresses. A high reputation makes your emails less likely to get tossed in the junk mail folder.
Verizon Media Postmaster Tools
Verizon Media Postmaster Tools tell you how well your emails will inbox for @aol.com, @yahoo.com, and @verizon.com email addresses. These email addresses may not be super popular, but people do use them, and the Verizon tools will help you reach them better.
Email validation tools
Programmatic email validation can be relatively easily achieved using email validation tools. Most email validation tools are straightforward, offer some sort of integration with your existing email software, and will definitely reduce your bounce rate.
Price: $0.008 per email, price is lower if you validate higher volumes of email addresses
Zerobounce is one of the most well-known and popular email verification tools on the market. It offers a ton of integrations with marketing platforms and offers a few unique features such as using artificial intelligence to determine if email addresses are active. It also screens for SPAM traps, abusive email addresses, and undeliverable email domains.
Price: $.008 per email, price is lower if you validate higher volumes of email addresses
Neverbounce is quite popular because it’s very user friendly and affordable. It integrates well with many marketing platforms and verifies email addresses in real time, so you can immediately see if an email is usable as soon as it comes in.
Price: $6.90 for 1000 email addresses, with discounts for higher volumes
Email Validator is a straightforward email validator with strong integration capabilities through their API. Similar to some of the other options, Email Validator also performs email validation in real-time and also identifies email addresses which are only temporarily unavailable.
Price: $5 for 1000 emails, with discounts for higher volumes
Pabbly focuses mostly on being thorough. They admit that they’re not the fastest validator in the world, but their deliverability rates are high. The Pabbly email validation system covers a lot of bases, and even checks for disposable email addresses, which might technically be valid.
Price: Starts at $17.00 per month
Mailfloss prioritizes ease of use. It’s incredibly quick and easy to set up. Mailfloss also takes a unique approach to misspelled email addresses. Rather than immediately discarding them, the email validator identifies email addresses that might simply be misspelled and suggests possible corrections, which might help you retain a few email addresses.
Seed list testing tools
Creating a seed list and sending a test email is relatively straightforward. However, it’s much easier with seed list testing tools. These tools also help you check how emails display on various devices, so you don’t have to have a huge collection of devices on hand.
GlockApps makes some of the best seed list testing tools on the market. They’re incredibly popular, and they have a ton of educational resources for email deliverability.
GlockApps warns you if your email is likely to land in the SPAM folder, checks your domain for presence on blacklists, and even helps protect your email sending domain from being used for spoofing and phishing attacks.
Everest is another tool that improves and streamlines seed list testing. Everest checks emails for device compatibility, inbox placement, and helps you unify and organize your seed list testing data. Everest even offers email validation for those who want an all-in-one tool.
Go forth and manage your email list
Email list doesn’t have to be scary or frustrating. It’s really just a matter of adopting the right tools and practices, and embracing email list management as an email marketing optimization. If you make it part of your process, email list management won’t be a chore, and you’ll get a big boost to your email marketing revenue.
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