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Does Size Really Matter? Why A BIG Email List Isn’t Always Best


We have over 23,000 people on our email list. That includes thousands of customers for our products and training, hundreds of coaching and consulting clients, and tens of thousands of blog readers.

In fact, each month we add just about 1000 new people to our lists.

We have several lists. For example, one for people that have been on our webinars. Another for customers and yet another for our blog readers. In total we have 6 active lists.

But the other day as I looked at one of our larger lists I got a strange feeling. We send at least 2 emails to this list each month, yet our open rates and engagement are lower than they should be.


This isn’t uncommon. 40% of people on a given email list is made up of inactives (people who don’t open or click your emails) according to Silverpop.

As I gave some thought to what we could do about this I uncovered some pretty eye-opening data.

Here’s the thing: Having inactive subscribers can cost you (in more ways than one). « Click to TWEET

If having inactive subscribers on your email list can hurt you why don’t people remove subscribers?

The BIG Mistake

Most people don’t remove inactive email subscribers because they believe that the subscriber might buy from them or take action in the future even though they haven’t taken action now.

There is truth to this. In fact, most subscribers won’t contact you or buy from you right away. It can take weeks, months, even sometimes years.

I know this may sound like ‘mixed messages’. I assure you it’s not. It comes down to how we classify an inactive subscriber. Let me explain…

Most people think about an inactive email subscriber as someone that doesn’t open an email. They look at a single email or different emails – but they focus on a specific campaign. That’s a mistake as you’ll get unreliable results.


When we say inactive what we’re really talking about is a subscriber that hasn’t opened or clicked on one of your emails for a significant period of time. It may be a matter of months or the last 20 campaigns you’ve sent.

The Difference

This is an important distinction because a subscriber that is on your email list who doesn’t contact or buy from you for a long period of time BUT does open your emails and click on links in them is very DIFFERENT from a subscriber that doesn’t open or engage with any emails for a long period of time.

The first is interested. They are engaged. They may not have taken the action you wanted them to as quickly as you’d like – but they likely will at some point.

In the second scenario the person isn’t interested any more. By looking at the data you can clearly see that they haven’t opened your emails for a significant period of time. This measurement is called “Open Reach” as Karen Talavera covers in this MarketingProfs article.

3 Ways It Costs You

There are three clear ways that having inactive email subscribers costs you:

  1. Email service cost – most email services like Mailchimp, Aweber, Infusionsoft and so on charge you based on the amount of email addresses (contacts) you store. If you’re keeping inactive emails (people that won’t open your emails because they haven’t for a proven period of time), it will cost you. It isn’t significant but it can add up to hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year.
  1. Data accuracy – When you look at your open and click rates with inactive subscribers the data you see will be skewed. That’s because these inactive emails are ‘dead’. At least they are dead to you (currently and we’ll talk more about how to bring them back to life). So if you see an open rate of 10.5%, your real number once inactives are removed could increase to 15.1% (depending on how many inactives you have. The same goes for your click rates.)
  1. Email deliverability – this is the biggest one. And one that many people have no idea about. When you send an email, ISPs like Google, AOL and others will check to see how many of your emails were opened or clicked. The more engagement with your emails the more likely they are to continue delivering your email into the inboxes of people on your list. On the other hand, if a large portion of your emails aren’t opened or clicked (if there’s no engagement) it’s likely you’ll take a hit and your emails may end up in the Spam or Junk folder. You can run a test with Sender Score to check your email deliverability rate.

Case Study

In a case study by Marketing Sherpa on TBC Corporation deliverability of emails improved from 50% to 90%. That’s almost a 100% improvement. Almost double the number of people that will actually see your emails.

What did TBC do to achieve this? Two things:

  1. They focused on deliverability. They created a new segment for active subscribers and one for inactive subscribers. By isolating the active people on their email list and focusing their emails on them their deliverability score increased.
  2. The other thing they did was to put a re-engagement strategy in place. They looked at what type of emails their list liked the most and created emails with catchy subject lines. Their goal was to get more people to open and engage with their emails.

Targeting Strategy

A great strategy that Ian Brodie and Mike Seddon shared with me is to use retargeting ads on inactive subscribers. Here’s how this works:


  1. Export your list of inactive subscribers
  2. Import that list into Facebook as a custom audience
  3. Run ads to that custom audience
  4. Drive them back to your website to re-engage

What I’m Doing About It

Over the last several weeks we’ve been rolling out our own re-engagement plan. Some of you may have received an email from me about this.

In that email I simply wrote to explain that I noticed that you hadn’t opened or engaged in one of my last 20 emails. That I respect your time and wanted to know if you’d like to continue receiving emails from us.

I then offered a clear and easy way to leave the list by clicking on the unsubscribe link.

What’s interesting is the types of responses I got. Emails have been pouring in from people saying things like “Michael, thanks so much for your emails. I’ve been traveling for the last 3 months and haven’t had a chance to….” I heard all kinds of reasons and I respect them all.

Here’s an example of one of many I received…


You may be wondering how I got people to open an email if they hadn’t for such a long time?! Well, I used the advice I gave you earlier in the article…’use a catchy subject line’ 🙂

My goal with this campaign isn’t to keep people on our email list that don’t want to be. Instead, it’s to only have people on our email list that want to hear from me and are interested in the strategies and articles that I share.

I’m already seeing our numbers improve. This all goes to show that a BIG list isn’t what’s important. Focus on cultivating and growing a list of loyal readers who are active and engaged.

Would you like help with your own web marketing strategy? If so take a look at our coaching program. If you don’t yet have a website and want a professional Consultant Website go here.

What are your thoughts on this? Would you like more posts like this? Or never again? Let me know in the comments below. Thank you for reading!


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13 thoughts on “Does Size Really Matter? Why A BIG Email List Isn’t Always Best

  1. Tina Alberino says:

    I always make your content a priority, but I utilize a few different methods. When I get the email and can’t read it that moment, I move it to my “Read Later” folder. I also subscribe on Feedly, so sometimes I catch it there and delete the post’s corresponding email without opening it. I’m certain I’m not the only person who does this, but I’m going to make sure to start reading the articles in my inbox to keep your numbers up! 🙂

  2. Excellent article. I am often guilty of not opening emails from sources that I really like and value due to a lack of time to read it or even lack of time to execute. Sometimes this will happen for months on end and for some mailing lists it can even been a year. Basically, when I come across a source I love, I sign up for their newsletter, primarily so I don’t forget about it, but many times I don’t have time to start reading it right away.

    Things that are specifically in my vertical I am more likely to open and skim even if there is a lack of time since I may just need to know about the newest Google Algorithm update or something of that nature. With other sources, I may put it off longer because I need to read it more carefully. For me, this is where your site falls (although I read them now!).

    On a side note, we are going to try this with an eCommerce client’s inactive list. Because she was marked as spam last time (due to lack of consistency I think), she had given up with it. I think the personalized email is a great idea – because salvaging a few on the list is better than ditching them all 🙂

    Thanks for another awesome article.

  3. Great, strategy, Michael. I’m going to use this advise and re-engage that part of my mailing list. On top of your Social Media filtering strategy, that I learned in your coaching program, and this unopened re-engagement campaign, this sounds like it’s going to be a great marketing combo. Thanks again…always great content… as usual.

  4. Dave says:

    Michael, what software do you use to create different pools of subscribers? Thanks

    • We use Mailchimp for this business. You can do this type of filtering and segments with most services.

  5. chilangwa simusokwr says:

    Thanks for the article. Your articles have been very usefull to me who lives and works on the third world. Africa. Zambia with very limited interactions from top consultants like you.

    Keep up the good work

    chilangwa from Zambia

  6. Pete says:

    I found you yesterday. I’m not a consultant … yet! Right now I’m a real estate broker thinking about re-inventing myself.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  7. Stamplia says:

    Great article. One way to optimize the size of your email list is also to improve the subject line and content of your email so your email doesn’t end up in the promotion tab of gmail

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